“Only title you’ve won and you’re giving it the big ’un.”
There were some fascinating shades to the touchline stramash between Frank Lampard and Jürgen Klopp in the dog days of the Premier League’s summer season.
Liverpool were 1-0 up at Anfield. Mateo Kovacic had just been booked, a little softly, for a foul on Sadio Mané. In touchline footage of the incident, the managers are up on their feet watching the game, but Lampard is already seething, pre-enraged, whirling about in his padded coat, a man for whom this straw, whichever straw it may be, is clearly the last straw.
The initial beef appears to have involved members of the Liverpool staff, whom Lampard keeps speaking to even as Klopp repeatedly tells him to calm down, gesturing with both hands like a man instructing an excitable labradoodle puppy to stop barking at the letterbox.
At which point Lampard goes nuclear. Nobody puts Frank in the corner. Patronised in front of his bench, perhaps feeling himself losing the moment, he decides to pull rank with that bare-knuckle, shirts-off, medals-on-the-table jibe.
The implications of which seem clear enough. He, Frank, has won three of those things, not just the one. He, Frank, was on the Anfield pitch six years ago when the last one of your lot to attempt the giving-of-the-big-one was put in his place by toxic, touchy mid-career José, who seems increasingly to be a key influence. And finally, while Liverpool’s title win was impressive, he, Frank, will be the judge of exactly what the correct level of excitement is around here.
Exchanges such as these are generally best forgotten, a process not helped in this case by the stadium silence clarifying every word (“Tell them to have respect!”) while also capturing the gawks and gasps of the players sitting behind.
But this did feel like a significant moment or at least a choice of words that offers its own way in, its own clues. First, about the differing paths Lampard and Klopp have taken to reach this shared stage. And second about Lampard’s own public persona, the sense of a man for whom the path from A-list player to A-list manager has been greased and hurried along; and whose time at Chelsea has been accompanied by the clanks and creaks and whirring pulleys of a popular pantomime villain being winched into place.
At which point, welcome to round two. Liverpool’s trip to Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon was always likely to be a bravura occasion, not just a first meeting of title challengers, but a fixture that has often had something slightly wild about it. A mere 60 days on, it is inevitable a first public reunion of the two managers will become a point of focus.
Rightly so, too: Jürgen v Frank II is a mouthwatering piece of froth, not to mention an easy dichotomy to draw. Klopp is, if nothing else, a self-made presence in professional football. His father sold wall fixings and had nothing of any sporting value to bequeath but a fierce competitive spirit. His honours as a player were easy to keep track of: there weren’t any. As a coach, Klopp took six years and three seasons in Bundesliga.2 to get his big break.
Whereas Frank Lampard: Elite Level Manager is something else altogether. Success is what happens when talent meets opportunity. What if you just keep on getting a lot more opportunity than other people?
Uncle Harry Redknapp told a televised fans forum that Frank would go ‘right to the very top’ as a player
Lampard’s father, Frank Sr, played for England and was the assistant manager at his first Premier League club (assistant, lest we forget, to Lampard’s uncle). In his autobiography, Rio Ferdinand recalls being stunned by the sheer opulence of Lampard’s home life as a young footballer – “the Ralph Lauren jumpers and shirts piled high in his wardrobe, a different one for every day of the week”.
Before long uncle Harry Redknapp was telling a televised fans forum that Frank would go to the top – “right to the very top” – as a player. Reassurance, good choices, strong connections: none of this can make you succeed. But it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Management has been a fast-forward version of this process. First up uncle Harry got him a job at Ipswich (“I said: ‘You need a manager; Frank Lampard is your man.’”) but Frank turned Ipswich down. The budget wasn’t up to scratch. But wait! Harry has heard Derby need a manager, too. (“I rang Mel Morris… I said: ‘Take Frank Lampard.’”)
There is, as yet, no word on Harry phoning Roman Abramovich on his yacht (“I said: ‘Roman, mate, take Frank …’”) but by now that path looked set, eased by Morris’s relationship with Chelsea, by Maurizio Sarri’s poor fit with the fans and by some flattering coverage of the failure to gain promotion with Derby.
Even then the move back to Stamford Bridge found an additional note of fortune with the concurrent loosening of the financial fair play shackles. And so here he stands, a 42-year-old with no real managerial pedigree beyond the one he was born with, in charge of the highest close-season spenders in European club football.
It is a theme Klopp turned to in the post-Anfield rumblings with a reference, as Chelsea hoovered up assorted shared transfer targets, to “clubs owned by countries and oligarchs”. In return Lampard noted that Liverpool’s own recruitment has been “at a high level money-wise”.
It seems likely to be a theme of the day. Tory boy Frank and his endlessly gushing money well ranged against Jürgen and the hedge-funders, with their moral rectitude and their spending caps, the authority born of finely budgeted success.
There are two points worth making. First, as ever, the truth is more blurred. The idea Chelsea have embarked on a wild, generational spending splurge is only half right. The summer brought a series of fantasy-football-style additions, but as the financial blogger Swiss Ramble has pointed out this is just the usual business model in overdrive.
Chelsea are a selling cub as much as a buying one. Their net player spend in the past two years is around £60m. The market is depressed. Youthful talent is up for grabs. It is the moment to invest. If Chelsea don’t buy Kai Havertz now then they can’t also sell him on in two years’ time at a profit.
Plus, Lampard is right to an extent. Chelsea’s purchases may be backed by Abramovich’s willingness to lend cash, their economic heft an unearned, ersatz thing. But their starting XI on the opening day of the season still cost slightly less than Liverpool’s own. The real point of tension is that Liverpool have been cautious while Chelsea have stomped right across the set. Liverpool wanted to sign Timo Werner, but the gossip well suggests they have also looked at Havertz, Ben Chilwell and Hakim Ziyech in the past couple of years.
It may seem a deeply Lampard kind of moment that all four of those players should arrive instead at Stamford Bridge this summer. But favour and patronage only take you so far and there is a pressure with this, too.
The decision to hire Lampard was commercial as much as sentimental, a way of appeasing the fanbase and burnishing the brand in a year when the ability to build a team was curtailed. That has now gone. There is no reason to assume this group of players can’t stay on Liverpool’s shoulder into the new year and perhaps even prevent them from adding to that total of one measly title.
At Brighton on Monday Chelsea were sleepy for 45 minutes, then energised by the sheer quality of replacements Lampard could send on. Werner looked like what he is, a stellar attacking talent. Havertz will get better (he couldn’t get much worse). Ziyech and Christian Pulisic are still to enter the frame. A new, or at least mildly competent, goalkeeper would round off the picture, and a £22m deal for Édouard Mendy has been agreed with Rennes.
The path to this point may have been smoothed, paved at times with blue privilege. But Lampard will be judged by the hierarchy on his results this year; no doubt with the usual degree of ruthlessness.