Rumours surfaced in the press on Monday morning that Roberto di Matteo could lose his job as early as the end of this week if his Chelsea team come unstuck against Juventus in the Champions League and then against Manchester City in the Premier League.
At a club where the owner’s capacity to throw the media with his endless chopping and changing when it comes to the managerial hotseat, the fact that di Matteo is under pressure at all is bewildering. The most surprising thing is the fact that the reports come as something of a surprise. Even at Chelsea, surely a manager who has achieved what di Matteo has in barely half a year cannot be under pressure after literally a couple of poor results?
As we all know, di Matteo took over a team who were enduring an enforced revolution under Andre Villas Boas at the start of March. Two months later, they won the Champions League and the FA Cup. Since last season’s ultra defensive side ground out those wins, Chelsea have progressed into a fluid attacking unit thrilling neutrals, and performing admirably in the Premier League as they kept pace with Manchester United and Manchester City.
It may be that Roman Abramovich views di Matteo’s triumphs as largely owing to slices of luck, and does not give him as much credit as others for their success last season. He may have just cause to make such a judgment, given the way in which Chelsea survived their encounters with Barcelona and Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Yet if di Matteo was the recipient of good fortune, then why has Abramovich fired managers for their lack of success in this competition? The Champions League does allow teams to ride their luck more than a 38 game league schedule, but that is surely a vindication of why no manager should be judged on their success, or lack of, in the competition.
The Champions League aside, what can be the justification for the pressure on di Matteo? Defeat at home to Manchester United and away to West Brom? Abramovich should reflect that by his criteria, had he been either the owner of Manchester United or Arsenal then Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger would have both been fired long, long ago.
The main cause of anger may be that Chelsea are in a real battle to qualify from their Champions League group, up against Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus. Yet any belief that Chelsea should not be finding it difficult to progress from this group would be ludicrous. Until this weekend, Shakhtar had won every single one of their Ukrainian league games this season, extending a run which went back well into last season. They are a team built, like Chelsea, on substantial billionaire backed wealth in the form of Rinat Akhmetov, but who have kept faith in the same manager, Mircea Lucescu, and who have a core of highly talented and competitive individuals capable of taking on Europe’s best.
And then there is Juventus. A team who have lost precisely two times since the end of the 2010-11 season. Last year they won Serie A unbeaten, and they boast a midfield – Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio – arguably only second best in Europe to that of Barcelona.
That Chelsea are locked in a tight three way battle for qualification from this group should not surprise Abramovich – it should be logical. And in the league, that Chelsea, in the midst of a transition from one style of play to another, are third, just four points off Manchester City and behind Manchester United, should be of huge credit to di Matteo. His management of Chelsea has not been far off fault free.
Yet even that does not appear good enough any more at Stamford Bridge. Abramovich seems set on an idealistic dream of bringing Pep Guardiola to Stamford Bridge and replicating a new Barcelona in west London. That is nothing short of fanciful and unrealistic. Guardiola, even if he is lured to Chelsea, will find that he does not have Leo Messi, the world’s best player. He will not have Xavi, possibly the finest player of his generation, or Andrés Iniesta. He will most importantly of all, not have La Masia. Barcelona’s success is not based on wealth or even what Guardiola did, or Xavi, Iniesta or Messi. Chelsea must think it is, having bought their own trio of diminutive playmaking talents, yet Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard are different from the Barcelona trio in one vital way. They are still getting to know each other. Barcelona’s players have been playing together since their early teenage years – that is how they know each other so well, and have such a telepathic understanding.
The man most responsible for their success is Johan Cruyff (and by extension his former Ajax coach Rinus Michels, the father of ‘total football’). He had the foresight to change Barcelona’s mentality, to have youngsters with technical skill trained together on their passing and movement every day from the age of around 10.
Chelsea do not have such a system in place. Unless they invite Cruyff over to create another La Masia, they will not replicate Barcelona. Yet di Matteo is doing a superb job in making Chelsea a more entertaining and effective attacking unit. Playing Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata in the same team was a brave move and one that is paying exciting dividends for Chelsea. But a more open attacking set up will result in defeats like the one suffered on Saturday to West Brom. Eventually all of this hat may dawn on Abramovich, but until then, managers will continue to suffer the cruel and swift hand of rejection from the Russian oligarch.