As all football fans know, it’s only a matter of time in each Barclays Premier League season before the first managerial casualties are confirmed. This season is no different and, sure enough, it’s taken just twelve games for the first heads to roll along the touchline and out of play for the foreseeable future. First Chelsea and then Q.P.R. have parted company with the men charged with overseeing the clubs’ assaults on the E.P.L. from the dugout and, as always, many questions have been thrown up by both the sackings themselves and the candidates chosen to replace the dearly departed. The main question however, is have the decision makers done the right thing? In this article, the focus will be on Chelsea’s tactical substitution.
Roberto di Matteo took over the reins at Stamford Bridge, initially as interim manager, in February of this year. Taking over from Andre Villas Boas, who endured a harrowing experience as boss of the Blues at the hands of both the players and the press, Di Matteo enjoyed a blissful honeymoon period during the closing stages of last season.
Chelsea fans were practically resigned to exiting the Champions League having been taken to school by Napoli in the first leg of their quarter final tie at the San Paolo. However, Di Matteo’s appointment, coming just days after that humbling 3-1 defeat, galvanised the squad and helped the Blues to an unlikely 4-1 victory in the second leg, sending them through. A win against Barcelona followed and in the final, against Bayern Munich in Munich, Chelsea produced a stoic performance. Capitalising on the German side’s profligacy in front of goal, the Blues managed to hold Bayern to a 1-1 draw after extra-time and, as we all know, recorded an unlikely victory in the resultant penalty shoot-out.
Within three months of taking over as interim manager, Di Matteo had managed to give Abramovich his holy grail, the one trophy that even the mighty Mourinho had failed to deliver and, as a little side gift, the Italian led Chelsea to FA Cup victory too. Abramovich had a decision to make, he wanted Guardiola to take the job, however the Spaniard wasn’t keen, so what to do now? Despite the two cup victories, Di Matteo was only ever supposed to be a short term fix, not the man that Roman envisaged taking Chelsea forward. However, disregarding the fact that under the Italian Chelsea had registered a poorer Premier League points return than under AVB, Abramovich gave him the job.
Fast forward to now and after twelve games Di Matteo’s stint as Chelsea manager has been consigned to the history books. A promising start, albeit mostly against relatively weak opposition, hit the buffers in a big way and a run of four Premier League games without a win, coupled with the Blues’ stuttering Champions League form, has seen the curtain brought down on yet another manager at Stamford Bridge.
There are arguments for and against the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo, mostly centring on whether the Italian “deserved” to go or not. For me, this question is an irrelevance. The fact is Roman Abramovich has bankrolled Chelsea to the tune of hundreds of millions, without his money Chelsea could well have gone under and with his money Chelsea have enjoyed by far and away the most successful period in their history. Blues fans have profited massively from the Russian’s investment and his autocratic ownership style so it would be a tad churlish for them to complain too vociferously about his latest managerial casualty, club legend or not.
The real question in my mind is why Abramovich chose to appoint Roberto Di Matteo in the first place. Granted, he managed the team to Champions League and FA Cup glory, however he won both those trophies, particularly the Champions League, utilising a defensive style that although successful, was the exact opposite of the style of football that Abramovich reportedly has his heart set on – that of Barcelona. On top of that, managing a team to a gritty cup success in one off showpiece matches, is quite different to being able to successfully manage one of Europe’s top clubs throughout a full gruelling season.
As mentioned above, Chelsea’s league form under Di Matteo left a lot to be desired and was, with the benefit of hindsight, a prelude to this season’s league failures. Abramovich doesn’t seem like the type to be pressurised by fan opinion, so why did he appoint Di Matteo when he was clearly reticent to do so? The speed and ruthlessness with which he dismissed Di Matteo illustrates that Abramovich was never happy with the Italian in the hotseat, so why place him there in the first instance?
Di Matteo’s only previous managerial experience at the top level came several seasons ago when he had a spell in charge of West Bromwich Albion. After winning promotion back to the EPL at the first time of asking, Di Matteo had a great start to Premier League life with the Baggies. Pundits drooled over the Baggies new fluid attacking style and the Italian won the Manager of the Month award for September.
