Chelsea exited the Champions League in fairly dour style on Tuesday night.
Despite having much of the ball and moving well into Real Madrid's defensive third on multiple occasions, there was simply no game plan once Chelsea got in to those attacking areas, and the players on hand were incapable of burying the chances they created.
It was a largely lifeless way for Chelsea to exit the competition they won two years ago, and speaks to the failings not only of interim manager Frank Lampard, but of the ownership of American Todd Boehly.
Chelsea v Real Madrid: Limp Champions League exit for Londoners was to be expected
When Chelsea's new ownership came to the abrupt decision to sack Thomas Tuchel in September, it immediately smacked of a new owner trying to stamp his authority on a new club, in any way they could.
Sure, Chelsea's form at the start of the season may not have been too inspiring, but worse managers have survived after far worse starts than Tuchel's three wins, two losses, and a draw from the first six Premier League games.
After all, this was the man who won them the 2021 Champions League, and brought them to third place and two cup finals last season. The decision to sack Tuchel came across as hugely premature - but, at least, the appointment of Graham Potter as his replacement was a signal that Boehly was willing to build for the future through a long-term plan.
And you'd want to have a long-term plan, given the amount of money being thrown behind the enormous Chelsea operation. An eye-watering €282million was spent on a glamorous array of signings, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Kalidou Koulibaly, and Raheem Sterling the headline names arriving.
Since Todd Boehly + his consortium, Chelsea have spent nearly $750m excluding add-on fees and loan signings. They got rid of one manager, brought another one for vibes and have no legitimate striker. No hope for Europe, 11th in the league on 39 pts, 12 pts from relegation.
— Luis Miguel Echegaray (@lmechegaray) April 18, 2023
Throwing this much money at a rake of new signings - when players returning from loan are added, 14 players arrived at Chelsea last summer - is a strategy more commonly seen from clubs who are promoted from the Championship, and panic that they musthinvest heavily to survive in the top flight. We saw it from Fulham four years ago, and we've seen it again from Nottingham Forest this season. For the European Cup champions to be pulling such strategies beggars belief.
Nonetheless, Graham Potter having proven his worth during a surprisingly fruitful spell in charge of Brighton, hopes may have been high that Chelsea's change in approach, pivoting towards a more long-term strategy, would come to fruition.
But, here's the thing. Any impression that Todd Boehly knew what he was doing has been resoundingly destroyed by what has come since Potter's appointment. Boehly is passionate, of that there's no doubt, and he does genuinely seem to care about Chelsea's fortunes on the pitch.
Throughout the first half of the season, however, the new arrivals failed to gel, and established squad players such as Mason Mount failed to click with the new additions to the squad, leaving Chelsea as a whole feeling completely fragmented, and miles off the pace of league leaders Arsenal and Manchester City.
So, what was Boehly's choice of strategy in the transfer market in January? To add another eight players to the squad, accumulatively costing even more than had been spent the previous summer.
Of the eight players to arrive in January, only World Cup winner Enzo Fernandez can be described as a success. The squad was so farcically big that the likes of Aubameyang found themselves out of the Champions League squad, and remarkable reports emerged of players forced out of the changing room due to a lack of space.
Amid all this, a revealing interview from Potter in February revealed that he had had little say in many of the decisions of who Chelsea brought in in the January transfer window. Boehly has passion, that's for sure, but these comments - and recent reports of him involving himself in dressing room team talks - speak of a man who doesn't know his place within the football club.
With all this going on, it's maybe not the most surprising that Potter struggled to put his stamp on this Chelsea team, particularly in the aftermath of the World Cup. On April 2, Potter found himself out of a job, after yet another defeat at home to high-flying Aston Villa.
Frank Lampard returns as Caretaker Manager until the end of the season. 🤝
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) April 6, 2023
This is where Boehly's most insane choice yet came from. Potter had been hired after the somewhat hasty sacking of Thomas Tuchel, who had built an impressive squad capable of challenging for multiple trophies in the same season during his 18 months in charge.
Tuchel had been brought in after the poor winter run of form under Frank Lampard in early 2021, after Lampard's reign had seen Chelsea stagnate and even, in 2020-21, start to move backwards.
So, Potter may not have been a step forward from Tuchel, but you'd imagine that if they were to sack him with only a few weeks left of the season, they'd have a decent replacement lined up to take his place?
No. The answer was Frank Lampard.
Under Lampard, Chelsea have now lost four games in a row, scoring just one goal, and now exiting the Champions League in unsurprisingly limp fashion against the might of Real Madrid.
Lampard is not cut out to manage teams at this level. His greatest achievement thus far is securing top four football for Chelsea in the midst of a transfer ban in 2019-20. Even then, his side (who had finished third the season before, and won the Europa League) finished behind an often iffy Manchester United, and lost the FA Cup final to Arsenal. He could also be blamed in a fairly substantial manner for Everton's fall into relegation trouble last year.
Simply put, the appointment of Lampard was a purely sentimental one - more so than it was the first time he was hired in 2019 - and it reeks of the kind of decision making that has been at the core of Todd Boehly's failings at the helm of Chelsea thus far.
The American has thrown money at problems in the squad, acted rashly both in the transfer market and in the business of hiring and firing, and his most important decision yet was swayed by sentimentality and a desire to please the fans, at a time when Chelsea needed a cool head and rational thinking.
Look back to this time last year, when Chelsea narrowly exited the Champions League at the same stage, to the same team. On that occasion, they did so having claimed a dramatic win on the night at the Bernabeu, with a competent and clear game plan, and having created more chances across the two legs.
Rodrygo puts the tie beyond ANY doubt at Stamford Bridge ⚪️💪 pic.twitter.com/7c6dQCZAs0
— Watch the UCL on LiveScore 🇮🇪 (@LiveScoreIE) April 18, 2023
This time around, Frank Lampard's 3-7-0 formation failed to give Chelsea a cutting edge up front, saw a defensive midfielder in N'Golo Kanté become the centrepoint of the attack, and Real Madrid ultimately able to cut the defence open far too easily.
A lot has changed in those 12 months, and Tuesday night's defeat is emblematic of a team who have simply fumbled every major call both on and off the pitch over that year.
The road back for Chelsea may not be long, but it will certainly be painful and full of introspection.