Chelsea FC aren’t renowned for stringing together a series of smart decisions. There’s always a masterstroke of genius followed by one so mind-numbingly, teeth-gnashingly insane that Chelsea remain their own worst enemy. For every decision to sign Eden Hazard, there’s one to fire Roberto di Matteo. And now it would seem, the laudable decision to sign Demba Ba, looks set to be followed by the troubling one to let Lampard leave.
Demba Ba announced his arrival with two blink-and-you-miss contributions against Southampton, leaving many viewers wondering just what it was that made life at Stamford Bridge so unbearably difficult for Fernando Torres. But the loudest cheers were reserved for Chelsea’s most loyal soldier, Frank Lampard. Slotting in a penalty to take his tally for the club to 193, equalling Kerry Dixon and within arm’s reach of Bobby Tambling’s record, the vice-captain ran towards an ecstatic stand thronging with Chelsea fans and saluted the crest. Yet another goal, from the unlikeliest of positions. Yet another show of defiance, against the nameless powers that would rather see him leave than stay. Yet another sign, that he remains one of the best players in the League.
But if Steve Kutner is right, then Lampard has until summer to serve the club and maybe stamp his name into history as the club’s leading goal scorer of all time. It’s an undeniable shame that Chelsea have chosen to treat him with shocking disdain and utter disregard. He’s an icon, a legend and a hero whose performances week-in and week-out belie his 34 years.
And therein lies the catch. He is 34.
So while Lampard remains without peer in the current Chelsea side, he is waging a losing battle against his arch-nemesis: time. For all of his prolific performances lately, Lampard cannot ignore – neither can we – that he’s had two extended periods of injuries in 2 years. In late 2010, under Ancelotti’s furrowed brow and following a hernia operation Frank Lampard strained an abductor muscle ruling him out for weeks on end. That absence wrecked Chelsea’s campaign, ended Ancelotti’s reign and betrayed the first signs of fallibility of Frank Lampard.
The Englishman had a rocky relationship with Andre Villas-Boas but little by way of injury-induced layoffs. The new season, fresh off the Champions League triumph, under a supportive Roberto di Matteo was supposed to be a cakewalk, not a swansong.
That’s when Frank’s second injury in as many years, this time to his calf, sucked the wind out of his sails. Once again, it wrecked Chelsea’s campaign, taking down with it Roberto di Matteo’s career. Murmurs of a new contract being put on ice, abounded. It was left to Rafa Benitez, with nothing left to lose in the popularity stakes, to prepare Chelsea’s fans for the twin departures of Lampard and Ashley Cole in the summer. Lampard’s return revitalized the team, made Benitez seem a reasonable choice in the circumstances and got Chelsea fans believing again. One thing that wasn’t coming back was Frank Lampard’s reputation as being unbreakable. Once seen as intelligently avoiding injury season after season, as he turned in goal stats strikers would’ve been proud of, Lampard has now made his peace with his mortality. Shocking, yes.
Forever the gentleman, Lampard graciously settled in as a defensive midfielder ready to carry out the unglamorous work the rest of his team seemed not to relish doing. He excelled there too, helping shoring up a leaky defense and restoring pride to a club that had been shipping in goals by the truckload in his absence. Lampard seems willing to go the Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes route, being phased out as opposed to exiting with the door slamming behind him.
It’s worked well for United. It ought to do just fine for Chelsea too.
But Lampard is an altogether different kind of player, as compared to the sometimes-central and sometimes-peripheral Giggs. There is no ‘reduced role’ mode for Lampard. He isn’t the kind of player you bring on, with 20 minutes to go on the clock, and the side on the ropes. Lampard isn’t 5-hour Energy, he’s a 5-course meal. He isn’t a quick fix to a team’s predicament, he’s the stalwart who ensures the team doesn’t get to that sorry point.
And that is Chelsea’s tragic dilemma. It’s an all or nothing deal with their greatest star.
The easiest decision to make would be to give Lampard a couple or more years at the club. But that will come at a heavy price – Lampard’s legs are on the wrong side of 30, and prone to injury. Another inevitable long injury layoff in the coming years and Chelsea’s season will crumble again taking with it the coaching staff’s careers and any chance of silverware.
As long as Lampard remains an option on the bench, this Chelsea side will not outgrow him. Lampard has gone from being the nucleus of the team, to its crutches. It’s unforgivable that a midfield boasting Juan Mata, Oscar, Eden Hazard, Mikel, Ramires, Marin and now Luiz are so dependent on Lampard, that any game without him is a recipe for disaster. It beggars belief that all of Chelsea’s millions spent on bolstering its midfield are no match for an £11 million purchase made way back in 2001.
Lampard may have saved Chelsea, but he’s also spoiled them. Instead of becoming the Chelsea midfield’s safety net, à la Giggs, he’s become their safety hammock. A catwalk of talented geniuses have waltzed in, eager to dazzle everyone with fancy tricks but content to let Lampard shoulder all the real responsibility.
That must stop now, because it will undoubtedly end someday.
His centrality to the team, is no longer backed by his age and physical condition. This experiment, despite its occasional flashes of brilliance, is destined to fail. Chelsea were never Mourinho’s team, they are Lampard’s. Without him, Chelsea curl up and wither without even the slightest semblance of a fight. If Chelsea do not learn to play without Lampard now, they probably never will. In the quietest of ways, Lampard has become the club.
And that is why he must go. Not because he isn’t good anymore. But because he is. Frighteningly so.