Leicester: More than a decade ago, one of the world’s foremost cardiovascular health experts tracked the heart rate and blood pressure of two Premier League managers during a game.
His findings were, by most measures, alarming: pulse rates that, at times, spiked to four times their ordinary level; blood pressures that soared to dangerous levels. The doctor who carried out the experiment, Dorian Dugmore, was in no doubt as to the warning contained within his findings. Every week, he said, “these guys are putting their hearts on the line”.
It is hardly a surprise, then, that there are physical consequences to that strain. Some resist for a little longer than others. Jose Mourinho arrived in English football with a head of raven-black hair; it was a few years before it turned salt-and-pepper. Jurgen Klopp’s beard is flecked with grey these days, too, four years after he joined Liverpool. The colour, by contrast, seemed to drain from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer within months of taking over at Manchester United.
For now, though, Frank Lampard seems almost immune. He is seven months into his career as a Premier League manager, and he has spent most of it smiling. The long hours might have added a little to the shadows under his eyes, but his mood is unfailingly cheery. He skips up the stairs onto his dais at news conferences. He has a disarming knack of chuckling and charming at even the most challenging, impertinent questions, a well-worn recipe of wry grin, one-liner, and then: “No, but seriously.”
For a man who spent much of his career learning at the knee of Mourinho, Lampard’s style is unexpectedly chipper. He is not, unlike his mentor — and, indeed, like essentially all of his peers in the Premier League these days — much of a brooder and a bristler.
In his first few months, it was easy to explain why. Lampard, uniquely in this phase of Chelsea’s history, appeared to be under no immediate pressure whatsoever. The club accepted, it seemed, that he would have to learn on the job to some extent: his only previous managerial experience, after all, had been a season with Derby County in the championship.
The club were operating under a Fifa -imposed transfer embargo. They had lost their lone superstar, Eden Hazard, to Real Madrid. They were determined to promote some of the brightest talents from their youth program — the best in England for almost a decade — now that their hand had been forced. They knew there would be bumps in the road: that opening-day defeat to Manchester United, the early troubles in winning games at home.
Youth has always bought managers time. Fans are, broadly, willing to suffer a little — and only a little — today if they feel that the promise of tomorrow is genuine. For once, and in a complete volte-face from their usual modus operandi under Roman Abramovich, Chelsea seemed to agree. This would, the line came again and again, be a transitional year. Not quite a freebie, but not far off, either.
On the face of it, the gamble has worked. Chelsea sit fourth in the Premier League, possessed of a comfortable cushion over the gaggle of teams — Manchester United, Tottenham, Wolves and Sheffield United — in pursuit.
A 2-2 tie with Leicester City on Saturday meant the gap to third place remained at eight points, most likely too much to be overhauled, but no matter: a return to the Champions League would represent a more than acceptable start for Lampard. His squad already has reached the last 16 of this year’s competition, another box ticked. Getting past Bayern Munich later this month would, if anything, be exceeding expectations.
His young players, too, are flourishing. Tammy Abraham, for so long the avatar of all that was wrong with Chelsea’s approach to youth, has scored 15 goals in his long-awaited first season as the club’s first-choice striker. Midfielder Mason Mount and winger Callum Hudson-Odoi have played their way into contention for England’s national team. Reece James has adapted so well to the Premier League that he is currently forcing Cesar Azpilicueta, the club captain, to play out of position.
That is how it seems. It is not, necessarily, how it is. Lampard was pleased on Saturday with what he described as a “fair” point against Leicester — a team, after all, one place higher in the league — but it meant that Chelsea have now won only four of their last 13 Premier League games. That they remains secure in fourth place is not, increasingly, through their own merit, but through the failings of Manchester United and Tottenham, in particular.
He remains adored by Chelsea’s fans, of course — they sang his name here, lovingly, as he trotted over to thank them for their support, his fist clenched in appreciation — but that early-season aura of happy-go-lucky insouciance is starting, for the first time, to dissipate.
When the transfer window closed Friday without any new arrivals to his squad, Lampard suggested that Chelsea had made themselves “underdogs” in the race for a Champions League spot. Twenty-four hours later, he decided to drop Kepa Arrizabalaga, the most expensive goalkeeper in the world, for the first time in the Premier League season, in favour of his veteran understudy, Willy Caballero.
This was always the challenge Lampard was likely to face. Chelsea are prepared to wait for a while, of course, for the future to arrive, to give Lampard chance to grow. They are willing to do what Leicester, for example, have been doing for a couple of years: to accept that youth buys time, but also need it.
But Chelsea are not Leicester. The profiles of the clubs are completely different, even if their league positions are reasonably similar. It is easy to believe that Chelsea want to wait, want to be patient, want to trust in their young players. It is much harder — bordering on impossible — to know if they will be able to stick with that approach, or whether there will come a point where today, all of a sudden, matters more than tomorrow.
For now, Lampard is still smiling. A few minutes after his news conference had finished in Leicester, as the home team’s manager, Brendan Rodgers, was speaking, he burst through the door again. He was about to leave, and he wanted to say goodbye to Rodgers. “I didn’t want to be rude,” he said, with a laugh. He left the room at a jog, a smile on his face. That is not bad, seven months in. The question now is how long it will last.