If there is one aspect of the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo that actually does retain the capacity to startle, it’s the numbers. Di Matteo is the ninth Chelsea manager to have left Stamford Bridge in the nine years to since Roman Abramovich bought the club. This is a higher managerial turnover than the club had in the first seventy years of its existence, a stark figure, even if we factor in the fact that clubs generally have a higher turnover of managers than they used to have and, while it is clear that the club has won more trophies over these last nine years than it did during those first seventy, we could counter-argue that this may have had more to do with with the vast amounts of money that have been lavished on the first team than the clubs appointment policy with regard to its managerial staff has.
Still, Roberto Di Matteo had a good run, by modern Chelsea standards. If we take into account his caretaker period, he was the clubs manager for longer than Avram Grant, Andre Villa Boas or Luis Felipe Scolari. His time at the club had a feel of the flight of Icarus about it, ascending to the absolute summit of European football before plummeting back to earth in less than nine months. It has been suggested elsewhere that Abramovichs judgement in making his caretaker position permanent was a case of the owners judgement being impaired in the warm afterglow of that Saturday night in May of this year, or that winning that trophy (as well, let’s not forget, as the FA Cup) meant that unreasonable pressure was brought to bear in order to give Di Matteo a chance at the job on a longer term basis. This speculation singularly fails to take into account what we understand about Abramovich and could even be described as doing him something of a disservice. In the broader world of football today, though, it seems unlikely that too many tears will be being shed for the plutocratic owner, even if the sum total of his managerial dalliances does now, as has been reported, total £69m.
There can be little question that Chelseas form this season has been patchy, and that patchiness ceases to be an option when we consider the amount of money spent on new players by the club during summer. The team has been found wanting in too many of its critical matches, culminating in a desperate performance against Juventus in Turin last night, a straw that broke the camels back performance which might easily have ended in an even heavier defeat that it did. In the tunnel vision works of modern football it would be easy to leave that story there, but it should be added that Juventus played very, very, well, a display of organisational excellence and attacking elan which seemed to confirm the completion of their revival after the Calciopoli scandal of 2006. The ongoing Stamford Bridge soap opera shouldn’t be allowed to mask the excellence of their performance. They go into their final Champions League group match knowing that if they avoid defeat or Chelsea fail to win their final match, it will be they that progress to the last sixteen of the competition whilst the holders will have to pursue the small consolation of a place in the Europa League.
Most eyes will be on Stamford Bridge this morning, though, and the two names featuring in most newspaper headlines this morning were those of Pep Guardiola and Rafa Benitez. Guardiolas departure from Barcelona on sabbatical at the end of last season wouldn’t seem to indicate that a return to such an unstable atmosphere for a manager as Stamford Bridge has been in recent years could be likely, though, with much of the press speculation linking him to the club being based on the somewhat tenuous binary that he is clearly a great coach and Roman Abramovich clearly has a lot of money. Money, however, does talk and we should perhaps never underestimate the appeal of a challenge of this nature to a professional sportsman. Over the course of today, though, it has become clear that Benitez could be in line for this position. Quite what the reaction to such an appointment might be amongst Liverpool supporters – a sizeable proportion of whom still carry a torch for the manager who brought their club that most unlikely of Champions League wins in 2005 – would be interesting, to say the least. We might reflect that in his short and unhappy stay with Internazionale and his latter years at Anfield at least he has had experience, in the form of Massimo Moratti and the wretched Gillett and Hicks, of the dottier end of the club ownership spectrum. If recent history is anything to go by, he may well come to need this experience should, as is now widely expected, he comes to be revealed as Chelseas new manager tomorrow.
Perhaps the most significant thread that underlines this story, however, is the pure fact that all of this managerial instability has coincided with by a long chalk the most successful period in the history of Chelsea Football Club, and it may even be that Roman Abramovich has stumbled, through the medium of his own itchy trigger finger, on a formula that works for his club. Three times Premier League winners, European champions and winners of countless domestic cups over the last nine years, it might even be argued that Abramovich is proving those amongst us who believe the cult of the manager in modern football to be highly overrated to be right. History may even come to regard this era in the history of the club, which seems completely chaotic to contemporary eyes, to be the beginning of the decline for position within the institution of a football club that has always, in some respects, been an artificial construct. After all, England national squads were, comfortable within living memory, picked by committees made up of men in blazers. If we go back far enough, we come across a time when the club secretary was as important as a club manager. Times do change. Having said that, though, Chelsea had a manager until the early hours of this morning and they will have one again. And no matter how patchy the teams form has been so far this season, the balance of probabilities remains heavily in favour of the teams poor Champions League form being a blip, with normal service being likely to resume shortly. After nine years, though, it seems as of Roman Abramovich may never rencocile himself to the fact that there are two teams on the pitch in every football match.
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