However, after that the wheels came off Di Matteo’s Albion bandwagon rather quickly, as a run of just one victory in ten Premier League games during the Christmas period resulted in the former Chelsea star being handed his P45. Prior to his time at the Baggies, Di Matteo had had a season as manager of the MK Dons in League one. He did well there, finishing third but losing out in the play-off semi-final against Scunthorpe. I think it has to be said, taking over as Chelsea manager was a big step-up for Roberto Di Matteo, and one which was always likely to be short-lived.
The man who has been chosen to bring success to West London, at least in the short-term, is Rafael Benitez and, whether Blues fans like or not, the appointment would appear to be a prudent one. Benitez has been out of management for around two years, however he remains one of the sport’s master tacticians. He has won two La Liga titles, the Champions League, the Spanish Cup, the FA Cup, the UEFA Cup, the Super Cup, the Club World Cup, and many other trophies during his managerial career, as well as twice being named UEFA Manager of the Year; not a bad CV.
Benitez’s blend of tactical genius and calculated pragmatism could be exactly what Chelsea need in this transitional period between the Mourinho hangover (still there after five years without the Portuguese) and the free flowing, Barcelona-esque style that Abramovich is so desperate to see. The first thing that Benitez will do is to shore up the defence and stop Chelsea from giving away goals, this can be seen from the performance and the result against Manchester City. The next thing Benitez will do is to try and replace the presence in the team of big characters such as Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and John Terry, something which a succession of Chelsea managers have failed to do and will prove to be massively important for Chelsea’s evolution.
Then there’s the Fernando Torres situation. Under Benitez at Liverpool, Torres enjoyed the most productive years of his footballing career. During a four year spell, Torres netted 81 goals in 142 appearances, compared with 91 goals in 242 appearances for his previous club Athletico Madrid and 19 goals in 88 appearances for Chelsea to date. There are those that say he was in his peak years at Liverpool, however Torres left Merseyside at 26 years of age, apparently with plenty still in the tank. The switch to Chelsea obviously hasn’t worked out as planned, the stats bear this out, and Roman Abramovich is now desperate to get the best out of his £50m white elephant.
Whether Torres can return to anything like his form in those halcyon days at Liverpool remains to be seen. He appears to have lost a yard of pace and, from watching him play on numerous occasions, it’s hugely evident that the Spaniard possesses nothing like the self-belief that once coursed through his veins when he was tearing defences to shreds and scoring some of the best goals to have ever graced the Premier League. However, if there is a man out there who can return Torres to something approaching his former glory, then that man is Rafael Benitez.
Finally, to the fans. Chelsea fans have a long-running dislike of Rafael Benitez dating back to those emotional, dramatic Champions League encounters during the mid-noughties. A lot of harsh words were exchanged between Chelsea and Liverpool during that period and many wounds from that time will never fully heal. The Stamford Bridge faithful made their position very clear during Sunday’s encounter with Manchester City. Benitez was roundly booed by the home support, with many carrying banners which read “Benitez Out” and “In Rafa We Will Never Trust”. This is understandable in a way, given the animosity which had built up against Liverpool and Benitez over the years. However, Benitez has been away from the Premier League for three seasons now and, showing solidarity for a sacked hero is one thing but cutting off your nose to spite your face is another. Quite simply, Rafa Benitez is one of the best managers in World football, right up there with Jose Mourinho (hence the bitter rivalry), Chelsea in reality can do no better in terms of a replacement for the now departed Roberto Di Matteo.
The Premier League is weak this year. Manchester City and Manchester United remain unconvincing, despite a run of positive results. Beneath them, it is a free for all at the moment with any team capable of beating any other on their day, with the exception perhaps of the bottom three. The way I see it, the title is there for the taking. If Benitez can solidify Chelsea and make them hard to beat, in a similar way to Di Matteo last season, whilst getting the most out of their wonderfully talented attacking options, there is no reason why they can’t make a serious push to bring the title back to London. If Benitez manages that, in spite of their protestations to the contrary, Blues fans may have to admit to the fact that sometimes, it’s better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
Both images by thesportreview