The most shocking thing about the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea was that it was genuinely a surprise that his tenure unravelled so rapidly over the course of the last few days. On Saturday evening Chelsea had lost to West Brom, extending their winless run in the Premier League to four games; that did though include home matches against Manchester United and Liverpool, a visit to one of the league’s best possession sides, Swansea, and the surprise package and early occupant of the fourth Champions League spot in West Brom.
It was valid to question picking up just two points from these four games, if a little harsh, but it seemed impossible to justify the pressure on Di Matteo’s position when speculation suggested that the Italian was on the brink of losing his job. Bad results away to Italian champions Juventus, who have only just lost their 49 match unbeaten run in Serie A, and at home against Premier League holders Manchester City, and Di Matteo would be another piece of Chelsea history.
No pressure then.
And so it was, that on a fateful night in Turin, Di Matteo’s glorious tenure came to an unceremonious end. It is hard to imagine what else he could have realistically done. With the services of just two strikers, the injured Daniel Sturridge and perpetually out of form Fernando Torres, the Italian gambled and started none. It was not the worst of gambles. Eden Hazard’s movement was excellent and he provided an out ball throughout the game despite his unfamiliarity with his role. With Juan Mata, Oscar and Ramires rampaging in unpredictable directions, Chelsea were a real threat on the break. The Blues could easily have been in front before Fabio Quagliarella’s instinctive brilliance, getting enough on Andrea Pirlo’s shot to send it past the helpless Petr Cech. Juventus were solid and clinical.
None of the English sides would have sailed through Chelsea’s Champions League group and all could have potentially gone out. Shakhtar Donetsk are arguably the fifth best team in Europe at the moment, behind the big two in Spain and Germany, and Juventus quite possibly the sixth. Small margins make all the difference against sides as good as these, and if managing a team through transition, as Di Matteo was, it is fully understandable to be lacking that crucial edge, as Chelsea were.
After coming to the conclusion that Di Matteo was not up to the job, Blues owner Roman Abramovich found himself back in a perpetual dilemma. Every manager he has appointed has been a bit too human, capable of imperfection, to meet the Russian’s exacting standards – perhaps the equally intolerant of fallibility Marcelo Bielsa would be the ideal Chelsea boss.
Having already employed Jose Mourinho, Abramovich now craves his old nemesis, Josep Guardiola. The Russian billionaire wanted Guardiola before, and he wanted him to takeover now. He was sounded out this week, but remains intent on remaining out of football for an entire year. With the ex-Barcelona coach’s signature the ultimate end game, that left the Russian oligarch in a position where he needed to find a steady hand that he could rely on to steer the Chelsea ship through the troubled waters ahead, until such time as Guardiola makes himself available for the managerial hot-seat. Someone like Di Matteo, brought in to do exactly this last season, and with spectacular results; short term appointments are becoming the norm at Chelsea. The statistic which perhaps says more than any other about Abramovich’s approach is that of the eight coaches he has brought in, four were caretaker appointments. The latest is the former Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez.
Credit Abramovich, he could have chosen worse. Benitez is ridiculed by some, but he is ultimately a winner. His record at Valencia, where he won two La Liga titles, and at Liverpool, with which he claimed the Champions League, are testament to his managerial abilities. Yet the Spaniard is also a control freak who does not like boardroom politics. Chelsea seems the last place for him to be, particularly given the fans’ dislike of him for daring to get one over on their beloved Mourinho during his time at Liverpool.
Chelsea will likely continue to challenge for most of the competitions they are involved in, although to change managers during a transition is a major risk. Di Matteo was carrying out a remodelling of a more attacking, enterprising unit. Benitez is ultimately a pragmatist, more concerned with results than style.
The big question remains the Guardiola one. Will he eventually succumb to Abramovich’s pursuit? And if so, would it work? Abramovich, craving a ‘west London Barcelona’, would miss a critical point if he thinks that simply appointing Guardiola would bring flowing, glorious, all conquering Catalan football to Stamford Bridge.
Guardiola is a tactical obsessive, a committed disciple of total football and demanding coach. But he will not have, most obviously, Lionel Messi, the world’s best player. He will also be without Xavi and Andres Iniesta. And Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Victor Valdes, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets, Pedro, Jordi Alba and Thiago Alcantara for that matter. All of whom are La Masia products.
They are why Barcelona are what they are. The Catalans have a group of players who were identified by their scouts and trained from their early teenage years in the club’s football philosophy, day in and day out. Iniesta, Xavi, Messi and the rest have the telepathic understanding they showcase because they have been playing together practically since their voices started to break.
The man most responsible for La Masia was Johan Cruyff, who proposed the academy to then president Josep Lluis Nunez, the Dutchman convincing his supremo to think long term. Guardiola himself was one of the first major graduates of La Masia under Cruyff’s management of the club in the early 1990s. Yet even Cruyff was not there to reap the benefits of that which he created.
The lesson for Abramovich is simple – it is not possible to buy the kind of football he craves. Across London, Arsenal have been devoted to trying to replicate Barcelona for years. Instead, all they have achieved is to turn themselves into something of a La Masia franchise, developing technically brilliant players who can fit perfectly into the system when the Catalans eventually sign them. And it has taken Arsenal well over a decade to start producing homegrown talents like Jack Wilshere, players capable of fitting straight into such a system.
Abramovich would be well advised to go not just to New York, where Guardiola is currently residing, but to Guadalajara in Mexico, home of the club Cruyff is currently working with. He was Guardiola’s inspiration, and he understands better than anyone alive today how to create the football the Russian longs for. The fundamental problem is that Abramovich’s end game involves a very long process. It took almost 30 years for La Masia to produce the Barcelona team which took the world by storm. It may take that long for Chelsea to achieve something similar. Abramovich lacks the patience necessary to wait, and this is why the Russian will probably continue to operate a managerial merry go round of his own in west London.