The sight of Chelsea’s marquee summer signing Timo Werner crumpling feebly to the floor after kicking the flag instead of the ball while taking a corner summed up one the most wretched days Frank Lampard has endured as Chelsea manager.
It was of no significance to the outcome, coming two minutes from the end of this magnificent Manchester City procession with Pep Guardiola’s side leading 3-0.
Even so, this almost comic moment epitomised the sheer haplessness of Chelsea’s performance, the inability to perform even the most basic tasks, that will have raised eyebrows at every level of Stamford Bridge, including the club’s notoriously demanding hierarchy.
Firstly, the sheer flowing brilliance of City must be fully acknowledged, the final 3-1 scoreline nowhere near a true reflection of their superiority despite having to field a side seriously weakened by Covid-19 and injury.
The manner in which they made light of their reduced circumstances was a serious statement of intent in the context of the Premier League. They had not hit top gear this season but this was overdrive and then some.
As for Chelsea and Lampard, where can you even start after a thoroughly ugly and abysmal 90 minutes that brought their recent decline in form into even sharper focus?
When Chelsea lost 1-0 at Everton on 12 December, it was the end of 17-game unbeaten run that had prompted title talk – albeit talk Lampard was very swift to dismiss.
What Lampard cannot dismiss is what has taken place since.
Four defeats and one draw from their past six league games leave Chelsea in eighth place, admittedly only three points behind Tottenham in fourth having played a game more, but with results, performances and morale on a steep downward trajectory.
Instead, Chelsea were embarrassed as Manchester City cut them apart with first-half goals from Ilkay Gundogan, Phil Foden and Kevin de Bruyne. The latter’s goal, in particular, hinted at a Chelsea team that was completely broken.
It was a lethal combination of the amateurish and the disorganised that saw Chelsea caught upfield from their own free-kick, De Bruyne’s header leaving Raheem Sterling in a straight race with N’Golo Kante. The Belgian cruised upfield to apply the final classy touches as his team-mate’s shot came back off the post.
And to add to that embarrassment, City were without world-class keeper Ederson, Gabriel Jesus, Kyle Walker, Eric Garcia and Ferran Torres as a result of Covid-19 – although they still had Sergio Aguero and Riyad Mahrez to bring on in the closing moments.
Ederson’s replacement, Premier League debutant Zack Steffen, had one anxious moment when he picked up Rodri’s backpass in the opening minutes but other than that the 25-year-old American had the sort of easy introduction he would have dreamed of.
Chelsea’s second-half performance carried no hint of defiance or threat, no confidence or cohesion. They could and should have lost by more but City were on easy street.
Yes, it is difficult at 3-0 down but the resigned, defeatist air was a very bad sign for Lampard. Callum Hudson-Odoi’s late goal should not be dignified with the description of “consolation”, beyond making the scoreline look even kinder to Chelsea and Lampard than it actually was.
Of course Lampard will talk of transition, of new players needing time to settle in new surroundings. He will want all expectations to be viewed through that prism – but this is Chelsea, and Lampard knows the score better than anyone.
When he was a player at Chelsea, a succession of managers bit the dust and carried all the responsibility when crises came, often amid talk of the influence of a powerful Stamford Bridge dressing room. He has tried to manage expectations this season and he deserved full credit for putting Chelsea in the top four last season after assuming control with the club operating under a transfer embargo.
Expectations rise, however, when your reward for finishing fourth is more than £200m of investment to sign talent including Werner, who has now gone 12 games without a goal, while Kai Havertz, the 21-year-old Germany international signed for more than £71m from Bayer Leverkusen, has struggled to adapt and was on the bench against City.
The other big arrivals were £50m Ben Chilwell from Leicester City, Hakim Ziyech from Ajax and keeper Edouard Mendy from Rennes. Paris St-Germain’s veteran Brazil captain Thiago Silva was also lured to west London by a lucrative financial package.
It is the form of the two Germany internationals that will increase the pressure on Lampard. The quicker he can get a tune out of two undoubtedly fine talents the sooner he can pull Chelsea out of a troubling slump.
There is also the Roman Abramovich factor to consider.
Abramovich, understandably, will expect considerable bang for his considerable buck. The owner will not settle for less because of Lampard’s legendary status as a Chelsea player. History tells us he is not the sentimental type when it comes to managers.
Chelsea did, however, invest in a different type of manager when they appointed the emerging Lampard after one season at Derby County in succession to the experience of Maurizio Sarri, Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho. It remains to be seen whether that shift in emphasis translates to more time and patience.
Despite their miserable form, there is still not a huge gap between Chelsea and top four, and a place in this season’s Champions League last 16 has already been secured – although if they perform in this manner Atletico Madrid will make painfully short work of them.
Lampard’s defence will be that he needs time to shape a new squad. What he actually needs are results and his big summer signings to start justifying Abramovich’s hefty financial backing. And he needs both quickly.
Lampard knows the rules at Chelsea. He lived with them long enough.