There’s a clip from the documentary of Swindon Town’s 1992/93 season, “That’s Football”, which sums up the trickiest aspect of going from a great player to a great manager.
Central midfielder John Moncur is working on his driving and shooting with player-manager Glenn Hoddle, of Tottenham, Monaco and 53 England caps, who is putting him to shame. Hoddle is 35 at the time but clearly still in possession of most of the powers. The struggle, however, was being able to articulate just how he is capable of hitting the back of the net which such consistency. Moncur can only laugh as a third effort from the player-manager arrows into the bottom corner.
Swindon got promoted to the Premier League that season and Hoddle subsequently earned a go as Chelsea player-manager. But the reason this snippet came to mind was not because Hoddle was pitchside at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday evening for BT Sport, but for the disgruntled post-match press conference given by Chelsea’s current boss, Frank Lampard.
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For the last six months, Lampard, as the club’s leading goalscorer and a three-time league winner, has managed the undulating emotions of a young team hamstrung by having to learn on the job. Being unable to bring in experience for the start of the campaign did not help, either.
But as he sat in a press conference room where he has played down wins and tempered losses, the 41-year old released the shackles of his disappointment.
It was the manner of the 3-0 defeat, how easily his side were sliced open in the second-half when they had admirably, if a bit ungainly, kept the Germans at bay for the opening 45 minutes that irked him. A system that had worked well against Tottenham on Saturday was furnished with exactly the same XI here and, yet, when the pressure was ramped up, seemed awash with strangers asking for directions. Meanwhile, Robert Lewandowski, Serge Gnabry and Alphonso Davies took direct routes to exactly where they wanted to be. The visitors have been in their roles for a lot longer than four days.
There is no shame in losing to Bayern Munich, even if they have shown an uncharacteristic vulnerability at the back this season. But it was telling that Lampard, who has not only won this competition but done so against Bayern in the house they built, spoke of his players needing to indulge in a degree of introspection. It felt a bit harsh, even at the cut-throat level of Champions League knock-out football.
“When you have an eye-opener like tonight, the only answer is to look at it and say I’m not going to look at any other part of the team than myself. Who was I up against? Who was my direct competitor? How do I feel I’ve played against them?”
He said only Mateo Kovacic could emerge from this exercise with any kind of credit, and he is right. The midfielder’s bursts were the only challenges to Bayern’s set-up which, barring the odd pinball moment, left London intact. But even the Croatian might look across the line at Thiago and come up short when assessing his personal display.
But you have to wonder if, actually, Lampard should take his own advice and indulge in this introspection himself. Because while he did warn his players the day before that they would have to “suffer” to get through this round-of-16 tie, he set them up to be more vulnerable than they needed to be.
He used the same three-man defensive system against an unambitious Tottenham Hotspur which resulted in three points. Yet he did so knowing they would give up more of the ball on Tuesday as they did on Saturday. And, really, it should come as no surprise to anyone that a team sixth in the Premier League and shorn of their two best forwards were capable of less with 51% of the ball than the Bundesliga leaders were with 63% and a full complement of high-class talent.
Most telling, though, was Lampard’s insistence the system was fine but the “match-ups” were not. Chelsea were never going to best Bayern man-to-man, but they could have stifled them as a collective. But his idea of Chelsea – what they were, and indeed what he was – should have been enough in his eyes. Despite spending much of the season downplaying expectation, his own, for one night at least, had got away from him.
Lampard speaks like a decorated ex-player which, in part, is because he is asked to draw on his own experiences in these press conferences. He knows what’s good and, importantly, he knows what’s great.
The tricky bit is a night like Tuesday – nights where he used to thrive – when “Lampard, the player” really shines through. When things are neither of the two, to him, they can seem very bad indeed.
And when he talks of assessing performance against your “direct competitor”, “match-ups” and the like, it sounds more like the sort of honest dressing room speak that big teams need to have privately. Asking as much of a transitional team so publicly seems counter-productive.
Lampard has spent most of the season appreciating the limitations of his players. Tuesday felt like the time to limit his expectations as an experienced European midfielder and appreciate his limitations as an inexperienced European manager.
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