When Chelsea square off against Wolves on Saturday, the fourth manager of the current Premier League campaign will lead the team out of the tunnel, though it won’t exactly be an unfamiliar face. Last seen in January after dragging Everton into the relegation zone, Frank Lampard has been appointed as Chelsea’s caretaker manager for the remainder of the season, just over two years after he was sacked by the club. Chelsea bringing Lampard back is the cherry on top of the schadenfreude sundae—the team sits in 11th place and is struggling to score goals, but at least it’s the breakaway leader in xB (expected banter). How did the 2021 Champions League winners get to this point, and, more importantly, does Chelsea’s new ownership group know what the hell it’s doing?
The 2022-23 season was supposed to be the dawn of a new Chelsea. While the club saw unprecedented success under the ownership of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, Chelsea had justifiably developed a reputation for giving world-class managers a shockingly short leash. A winning trophy didn’t seem to buy managers goodwill as much as it gave them just a little more time on the job. In all, there were 16 managers during Abramovich’s 19-year tenure, none of whom made it to four full consecutive years at the helm. It’s a stark contrast to other top clubs in the history of the Premier League whose greatest spells came under a stabilizing force on the touchline, from the glory days of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and Arsène Wenger at Arsenal to the present-day dynasties of Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool and Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. (The closest Chelsea had to such a figure was José Mourinho, who had two stints and whose amusingly combative presence proved more effective in shorter spells.)
In Chelsea’s defense, the team was largely unfazed by all the managerial upheaval, winning five Premier League titles and two Champions League trophies during the Abramovich era. (The fact that both of Chelsea’s Champions League wins came after a new manager arrived in the middle of the season is nothing if not extremely on-brand.) As far as soccer analogues go, Abramovich’s Chelsea was the English equivalent of Real Madrid, establishing a culture so conditioned to winning that even the faintest hint of a setback was enough to have a manager quickly stamped out. Given the way Chelsea treated chaos like a ladder, you would’ve half expected Littlefinger to be the club’s director of football.
Of course, Abramovich is no longer Chelsea’s owner; he sold the team in light of Russia’s war with Ukraine and his close ties to Vladimir Putin. (As dictated by the British government, none of the proceeds from the sale went to Abramovich.) The club’s new ownership group, led by American businessman Todd Boehly and the private equity firm Clearlake Capital, claimed to have a different philosophy in mind for Chelsea—one focused on long-term planning and stability. (As a point of reference, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are co-owned by Boehly, have been managed by Dave Roberts since 2016; they won the World Series in 2020.)
Ironically, in order to kick-start Chelsea’s new era, Boehly, acting as the club’s interim sporting director, made a move that was quite Abramovichian in its ruthlessness. Despite winning the Champions League in his first season and having one of the best managerial records in the team’s history, Thomas Tuchel was unceremoniously sacked just seven games into the 2022-23 campaign. (We’ll always have the memories of his iconic handshake with Antonio Conte.) Chelsea’s form had admittedly dipped dating back to the tail end of the previous season—that poor run, combined with a prickly relationship with the new owners, made Tuchel’s dismissal feel inevitable. Still, most supporters wouldn’t be receptive to sacking a winning manager on the basis of bad vibes behind the scenes. For better or worse, Boehly was decisive and had embraced being the public face of Chelsea’s new ownership group—as a result, Tuchel’s successor would be seen as an extension of the business mogul’s success or failure.
Interestingly, rather than pursuing a big-name manager, Boehly opted for someone comparatively low-profile in Brighton’s Graham Potter. For casual fans, Potter could be viewed as a relative nobody without a flashy résumé, but real heads knew that his body of work was genuinely impressive. (Anyone who can take a Swedish club from the fourth tier to the country’s top division while winning a domestic cup is coaching in the Premier League on merit.) The biggest knock against Potter was that Brighton, while capable of playing some beautiful, possession-based football, routinely struggled in front of goal. But Brighton’s underlying statistics pointed to a team that would’ve been closer to the top of the table if they’d had a halfway decent finisher in the squad—considering Potter’s most established center forward was Neal Maupay, one could argue he made the most of the situation.
All told, Potter’s appointment at Chelsea appeared to be a shrewd move in the bigger picture: He was a lauded tactician who had to cut his teeth in the lowest divisions of European football before getting a much-deserved opportunity at the highest level. But instead of providing Potter with a solid foundation to do his thing, the Chelsea owners gave him groundwork that soon began deteriorating like quicksand. While Chelsea went unbeaten in Potter’s first nine games across the Premier League and Champions League group stage, the wheels quickly came off, in part due to an injury crisis so severe that the club launched an internal medical review. (The injured player list grew so big you could field an entirely new starting 11 out of the unavailable players.)
