Chelsea sack Frank Lampard: Expected goals analysis, and why Blues should have stuck with Frank

315 Lampard has been sacked by Chelsea – but were they right to do so?

Jake Osgathorpe uses the Infogol model to analyse Chelsea’s season so far, using expected goals (xG), arguing they may have jumped the gun by sacking Frank Lampard.

Frank Lampard was supposed to be a manager who would bring a period of stability to a club which goes through managers like there’s no tomorrow, but 18 months into his role and the Chelsea legend has been sacked.

With the team languishing in ninth place in the Premier League and on a run of two wins in eight, the club’s hierarchy opted to relieve Lampard of his duties, explaining that he has left them in “mid-table without any clear path to sustained improvement.”

The new manager, rumoured to be Thomas Tuchel, is set to inherit a sensational squad of players, with an opening two games that could provide the perfect opportunity to get back on the winning train (vs Wolves and Burnley).

That is for another day and another article, but the immediate question is this: were Chelsea right to part ways with Lampard?

Chelsea’s underlying process was elite

Last season was seen as a huge achievement, as Chelsea, who had just sold Eden Hazard and been handed a transfer ban, managed to qualify for the Champions League on the steam of their youth players – integrated by Lampard.

While it was touch and go at times throughout the campaign, the Blues held out and secured a top four finish, but they should have finished higher and much closer to the top two.

Chelsea averaged 2.06 xGF (expected goals for) and 1.21 xGA (expected goals against) per game in 19/20.

For perspective, runaway league winners Liverpool averaged 2.01 xGF and 1.13 xGA per game, while the team that pipped them to third, Manchester United, averaged 1.76 xGF and 1.13 xGA per game.

Only Manchester City (2.67 xGF per game) were more of a threat in attack than Chelsea throughout the campaign. The reason they didn’t finish higher than fourth was negative variance at both ends of the pitch.

Lampard’s side scored just 69 times in 38 games, but based on the quality of chances they created, we would have expected them to score nine more (78.3 xGF).

Defensively, they conceded more goals (54) than any other team that finished in the top half, but again, based on the quality of chances faced, we would have expected them to concede nine fewer (45.9 xGA).

Quite a lot of that underperformance in defence can be placed on the shoulders of goalkeeper Kepa, but the main takeaway from this was that things would regress, and they would start scoring and conceding at an expected level.

If that were to happen, then it was to be likely that Chelsea would be challenging for top honours in 2020/21. Hope of that occurring was also boosted by their summer spending, bringing in a new goalkeeper, better defenders and, on paper anyway, more clinical attacking players.

While it hasn’t transpired that way, Chelsea are still boasting the third best underlying process in the top flight. It is marginally worst than last season, but not by much (1.81 xGF, 1.11 xGA per game).

Only Liverpool, Manchester City and Aston Villa are creating more or better chances per game, and only Manchester City and Aston Villa have a better defensive process, so this Chelsea team is still performing at an elite level despite results suggesting otherwise.

Had Lampard been given more time, given these impressive underlying numbers, it is highly likely that results would have turned around and Chelsea would have begun ascending the Premier League table once again.

Now, it wouldn’t be hugely surprising to see Lampard’s replacement go on a good run, and for that to be used as validation of their change of manager.

When and if that happens, don’t forget that this Chelsea team were posting impressive numbers with Lampard at the helm, while experiencing some misfortune that would have eventually turned.

Bad luck means Chelsea aren’t in a title race

As mentioned already, Chelsea suffered some serious negative variance last season by scoring fewer and conceding more than expected, but their numbers are very much aligned this season, meaning it is even more of a head scratcher as to why they aren’t near the top of the league.

Having scored 33 times from chances equating to 34.4 xGF and allowed 23 goals from 21.1 xGA, they are still underperforming (by around three goals), but only marginally.

Their expected goal difference (xGD) of +13.2 is the third best in the Premier League, and they currently sit third based on expected points (xP). In fact, Chelsea have accumulated more xP than current league leaders Manchester United.

So once again, performances have been extremely solid overall, and the Blues have been unfortunate. That seems to sum up Lampard’s tenure well.

The underlying numbers have been excellent from start to finish, but for whatever reason, they just haven’t had the luck required to turn those numbers into wins and points.

Ninth place isn’t a fair reflection of Chelsea’s performances, and for the board to hint that they are mid-table on merit isn’t correct. Even more short-sighted was the fact that they said they couldn’t see a way things would improve.

Clearly, they don’t consider underlying numbers and processes when deciding when to pull the trigger.

Chelsea away results, not performances, the problem

One thing that has been constantly thrown at Lampard during his time in charge is the away form and performances of his team.

The stat that has been doing the rounds shows that only Newcastle have conceded more away goals in the time that Lampard has been in charge of Chelsea.

In 29 games away from Stamford Bridge, the Blues have conceded a staggering 50 goals, winning 13 and losing 11.

Those raw numbers are concerning, and last season’s away performances were worrying as they were allowing 1.62 xGA per game and ranked as the eighth best away team based on expected points.

However, while they have managed only four wins from 10 away games so far this season, there has been a marked improvement in terms of performance levels.

The Blues have allowed an average of just 1.04 xGA per game on their travels so far, and that represents a staggering drop season-on-season.

Now, only title favourites Manchester City can boast a better defensive process away from home than Lampard’s Chelsea. Vast improvements have been made.

When we look at xP per game from away matches this season, Chelsea rank as marginally the fifth best team, averaging 1.68, though they have played a game more on the road than three of those above them.

The fact that they have the seventh best away record therefore doesn’t tell the whole story, and Lampard deserves credit for making his team much better defensively on their travels.

In summary, Lampard had done a good job from an underlying process standpoint without getting the results to back-up the improvements.

Maurizio Sarri’s season at Chelsea saw the team finish third and win the Europa League, but Lampard’s team improved on the levels seen under Sarri, and all without Hazard.

Even in this season, where the Blues are sitting below the likes of West Ham and Aston Villa, Chelsea are on course to post an underlying process better than that 18/19 season under Sarri (0.64 xGD per game).

They are currently averaging 0.69 xGD per game, and that is only marginally worst than the underlying process that Antonio Conte’s title winning team produced in 16/17 (0.80 xGD per game).

Football is a results business – we hear it all the time. Chelsea have been a trigger-happy club when it comes to managers ever since Roman Abramovich bought the club, so to think Lampard would get more time than any other manager based on his history was perhaps naive.

Nonetheless, the underlying figures which his team produced ever since his appointment had been that of a top three team, and it is likely that the results would have turned around had the board held their nerve.

Sacking him is a mistake.



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