It was feared in some circles that Mason Mount's fledgling career might stall when Thomas Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard as Chelsea manager at the end of January. After all, Lampard was sacked in part due to the poor form of several key attacking signings, the lion's share of their £220 million outlay last summer.
Tuchel's ability to speak German was viewed as a vital asset in improving the fortunes of Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, the latter only now showing signs of establishing himself as an influential player after a difficult first season in England. Mount was made captain for Lampard's last game in charge, but he was dropped for Tuchel's first, a perfect distillation of the challenge the 22-year-old had in proving himself. His rise was influenced in part by the club's transfer ban, but prior to his exit, Lampard had been keen to promote youth regardless after years of Chelsea managers ignoring the club's own academy graduates.
Yet Mount will make his 100th appearance for the Blues in the coming weeks -- possibly as soon as May 1 -- after becoming just as vital to Tuchel as he was for Lampard.
Chelsea reached the Champions League semifinals on Tuesday with a 2-1 aggregate win over Porto, despite losing the second leg 1-0 to an impressive last-minute volley by Mehdi Taremi. Their path was ultimately secured by last week's 2-0 win in the first leg in which Mount scored his first European goal, a smart turn and finish showcasing notable recent improvements in his potency. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lampard never had any doubts that Mount's upward trajectory would continue.
"The minute I gave him the armband, I could see the look on his face of what that meant to him," said Lampard, speaking at a Q&A session ahead of this month's London Football Awards. "That's something you get when you bring through academy players, and fans love it. But academy players who have been there since eight years of age fight their way into the team with absolute desire, it means so much to them. That's tangible. That's something that's important. You won't always see it at 20 [years old].
"They might have dips in confidence, they might have moments in games, but when you have players that care, it doesn't matter who the manager is. The desire they have, because they work so hard and have that talent, will carry them through. So when I left Chelsea -- and this is no disrespect to the manager now because he is obviously doing a fantastic job -- but the manager would come in and I would put my house on the fact within two or three weeks they'd be saying 'wow, Mason Mount, trains every day like a champion, works off the ball and sets the press, has great quality is improving all the time and is now adding goals to his game this year.'"
Mount has made 53 appearances this season for club and country and is therefore comfortably on course to surpass last season's tally of 59. He has started England's last eight matches, and was the only player to begin all three of England's World Cup qualifiers against San Marino, Albania and Poland last month, with manager Gareth Southgate making a rather pointed comment, alluding to the accusation that Mount was something of a pet project for Lampard. "I was saying in the autumn that he is a very good player, I suppose now Thomas Tuchel picks him, everybody will agree."
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Mount may have joined Chelsea aged 6 and approached every challenge with a positive outlook, yet that did not dissuade some of the club's fans from rushing to judge a player still palpably learning his trade.
The bond between Mount and Lampard is undoubtedly a strong one. Mount has a framed shirt from Chelsea's title-winning 2004-05 campaign, signed by Lampard, on display in his house; he won it in a raffle. Lampard in turn took a gamble on an unknown teenager by taking him to Derby County in 2018, starting 35 league games in a campaign that ended in agonising defeat to Aston Villa in the Championship playoff final at Wembley.
Mount has been targeted for abuse on social media, the Chelsea fan base somewhat replicating the ruthlessness of Roman Abramovich, whose unrelenting pursuit of success has led to 13 different managers during his 18 years of ownership. Mount's father, Tony, insists his son does not read the abuse, but the family does. Yet Tuchel's arrival and ensuing trust in the midfielder has led to that negativity being replaced by a growing recognition of traits Lampard identified years earlier in a player whose only previous experience of senior football came on loan at Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem in 2017-18.
"I never understood the critics," said Lampard. "When he stepped through the door [at Derby], I could see straight away something special in him.
"For me, it was attitude and mentality. The first thing I always try and look at as a player is 'what are they like?' because that has a huge effect on how you can coach them and make them better. Do they want to improve when they are young? And what does that mean for the group you are bringing them into?
"Everyone spoke well about Mason in the Chelsea academy so that was very clear. Then there was something about when he played that I'd seen. I watched a lot of him when he was playing in Holland and it was an awareness of things around him. A desire to work for the team off the ball as well as the qualities he had on the ball."
Natural fitness runs in the family -- Mount's grandfather was a boxer -- but the Chelsea midfielder he takes no chances with his conditioning. He uses one of the chefs employed by England to prepare and deliver his food, sticking resolutely to structured recovery and maintaining his fitness during the close season, training privately with a personal trainer and daily in the gym.
"When he came to Derby, I was sure it would be a difficult ride for him in the Championship because of the physicality of the league," said Lampard. "He had a really good spell in the beginning, then a quieter spell and then he overcame it at the end of the season and was fantastic in the run-in. For me that was a measure of the player that he is because all young players -- because I was a midfield player, I probably look even closer -- are not going to score you 15, 20 goals a season when they are 21. It doesn't work that way. They have to find their way, mature, find the right times to arrive in the box and I started seeing that in him this season even more.
"I'm not there anymore, but to see him developing again is great. He's going to carry on developing, he's going to be a fantastic player. I've probably said enough about him because people already used to call him my son."
With typical thought, Lampard checks himself for fear of tipping over from vocal support to the sort of partisan cheerleading he was once accused of. But any debate over Mount's ability to perform at the highest level is surely already over, and only injury will prevent him passing the 100-appearance mark for Chelsea this season, before playing what could be a pivotal role for England at Euro 2020.
Mount is noticeably improving his end product, and Lampard believes his game is "evolving all the time." That came initially through benefitting from a more central role in Lampard's 4-3-3 system, prior to adapting as one of Tuchel's twin No.10s in a 3-4-2-1 shape. He set himself a target of 10 Premier League goals last season, falling short by three. He already has eight this term -- and three more for England -- while his four league assists have all come from set pieces. At the last Euros, striker Harry Kane was on corners with Gary Neville, an England coach under Roy Hodgson at that tournament, later claiming a lack of expert set-piece takers forced them to use their No. 9 as an atypical alternative. That won't be the case this summer, as Mount offers far more than dead-ball expertise.
Explaining why he made Mount captain against Luton in January, Lampard, pushed into one final answer about Mount, added: "It wasn't a gesture. I didn't know I was leaving at that point but with Mason, I wanted to show him that his standing in the group had risen. And then he needs to understand that and he needs to rise up." Tuchel has recognised Mount is doing just that.
(Editor's note: James Olley will be on the voting panel for the 2021 London Football Awards.)