Since Roberto Di Matteo has taken over, Chelsea have seen their fortunes turn. Does the Italian's performance merit a permanent position?
After the dismissal of André Villas-Boas in March, Roberto di Matteo was promoted from assistant to caretaker. He was brought in to stop the bleeding and stabilize the squad after a dismal run of form. Chelsea had just dropped out of the top four and were staring elimination from the Champions League in the face after a 3-1 defeat to Napoli, a flattering result for the Blues. But since Di Matteo’s appointment, Chelsea have seen their fortunes turn around dramatically: a surge of fine form in the Premier League, a semi-final FA Cup demolition of Spurs to book a spot in the final at Wembley, and most improbably,the elimination of heavy favorites and defending champions Barcelona from the Champions League in the most dramatic of fashions. Yet despite the stunning manner in which the Italian has turned around Chelsea’s seemingly doomed season, he is far from assured of keeping his job. Di Matteo was brought in on an interim basis, and it is widely believed that Chelsea’s notoriously trigger-happy owner Roman Abramovich will attempt to seek out a manager with a more impressive pedigree in the summer to oversee the overhaul of the squad. But would this be a prudent decision?
Before contemplating where Di Matteo went right, we must figure out where his predecessor went wrong. Villas-Boas led Porto to an undefeated treble, winning the Europa League, Portuguese Primiera Liga, and Portuguese Cup in his first season in charge. At just 33, he became the youngest ever manager to win a European competition. After Carlo Ancelotti was sacked he was immediately linked to the Chelsea job and signed a three-year deal. Charismatic, well-spoken, and fresh off massive success at Porto, the comparisons with José Mourinho were irresistible. The Special One’s shoes, however, proved too big to fill. Villas-Boas attempted to instill his tactical vision at Stamford Bridge. But the system of his Porto side was impossible to recreate at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea simply did not have the personnel to press heavily and play a high defensive line (see the 5-3 defeat to Arsenal). But it was not just a matter of tactics. Villas-Boas alienated the old guard of John Terry, Frank Lampard, and Ashley Cole, and gradually lost the respect of his players. A training ground row between the players and the manager in the wake of an embarrassing defeat to Everton all but sealed his fate; having lost the support of his squad as well as the owner, he was fired following a loss to West Brom.
Enter Di Matteo. A manager whose biggest success up to that point had been leading West Brom to promotion to the Premier League in 2010. He was fired midway through his first Premier League campaign, and joined his former club Chelsea as assistant manager following the appointment of AVB. After his promotion from assistant to manager, results followed immediately. Di Matteo changed the tactical set up. He replaced the 4-3-3 of his predecessor with a 4-2-3-1 that was more suited to the players at his disposal. But just as Villas-Boas’s failure cannot be attributed entirely to tactical deficiencies, neither does Di Matteo’s success lie solely in his tactical savvy. Unlike his predecessor, he recognized the necessity of keeping the old guard content. Lampard was brought back into the fold as a core member of the squad. Those who were marginalized by Villas-Boas contributed to Chelsea’s rejuvenation. Even the long-forgotten Paulo Ferreira made a comeback and performed admirably in the victory over Benfica in the Champions League quarterfinals. With the change in attitude and atmosphere at Stamford Bridge came a change in results. After a run of 3 wins in 11 Premier League matches under AVB, Chelsea have lost just once to league leaders Manchester City. In the FA Cup they made quick work of Tottenham (the ghost-goal controversy cannot hide the 5-1 result) and set up a date with Liverpool in the final of football’s oldest competition. But the most impressive moment of Di Matteo’s brief but brilliant spell at Chelsea has been, without a doubt, the 3-2 aggregate victory over an FC Barcelona side widely considered to be one of the best club teams of all time.
Players and staff at Chelsea have publicly expressed their support for Di Matteo. Branislav Ivanovićand Frank Lampard have highly praised their manager and have given him credit for turning around their season. The latter remarked “the camp’s very happy and you can see the results, the results don’t lie.” Even the recently acquired Marko Marin has indicated that he would like to play under Di Matteo. Considering his success, it would seem like a no-brainer to give Di Matteo a chance to take over on a permanent basis Chelsea. But Chelsea is no ordinary club, and Abramobich, no ordinary owner. Villas-Boas was brought on as a visionary with a long-term plan to rebuild Chelsea’s aging squad. But Roman is an impatient man; without quick success the lifespan of a manager at Stamford Bridge is brief (just ask Luiz Felipe Scolari). As Villas-Boas’s project did not yield immediate dividends, he was quickly sacked. Di Matteo has rejuvenated the squad and instilled an attitude of belief and self-confidence, but this does not change the fact that Chelsea are an aging side with a core group of players that will not be around much longer. The question is, can Di Matteo convince the Chelsea hierarchy of his credentials to lead the rebuilding effort?
There are skeptics that Di Matteo is the man for the job. BBC football expert Andy Brassel wrote“this is a job for an experienced authority figure,” i.e. not Di Matteo. Granted, this was written when he was first appointed as caretaker and before the epic turnaround to the season, but there is still a sense that Chelsea require an experienced, proven manager with a long term vision. Abramovich may yet decide to splurge this summer for a high-profile figure. The names of Guardiola and Mourinho have been floating around the tabloids. But with the former intent on taking a sabbatical after his incredible successes in Catalonia and the latter seemingly staying in Madrid, the list of suitable candidates is short.
Of course, there is still the matter of the Champions League final in Munich and the FA Cup at Wembley, as well as the continuing EPL challenge for fourth. The results in these competitions could go a long way toward determining Di Matteo’s future. Qualification for the Champions League next year is a must. But even a defeat to Bayern Munich in the final would not discredit Di Matteo. The heroic victory over Barcelona at the Camp Nou while playing with 10 men is already legendary and may well end up being seen as a symbolic end to the Guardiola era. Di Matteo will have to make do with a patched up defense and will be missing Ramires, the engine of the Chelsea midfield. It is no secret that Abramovich covets the Champions League and came agonizingly close to winning it in 2008,the Moscow pitch be damned. But even he must admit that this season, being in the final must be considered a success.
Di Matteo deserves to be given a chance at the job, given the staggering turnaround of a season once thought to be irrecoverable. He has gained the respect of the players and is beloved among the Stamford Bridge faithful for his FA Cup heroics as a Chelsea player in the 1990s. Yes, he lacks the impressive résumé of a Mourinho or a Guardiola or even a Laurent Blanc. But the first two are unlikely to make the move to West London this summer, although the French manager will be out of contract this summer and has been linked with a move to Chelsea. Nevertheless, Di Matteo’s credentials cannot be ignored. Experience is not everything; Guardiola has one season managing Barcelona B under his belt when he took over at the Camp Nou. On the achievements of this half season alone, Di Matteo merits a chance as the permanent manager of Chelsea to demonstrate that he can be a stabilizing, rejuvenating force in the long term. Whether Abramovich agrees with this sentiment is a different issue.