This has been bugging me for quite some time now. Frank Lampard and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are both in their first full seasons as managers of big Premier League clubs.
At the start of the season there were questions about Solskjaer and his inexperience and.. fewer questions about Lampard and his lack of experience managing a top club.
Now I understand why Solskjaer was under fire. His one stint as a Premier League manager didn’t go so well, though I don’t think you can compare the job/expectations at Cardiff City to Manchester United.
Then there’s the fact that after a bright start at United last year things went pretty south pretty quickly. It turns out that Ole really just had the same problem last season as he has this season – the dropoff in talent between the A team and the B+ team is significant. But at the beginning of the season it was on Ole to prove that and those questions were fair.
Meanwhile the coverage of Lampard was all glowing from his year at Derby County and about how he’s essentially playing with house money. Well Chelsea has a transfer ban so you can’t really expect anything of him.
First of all, managing in the Championship is not the same as managing in the Premier League, let alone managing a Premier League team where not qualifying for the Champions League is a failure.
Second of all, the transfer ban. Let’s not act like Frankie here was running back the same team as last year. They had signed Christian Pulisic in January and were allowed to make the Matteo Kovacic loan permanent.
In addition to Pulisic, Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Kurt Zouma, Fikayo Tomori, Reece James, and Michy Batshuayi all joined or rejoined the squad. That’s seven regular first team contributors this season who weren’t with Chelsea last season. Frank Lampard was certainly not running back the same Chelsea squad as a year ago.
(For comparison, Manchester United added Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Daniel James, Mason Greenwood, and Axel Tuanzebe as players who weren’t with the team last year (later on Brandon Williams would joint that list) – but because the price tag was £200 million that means United changed their squad over far more than Chelsea did. Right.)
So Ole had something to prove and Frank was playing with house money. Not necessarily wrong but the framing of that already set the tone for the season.
Now, after Ole shellacked Frank 4-0 in the first game of the season their paths went in different directions. Ole’s United struggled, Frank’s Chelsea struggled too, but then won six in a row from September to November.
That kind of form made the questioning of Ole and praising of Lampard completely justified (though in the midst of that six game win streak Ole did beat Lampard again in the League Cup).
On November 2nd, Solskjaer’s United lost 1-0 to Bournemouth, their fourth loss of the season in 11 games. It was bad! On the morning of November 3rd, this is what the table looked like.
Yikes. So, again at this time the negative coverage of Ole and the very positive coverage of Lamps was deserved.
However, that was November and since then things have changed. They’ve changed quite a bit and it’s time for the media to wake the fuck up to how things have changed.
I understand how the start of the season shapes the narrative but that shouldn’t a whole season – especially when things change. Yes, Ole struggled at the beginning of the season – though playing without Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial was a huge factor in those struggles – but even now, when United are playing well the story isn’t how Ole has fixed things, it’s not how Ole’s vision is coming to fruition. Instead with every passing United win the media is going with “has Ole Gunnar Solskjaer turned a corner?”
Yes, we’re still asking if he’s turned a corner despite the fact that United are unbeaten in their last 15 in all competitions – which by the way is longer than the unbeaten run United had when Solskjaer first arrived. They’ve won 11 of those 15 games including a third win over Lampard and defeating Manchester City twice. They’ve scored 37 goals and conceded FOUR.
United weren’t sitting pretty in the table on the morning of November 3rd, but here’s what the table looks like since November 3rd.
Have they turned a corner? I don’t know, you tell me.
Meanwhile I don’t here any mention of how Frankie’s Chelsea have become bang on average since their six game winning streak.
All season long we’ve been hearing the same story. United struggle to break down teams that sit deep. It has certainly been a problem. They’ve dropped far too many points to some terrible teams.
But guess who has the same problem? That’s right, Chelsea! Do we hear about that at all? Ever?
Let’s take a look at both team’s records this season when they have at least 60% of the possession in a match.
A quick look at the numbers suggests that both teams struggle to score goals when opponents let them have all of the ball. But for Chelsea their problem seems to be a bit more on the defensive side of things, they’re not doing a good job defending.
