Frank Lampard’s most damaging contribution as Chelsea manager came just three days before the end of his time at Stamford Bridge. On January 22, AC Milan agreed a loan deal for Fikayo Tomori with a £25million option to buy him this summer. On January 25, Lampard was sacked.
It’s a move Chelsea ‘already regret’. No sh*t.
Lampard insisted Tomori had a “long-term future” at Chelsea and despite sanctioning a loan move was adamant he would “come back to us a better player”. To blame the £25million clause on Lampard would be unfair – he presumably had very little say – but what you can blame him for is his inexplicable snubbing of the 23-year-old.
Chelsea averaged 1.9 PPG, conceding 0.9 GPG, in the games Tomori started in the 2019/20 season and 1.6 PPG and 1.4 GPG in those he did not. Despite that clear-cut evidence for a significant role in the team, as well as the general sense that his ceiling for improvement was way above the other Chelsea centre-backs, Tomori featured for just 45 minutes in the Premier League this season before he was jettisoned, making just five of 19 matchday squads.
“Mentally, it was difficult because you just want to be playing and on the pitch, and feel part of the team,” Tomori said when asked about his last year under Lampard at Chelsea.
“It was difficult for me because I wasn’t really feeling part of the team and I was wondering what had happened. I was trying to do extra and push myself more but, at that time, nothing seemed to work and nothing was explained to me.
“It was so frustrating. 2020, football-wise, was very, very difficult, especially after the way 2019 had gone for me playing games. From being at 100 to literally going down to zero and then not knowing the reason why it had gone to zero, it was very challenging.”
The lack of communication between Lampard and his players was cited as one of the main reasons for his dismissal and the evidence from Tomori is compelling. When he went to see Lampard looking for an explanation, he was simply told to “train harder”, did exactly that and got no reward. This bizarre silent treatment only served to gaslight Tomori into thinking there was something else, something he had done wrong to prompt such a sudden disregard for his ability.
Chelsea’s loss has been AC Milan’s gain. Persuaded to join after a phone call with Paulo Maldini, another legendary Milan defender, Franco Baresi, has described him as “one of the most promising prospects out there”, having seen him in action for the Rossoneri. His performances ‘against Roma and Napoli have brought the personality of a potential champion into focus’. If they have the £25million to spend in the summer, they will spend it on Tomori.
That potential loss for Chelsea may not seem as painful as when he left for Italy in January. The arrival of Thomas Tuchel has seen the Blues concede an absurd two goals in 13 games. But with the German boss fielding three centre-backs in all but the latest draw with Leeds, it remains to be seen which of Antonio Rudiger, Thiago Silva, Andreas Christensen and Kurt Zouma will be his chosen pairing – assuming a back four is his end goal – and how they will fare. What has been Chelsea’s undoubted strength under Tuchel could again become their weakness as they search for more productivity in attack through a change of system.
Tuchel concedes he has not had time to think too much about Tomori, but says he is aware of his “high, high potential”. Unfortunately, stupidly, the chance to see, use and nurture that talent was taken out of his hands before he arrived. If only he was hired four days earlier or – better still – the Chelsea bosses had used a modicum of judgement to wait for the new manager’s opinion on one of their most talented young players, with Lampard’s exit clearly planned and imminent.
Chelsea are often the butt of the player sale joke. Mohamed Salah, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku are the usual subjects. But at least those mistakes can be caveated by a simple lack of foresight. It’s clear now they should have been given more of an opportunity, but they weren’t excelling at the time and very few were complaining when they were allowed to leave.
But the Tomori move does not require hindsight to uncover its absurdity. It was a predetermined regret, spotted immediately by all but the decision-makers at Chelsea. The centre-back could strike a one-off blow to Manchester United in the Europa League on Thursday, but looks set to haunt Chelsea for the next ten years.
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