An arrogant, baseless whim from a deluded, out of control club owner or a decisive, ruthless yet necessary act in a desperate attempt to remedy a poor managerial appointment and to salvage your season?
The overnight sacking of Roberto di Matteo by Roman Abramovich after Chelsea’s humiliating 3-0 defeat against Juventus was greeted with a wave of shock and sympathy towards the latest pawn in Abramovich’s trigger-happy reign at Stamford Bridge. But, with the defending European Champions facing the ignomy of elimination at the group stage of this year’s competition – potentially the first defending champions to produce such an inept surrender of their trophy – Abramovich saw fit to relieve di Matteo of his duties with immediate effect despite the Italian somehow guiding the Blues to their, and the Russian’s, holy grail in May.
It might seem a crazy statement to make but I believe Chelsea and di Matteo’s unlikely triumph in Munich – perhaps the most staggering and, some would say undeserved, turn of events in recent European Champions League history – was the cherry atop of the worst possible case scenario for the club hierarchy. Di Matteo had been parachuted into Stamford Bridge by Andre Villas Boas; the Portuguese so woefully out of his depth amongst the ego’s of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba that he felt the familiar presence of former Chelsea player di Matteo would ease the implementation of his much-talked about, but never actually materialising grand ‘project’. But when AVB’s pitiful reign was mercifully cut short in March 2012, di Matteo, his knife razor sharp in eager readiness, wasted no time in gleefully stepping into the manager’s role at a club that would never have looked at him once, let alone twice, in more normal circumstances.
And so di Matteo’s uber-catenaccio tactical system – catenaccio literally meaning ‘door-bolt’- in his native Italy and a tactical approach favoured most infamously by Helenio Herrera during his stewardship of the painfully dull Inter of the 1960’s – bored everyone to tears in smothering Barcelona during their Champions League semi-final encounter and an identical approach eventually prevailed over FC Bayern in the worst European Champions League Final since the AC Milan vs Juventus snooze-a-thon in 2003. In the space of two months Roberto di Matteo had, single-handedly you might assume with the subsequent fawning praise of his leadership, risen from the role of bit-part assistant coach to European super coach! The fallout of which, amongst other things, meant that Chelsea could not automatically engage their default plan to jettison the conquering hero in favour of a competent coach with immediate effect….
…although they tried their very best! The endless delays in confirming di Matteo’s permanent position at Stamford Bridge fooled nobody, despite the club’s insistence that only minor quibbles that were holding up the proud unveiling of their Messiah. There was little disguising the blatant flirting by Abramovich in the direction of outgoing Barcelona Head Coach Pep Guardiola, nor his cosy relationship with Dutchman Guus Hiddink….nor even the persistent rumours speculating on a kiss-and-make-up between the Russian oligarch and Jose Mourinho. But with all those infinitely more preferable avenues closed to Chelsea they had little choice but to return to di Matteo while feebly claiming he was always their first choice.
A two-year contract was duly gobbled up by di Matteo; the board’s absolute and total confidence and faith in their appointment highlighted perfectly by their insistence that a non-negotiable get-out clause was inserted into his deal to be triggered after just 12mths. A purely coincidental fact is that Pep Guardiola’s self-imposed sabbatical from the game is also scheduled for his glorious return in….12mths time! Hmm…?!? In any case, most football observers doubted the need for such a clause being that di Matteo was never going to last beyond Christmas anyway….
But there seemed an obvious incompatibility between Roberto di Matteo and Abramovich’s Chelsea ideal. Abramovich has craved the swashbuckling style of Barcelona since his arrival at Stamford Bridge, yet di Matteo’s tactical ‘genius’ loosely revolved around hoofing the ball up to Didier Drogba on the halfway line with the nine other outfield players stationed within touching distance of goalkeeper Petr Cech. Chelsea made all the right noises in the transfer market, acquiring the technically-gifted Oscar, Eden Hazard and Marko Marin to complement the excellent Juan Mata. But di Matteo’s lack of comfort and conviction outside his trademark defensive shell brought valid questions as to how a naturally negative coach could best utilise such an array of attacking talent.
There have been brief flashes of potential, perhaps best highlighted in Chelsea’s 4-2 away victory over Spurs, but di Matteo’s desperation to appease Abramovich with attacking flair has drastically compromised his defensive organisation whilst laying bare his tactical limitations. Last year’s catenaccio has been ripped up and replaced with an attacking formation that essentially removes any sense of defensive responsibility from the front four! John Obi Mikel – unbelievably average at the best of times – has faced the unenviable task of providing a one-man shield to a defence that routinely offers generous gifts to the opposition AND that usually features defensive liability and part-time Krusty the Clown associate David Luiz?!? Di Matteo ought to have heeded the warning signs that were brutally exposed during Chelsea’s embarrassing 4-1 capitulation to Atletico Madrid’s Falcao in the European Super Cup, but a combination of his own naiveness and his fear of Abramovich has seen him persist with an approach that, at times, borders on tactical suicide! The EPL does not boast the true quality of five or six years ago and, as such, Chelsea have escaped relatively unscathed from situations which would have been clinically punished in years gone by. But at the top table of European football they have been found out; a 2-2 home draw to Juventus before last night’s hammering in Italy and two footballing lessons at the hands of Shakhtar Donetsk – albeit one saved by the most fortunate of last minute daylight robberies in the home encounter.
I always felt di Matteo had been extremely lucky to have been elevated to a position far beyond his capabilities…but, despite his many failings, he can list European Champions League Winner on his resume! But does that mean he is a more gifted coach than, say, Arsene Wenger or Roberto Mancini? Perhaps the other fact of his Chelsea reign is equally valid – one that has been conveniently glossed over by most commentators thus far – namely that he guided Chelsea to a distant SIXTH position in the EPL which would, had the miracle of Munich not intervened, led to an omission from that elite competition for this season and, in all likelihood, a struggle to attract those prestige summer signings.
However, having dismissed their latest manager – the EIGHTH coach to fall during Abramovich’s 9yr tenure following in the footsteps of Claudio Ranieri, Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, Phil Scolari, Guus Hiddink (albeit Hiddink was always a temporary appointment), Carlo Ancelotti, AVB and Roberto di Matteo – Chelsea find themselves struggling for credibility with a hotseat that offers only marginally more job security than a shopping mall Santa Claus! Guardiola, Abramovich’s dream appointment, will not cut short his sabbatical and, even if he was enticed back to club management, would he honestly be prepared to risk his reputation at a club that demands instant success AND while playing a certain way AND with a dubious control over player transfers?!? Their only option at present is to make yet another stop-gap appointment, with their options limited in all likelihood to out-of-work managers desperate to return to the game and with virtually nothing to lose….such as the suggested Rafa Benitez and Harry Redknapp. And such a short-term approach merely continues to destabilise a club who should be still basking in the most glorious night in their history! Take Man Utd and Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford in 1986 and achieved very little in terms of trophies during his early years as he rebuilt Man Utd from top to bottom. In fact, it is generally accepted that Fergie was one goal away from being sacked when Mark Robins scored in a crucial cup tie way back in 1991. There can be little doubt that Fergie has done rather well at Old Trafford in the subsequent two decades! Stability is the key, and while Chelsea and Roman Abramovich have limited options right now, their next permanent appointment simply must be given the time and freedom to actually manage the club….