A Case For Robbie?

For the last few weeks I’ve been intending to publish a piece on the merits of keeping Roberto Di Matteo as Chelsea manager.

Doing so now might appear reactionary after the excellent result against Barcelona, but if I begin by prefacing the entire article with the notion that his body of work as manager – at least in terms of ‘just’ results – isn’t close to being top of the reasons why, it might go some way to assuaging those notions.

Undoubtedly though, he is riding the crest of a wave after a sensational past few days and now, more than ever, Chelsea fans will be firmly backing the 41 year-old Italian to become a permanent fixture in the Stamford Bridge dugout.

His record is eerily similar to that of Guus Hiddink when the Dutchman acted in the same capacity a few seasons ago, with just one defeat to his name, a strong performance in the Champions League and a spot in the FA Cup Final.

Few would have a problem with Roman Abramovich handing the job to Hiddink, but when you consider the work Di Matteo has done with what is arguably a weaker squad, he certainly stacks up on this front.

Nicely juxtaposed with the charlatan Andre Villas-Boas, rather than attempt to assert his own style and demands upon the team from day one, Di Matteo knows the value of remaining understated, and more importantly understands the strength of the tools at his disposal.

Yes, Chelsea have some players who are getting older, and perhaps they’re not quite what they once were. However, that does not, in any circumstances mean that they have nothing left to offer.

Di Matteo has brought cohesion, balance, unity and a collective direction back to the club when it was most needed. These are simple qualities easily adhered to and ones which are easily continued should he get the permanent stewardship of the club.

The process of ‘overhauling’ the first team squad has been underway for two seasons now, and will continue this summer. Critics will level a lack of experience in the transfer market against Di Matteo, but at Chelsea, this is less of an issue as it might be at other clubs.

It’s well known that a group of half a dozen or so men working under the title of the ‘Football Board’ drive the club’s transfer activity and whilst the manager has a certain input, he is, for most intents and purposes, a coach.

If Di Matteo has been able to achieve short-term success with this squad, it stands to reason that he is well placed to take the next step with new players to work with.

His time at West Bromwich Albion also may apparently work against him, but previous accomplishments should be well down the list of criteria to be considered. A former World Cup winner failed spectacularly in 2008, whilst Villas-Boas fared little better despite very recent and relevant success.

Mourinho and Ancelotti came very well qualified and proved to be just that, but equally, the club somehow found itself in its sole European Champions League final under Avram Grant of all people. The right person will be the right person because of their leadership and coaching qualities, not what they might have won before.

Pep Guardiola at Barcelona is a perfect example of someone who was very clearly the right hire despite having almost no notable coaching experience. Whilst it would be foolish to suggest that one example speaks for everyone, Guardiola in particular leads me into my next point, one which is worth considering for the long-term future of Chelsea.

Guardiola understands Barcelona. He grew up there, he played there, he has been a Culé for almost all of his adult life. Managerial longevity is growing scarcer by the season, and whilst the days of a reign like Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger or David Moyes may no longer be relevant, the former player may very much be the way of the future.

Di Matteo understands Chelsea. He is one of very few people involved in the playing side at the club who have experienced pre-Abramovich and current Chelsea. It might sound clichéd and it definitely isn’t something which is always positive, but it helps create an identity, something the club has lacked since Mourinho (and arguably still identifies most with his approach).

Managers with a connection to their club appreciate the small details; the use of the academy, the development of home-grown players as a part of the team’s core, the importance of the backroom staff. Eddie Newton’s return may have been a secondary story but he is an excellent coach who has played a big role in this season’s revival.

Mourinho’s entourage were all adept in their roles and brought something to the table, something their manager would often take on board. Christophe Lollichon aside, those who have filled the seats on the bench since 2007 have either been promoted to fill a gap or have been sycophantic yes-men with little remit but to agree with the boss.

How valuable Steve Clarke appears in his absence. How appreciated Newton has been since his return. Di Matteo didn’t have to bring his long-time assistant with him, but he appreciates the value of colleagues and appears to believe that a collaborative effort is a successful approach.

At the end of the day this is as speculative as it gets, but if we come back down to the raw facts, we’ve seen that Di Matteo has gotten exceptional results in a short period of time simply by utilising players in their best roles.

Football can be as complicated as you want to make it, but is at its most successful when simplified as much as possible. There is a lot to be said for that, and it’s something that the Italian’s predecessors have apparently forgotten.

Yet at the same time, subtle tactical nuances have been evident throughout his brief spell, displaying a learned understanding of the modern game and where each opponent’s threat lies. Utilising Ramires as a left winger last night to dampen the threat of Daniel Alves is the most recent example of a seemingly small move going a long way towards success.

If Di Matteo is prepared to go forward as he has done since March, he’s arguably favourite to keep his job. He’s certainly a leading candidate.

Plus, he’d come cheap. That’s always worth a point or two in his favour…

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