In a morbidly funny twist of fate, Potter faced the opposite problem on the other side of the midseason World Cup break: a squad so bloated that it became a case study on the paradox of choice. With Chelsea bringing in eight more players during the January transfer window, highlighted by a British transfer record for the Argentinian midfielder Enzo Fernández, Potter was left to juggle 33 first-team members: an astonishing number that doesn’t even factor in academy players like Lewis Hall, who earned significant minutes with the senior squad. (The group also includes Hakim Ziyech, whose loan move to Paris Saint-Germain was thwarted by … Chelsea failing to submit the proper paperwork on time.) Boehly and Co. can’t be faulted for their ambitions as Chelsea’s new owners, as they spent roughly $750 million on new signings, but they left their manager in the unenviable position of trying to keep nearly three dozen players happy and motivated—to say nothing of how so many new faces would lead to a lack of cohesion on the pitch.
The situation at Chelsea would’ve been a nightmare for any manager, but it was particularly challenging for someone like Potter. At Brighton, Potter was known for tinkering with different formations and rotating his squad. It’s a reasonable strategy when most of the players have an opportunity to get some minutes, but it becomes downright calamitous when there are too many mouths to feed and there isn’t any consistency on a week-to-week basis. Case in point: Potter never fielded an unchanged side in his 22 Premier League games, and only Nottingham Forest have used more players this season. (Considering Forest signed a whopping 30 players for their return to the Premier League and are in the midst of a relegation battle, that’s not exactly good company.)
By all accounts, this has been a lost season for Chelsea, but that should have been tolerable, and maybe even expected. In theory, Potter would have used the rest of this campaign to evaluate his team’s strengths and weaknesses, and then the real work would begin in the summer when Potter had a full preseason to work with his players. In this timeline, Boehly would stick to the manager he signed to a five-year contract and evaluate his performance in years rather than months. Alas, after a 2-0 defeat to Aston Villa on Saturday, Boehly and the new hierarchy capitulated to the fans’ growing discontent: Potter was sacked the following day, just seven months into his tenure.
While the majority of Chelsea fans appear pleased that the club cut ties with Potter, it feels like a shortsighted concession. Boehly and the ownership group were reportedly taken aback by the intense fan backlash to the poor results—did they not see what happened when Chelsea flirted with joining the European Super League?—and they are guilty of being reactive instead of proactive. Replacing Potter this late in the season is about as useful as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and the decision inevitably drew comparisons to the Abramovich era, which was supposedly antithetical to the new Chelsea ethos. But even the notoriously impatient oligarch never oversaw this much managerial turnover in a single season: a microcosm of the disjointed nature of Chelsea’s current leadership.
Now, after a member of Potter’s backroom staff, Bruno Saltor, oversaw one match as Chelsea’s interim manager—Tuesday’s 0-0 draw with Liverpool that will mostly be remembered for the glorious return of N’Golo Kanté—Lampard is back to see out the rest of this disastrous season. Given that Chelsea have nothing left to play for in the Premier League (FiveThirtyEight has their odds at less than 1 percent for Champions League qualification), Lampard is mostly here to bide the ownership’s time until it can find a worthy successor to Potter. The list of candidates includes Julian Nagelsmann, who was recently sacked by Bayern Munich and replaced by Tuchel (lol), and former Barcelona manager Luis Enrique.
I was convinced that Potter would be Chelsea’s answer to Mikel Arteta: a young, progressive manager who gradually built a cohesive team over the course of several seasons. That’s still feasible with the new candidates for the job: Nagelsmann is a particularly interesting figure, having quickly risen through the ranks of German football, though his reported falling-out with certain players at Bayern is something that should be scrutinized. But with Chelsea’s season having as much drama as a daytime soap, it’s worth noting that Lampard is also overseeing the club’s upcoming tie with Real Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals. Madrid, the defending champs, are the clear favorites to advance, but there’s nothing more quintessentially Chelsea than winning the Champions League after changing managers. That’s the only way Chelsea knows how to win the competition.
Just imagine the scene: Lampard, a Chelsea legend in his time as a player, winning the European title and forcing the new ownership group to decide whether or not to retain a caretaker manager who was already fired by the club just over two years ago. Normally, you’d write off Chelsea vanquishing the top clubs in Europe, especially when the team as a whole has scored one more goal in the Premier League (29) than Erling Haaland has (28). But as Chelsea has proven time and again, while some teams fall apart in a state of perpetual chaos, this club is always eager to climb the ladder.