Sunday 14 December 2014

Frank Lampard and New York City FC: (No) Way Out of an Arranged Marriage?

When Chelsea FC monument Frank Lampard ended up in the Skyblues kit early this season, under a City Football Group construction, Chelsea fans did not know where they had it. Not that they seemed to really hold it against their former captain – they would later applaud him even after having scored a dramatic late equalizing goal against Chelsea. And they were right not to do so. Irrespective of one’s achievements and loyalty during one’s career, it seems that the hard laws of professional football make that at a certain age top clubs will just gently push their heroes aside, under the form of either a contract extension of very limited duration or a huge wage reduction – and most typically both.

This had been the case of Lampard, who thus decided to embark on the exciting new project of joining Manchester City’s new franchise in the Major League Soccer, New York City FC. At the new City franchise team, he would be playing aside other designated player David Villa. The expected arrival of both at the Big Apple was announced more than half a year before the club would start competing. Notwithstanding the fact the squad did not yet count eleven players, season ticket sales kicked off in earnest, thanks to figureheads Lampard and Villa.

Source: dailymail.co.uk

So as to keep both aging stars in good form ahead of the new MLS season commencing, in March 2015, City Football Group assigned Lampard and Villa to its other portfolio teams, Manchester City and Melbourne City, respectively. While not necessarily always in the starting line-up, Lampard has shown that he is still of great value to a club of the stature of the Premier League Champions. To such an extent even that Manuel Pellegrini is now making it heard he wants to hold on to Lampard, at least until the end of the season. The Citizens are both rather injury plagued and, surprisingly, in the end, made it through to the knock-out stages of the Champions League, only for the second time in their history. Moreover, in the Premier league, the champions are only 3 points behind leaders Chelsea. Pellegrini thus sees in the 36-year old, who scored the only goal in last weekend’s league encounter with Leicester, a “very important player” for his team.

The Chilean does realize it is not just about what he – or even the player – wants, though. There is not only another team (New York City FC – although belonging to the same decision-makers as Manchester City) involved, but also, even much more critically, the Major League Soccer. It is clear that the MLS granted the City consortium the New York franchise based on the expectation to bring in players of the stature of Lampard and Villa. Likewise, newly declared fans bought their season tickets based on the same promise. When you come to the market with a new product, the last thing you would want to do is disappoint those who have been found willing to give you a try. To the extent that the City executives are in need of it, the MLS will surely remind them thereof.

Thus, it may seem unlikely we’ll be seeing Lampard playing his football in Europe much longer. However, every dissatisfactory solution has its alternative. It just happens to be that a very similar player to Lampard – in terms of both position and stature – is being led to the exit by his own Premier-League club. Indeed, Steven Gerrard, who nearly by himself was able to make the tactical errors of his manager Brendan Rodgers (see elsewhere on this blog) undone by qualifying the reds in extremis for the next round of the Champions League, is being forced by Liverpool FC to seriously reconsider his future at Anfield.

Liverpool FC proposed its 34-year-old captain a much reduced pay, from next season onward – should he decide to stay with them as a player – and their non-qualification for the Champions-League knock-out stages is unlikely to give them more financial breathing room. Their worst-case scenario would be to see Gerrard leave for free to a Premier-league competitor at the end of the season – which is not all that unlikely, with Stevie G recently having been linked to West Ham U, who are much more likely even than the Reds to feature in next year's Champions League. Thus, in case they are not willing and/or able to meet his needs, selling Gerrard off over Christmas – the last time the Reds could still get a transfer fee for him – to a cash-rich, non-direct competitor (i.e. NYC FC, through City Football Group) may well be their best available alternative. For Gerrard himself, it could well be an exciting new turn in his career and probably the best way for him to remain an icon at the club where he is most likely to return as staff member sooner rather than later.

Most importantly, for the MLS and NYC FC’s newly declared fans, Steven Gerrard may well be the only worthy and therefore acceptable alternative to Frankie Lampard – which, in turn, could only drive up the asking price for the Reds vis-รก-vis City Football Group. A textbook example of a win-win solution? Let’s see if those writing the actual script agree.