By- Oma Akatugba
Frank Lampard couldn’t have become anything else but a manager, after a glorious, trophy-laden football career. With an alluring smile on his face, basking in the delight of a sweet victory against Ajax in front of the loud Johan Cruyff Arena fans, he answered every question that came his way with pure focus and an impenetrable candour. Microphones just in front of him, ready to answer the questions his mind read on lips that’d hardly moved, he looked a lot more relaxed than a few hours before the game.
A journalist had even asked him the previous day at the pre-match conference why he was afraid of Ajax. And his answer was short, maybe not totally convincing and laced with a wry smile, he said that’s how his face is. He was capable of looking a lot calmer, and victory brought that.
Lampard has come some way, perhaps not so long, but far from smooth. He took on one of the most difficult jobs last summer when he accepted to be Chelsea’s manager, amid a transfer ban, with fans still settling to life with the theatrical displays of Sarri. On Wednesday, every doubt about his competence or the quality of his boys suffered a dip. They are inexperienced, largely, but absolutely hungry and they showed that hunger aganst Ajax. From a hassling Tammy Abraham, to a haggling Fikayo Tomori to the brains and substitutional splendour of Pulisic, Lampard could wear a good smile, and a face that was truly his.
”I’m delighted with every element of their performance. A couple of moments, we were not good, but when you play against a team of Ajax’s quality, they are going to have moments but the work ethic has improved. ‘
‘The work we do off the ball for every man and the subs was outstanding throughout. Sometimes, part of management is leaving out players who want to play week in, week out. It’s been long they (Pulisic and Batshuayi) both wanted to make positive impacts and they both did today. I’m happy for them both, and for the whole squad. When the squad has that kind of spirit, it’s great for everybody.” Lampard said during the post match presser.
The Chelsea legend understands the team have their work cut out. Now they have won on a very difficult ground, with largely young players, there is greater attention on the project in Cobham. ”I mean it feels huge. There is a lot to do, we have six points halfway through the group now and on Saturday, we will play. We are happy with how we did today, because there is a blueprint for us. The midfielders are outstanding, the wingers are outstanding, the work of the full backs is to get to people, top top players, stopping them and making easy decisions, it was outstanding and we will go for more.
having started the Champions League on a losing note at home to Valencia at home, the blues went to Lille to scrap out a last gasp win and then consolidated with a not too outstanding display against Ajax but a win that gives the manager, the players and the fans some degree of hope that truly, these young lads can maybe hold it together when they face more difficult opponents in the tournament. With the above in mind, I asked him if he felt that the win against Ajax answered some critical questions as to how his team would cope against tougher oppositions in the business end of the tournament.
”Yes our performance today answers questions because the younger players are still babies in the Champions League. This is a huge test for them but football continues to give you tests all the time so I’m not really concerned. I think the balance is there. The young players are learning quickly and they can rely on the older players to set examples- I mean Jorginho, Willian, Azpilicueta, so the balance in the squad feels good. We will relish the win tonight because Ajax are a top, top team. Even though they lost some players, they still signed good players and that made it difficult for our team. Quality performance is the standard for us, I hope we can get better but we can’t drop our standard at this level of football.”
Lampard subbed Abraham off in the game as he fired blanks. So i wanted to know if he was reluctant to sub him off. He said the Three Lions striker has quite an attitude, that always makes him his choice, but he had good options on the bench also, hence his withdrawal.
”I wasn’t reluctant to sub him off. Tammy has been so good in the first part of the season. We expect goals, we expect good stuff and it won’t come easy but one thing Tammy always gives you is big presence, big enthusiasm, big work ethic and it didn’t just come off today. That’s why we have Michy Batshuayi and Giroud, they are trying hard and I have full confidence in both of them.
”We respected Ajax and that’s how it should be, like we have to respect Burnley on Saturday,” once again, stressing how key it is for the team to respect every opponent and take it a a game at a time. ”I do focus on ourselves a lot. I have great desire for improvement, to see the young players follow the game plan and we are moving in the right direction. Sometimes we have to depend on the older players but we’ve been working with younger ones and the signs are good but I said to the players before the game. Five (5) wins on a row is really dangerous because it can make you sloppy, switch off while you think everything is fine.
Six weeks is even more dangerous.” Coming into the team, and with early slumps, many doubted how well Lampard could perform but after the initial slaloms, the ship has steadied and he said, he was humble in belief, a rather positive than bullish expectation as to what the team could achieve.
”I didn’t have huge expectations, I just came to work and I found players. I knew there was quality in the squad. Maybe the ban affected the team and Eden’s exit too, but I did believe in them and I believed we could reach the level we currently are in and I feel there is more to come. ”When you get to this level, the excuses of not continuing in this vein are not there. I see the quality and when I talk about quality, I don’t mean ability on the ball, I mean how much they yearn to win and how much hunger they show. Now will be a defining factor for what we can do during the season.”
Asked if he was dissapointed when Batshuayi fluffed his lines when he got his first chance, he said; ”I was frustrated after Mitchy missed the first chance but whatever happened, that means ten minutes ago, I would have been proud of the performance- I thought it was good anyway. I know Mitchy can finish, I see it everyday in training, so he had a chance, the ball rose and he felt he could have another touch, he didn’t but he got another and struck the ball in the box and you have to give Christian (Pulisic) huge credit because he looked so lively when he came on. The assist is as important as the finish that Mitchy had. I’m proud of the boys and I have belief in the players. I’m happy the subs did well when they came on because it’s not easy, picking similar teams every week. We need everyone as we move forward.” Giving young players the platform they needed, Lampard said; ‘
Lampard has managed the squad so well that you begin to imagine that the transfer ban looks like a blessing in disguise.
‘My feeling when I got into the team was it was time to have the young players. I know them well because I trusted them. My idea would have been to give the young players a chance to show they deserve to play. I wouldn’t have preferred a transfer ban because it’s a club you always want to improve. Maybe if there were opportunities, we would have done the things we wanted to do. People think the choice of players is a necessity. That I have to play Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham, that’s a disservice to Giroud and Batshuayi. That’s also a disservice to Kovacic and Ross Barkley. I’ve got options in the squad, the young players have shown they deserve to play and what’s more important than any individual player is how strong we are as a group.”
On the American jewel in the English capital, Pulisic, Lampard said he is committed to seeing him thrive and he is just in his acclimatisation stage. He said he will get his chance, as he is a good player. ”His performance tonight and those in a last couple of games have improved. He has come on to make differences. In terms of handling him, I can’t say everything outside. There’s a lot said because he is a big player. I understood he is young and wants to play. He just turned 21 recently and it’s a big move for him. He knows what I want from him, what his new teammates are like, what the Premier League is like and there is no easy route. I’ll take it calm with him, I see the big picture with him, I want him to be successful with this club, he is a good lad, he wants to do well for this club, that’s very clear and he acting like he’s acting, training like he has in the last two or three weeks makes me very happy.”