Well, now that we know what the problem is we can work on fixing it. Has that happened?
Solskjaer had the benefit of having some of last season to look at. Last year United had 60+% possession in 12 matches (six under Mourinho, six under Solskjaer). They dropped points in seven of those matches (four under Mourinho, three under Solskjaer). In those games they averaged 1.14 goals/gm but conceded 1.57 goals/gm.
United weren’t being undone so much by lack of goals last season but by conceding too many. That was the problem Solskjaer set out to fix last summer when he signed Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. As I wrote before the season, instead of trying to turn those 1-1 and 2-2 draws into 2-1 and 3-2 wins, Solskjaer was trying to turn them into 1-0 and 2-1 wins.
As you can see below, in the first half of the season he did that. Somewhat. He managed to slightly cut down the goals conceded but at the expense of scoring goals. Again, missing Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial for a large chunk of the first half of the season probably contributed to that.
But as you can see, Chelsea had the same problem! In fact, there’s was even more extreme. They weren’t shipping goals at the back but boy were they certainly not scoring them either!
So that brings up the question, were these problems ever addressed?
Well, take a look at the numbers from the halfway point of the season on. United are dominating possession more often then they were in the first half of the season but they’re dropping points significantly less.
Defensively there’s been a lot of progress, they’re down to conceding just one goal a game *in the games where they drop points, but the lack of offense is really on display. 0.33 goals/gm is really bad. But again, in two of those games United were without Pogba and Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes hadn’t arrived yet. Another was Bruno’s first match.
But Chelsea? Sure they’ve started to score more goals but they’ve done that big time at the expense of their defense. They’re now conceding more.
If you ask me, Lampard has the easier job here. It’s easier to stop balls from going into your own net then suddenly be able to start scoring them yourself.
Ole has seemed to address that, Lampard has not.
Is that because he doesn’t have good enough players or is it a tactical thing? The former definitely is a factor. Chelsea back line is a mix of youngsters still learning their way and older players on their last legs.
But it’s definitely a tactical thing too. During the COVID lockdown, I looked at how teams defend crosses.
Both United and Chelsea have allowed among the fewest crosses in the league. That’s probably a tactical thing. But when Chelsea do allow a cross to come in, they’re successful an astonishing amount of the time.
Nearly one out of five, yikes that’s bad. And wait, it gets worse!
They concede goals from corners at a rate higher than the best teams in the world score them. Can it get any worse than that?
Glad you asked.
What? Derby had the same problem last year? When Frank Lampard was their manager?? You don’t say!
Does that give you confidence that Frankie is going to figure out this problem? Well, so far Chelsea have made two new signings for next year and guess what, they’re both attacking players. When asked about the team’s defense after the match their loss to West Ham this is what Frankie had to say.
“No, we weren’t let down by the defenders,” he said. “We made mistakes in the buildup to the goals, not just the defenders, which cost us the game. I wouldn’t call it a wake-up call because every game is different. We’ve got six games ahead of us now and if you play in the Premier League and you make mistakes, if you dominate possession and don’t quite do enough with it at the top end of the pitch, then it can happen. That’s something we already knew.”
Lampard’s verdict hints at a continuation of Chelsea’s plan to strengthen other areas of the team. It could be one of the most important decisions he makes.
Now, this could just be coach speak from Lampard. Ole would probably say the same thing if he were in this position. Not blame any players or position specifically but make it a team thing. Then again, since this has clearly been a problem throughout Lampard’s managerial career… he may not realize there’s a problem.
At the end of the day, for as bad as Ole struggled in the first half of the season, only two points separate these teams with six games to go. That’s a bit of an indictment on Lampard in itself. The two teams both struggle in the same area but one of those managers has been improving that area all season while the other one seems to be making it worse! Yet the media will never speak about that!
I don’t know about you but if I was choosing a young manager, I’d prefer the one who started slow and showed steady improvement throughout the year than the guy who got a hot start but has yet to show an ability to solve the problems that are now rearing their head.
Maybe we can start covering them that way too?