Roman Abramovich has once again exercised his itchy trigger finger by firing Roberto Di Matteo following Chelsea’s 3-0 defeat at Juventus Tuesday night. Former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has been named as the interim manager until the end of the season, with former Chelsea player Boudewijn Zenden as his assistant.
From the outside looking in, I think Di Matteo’s firing is harsh, especially as it was only 6 months ago that Di Matteo led them to win the Champions League for the first time in Chelsea’s history, as well as winning the FA Cup, after stepping in in difficult circumstances last season. However, I’m not a Chelsea fan, and there are many Chelsea fans who were concerned that the team wasn’t going in the right direction under Di Matteo and a change has to be made.
It is believed that Abramovich ultimately wants former Barcelona manager Josep Guardiola to be Chelsea manager, but at present he’s on a sabbatical after leaving Barca last summer, so there’s no guarantee that he will come to Chelsea at all. That leaves Chelsea in a weird state of limbo, where the owner has sacked one manager, but the one he really wants isn’t ready to come yet, if he’ll come at all.
Regular readers of my writing will know that I’m not a big fan of Rafa Benitez, but it cannot be denied that his credentials are impeccable. He is an incredibly experienced manager, who has won most of the trophies a manager can win at club level. He’s got a reputation as a manager who is excellent at organising a team, especially in defence, which is an area that Chelsea needs to work on. There is also the hope that Benitez will help Fernando Torres get back to anywhere approaching the level of performance he was putting in for Liverpool when he was the manager.
That being said, he’s also a guy that comes with a considerable amount of baggage, not least to Chelsea fans who had a very antagonistic relationship with him when he was manager of Liverpool. He is known for falling out with players and for having public spats with the boards of almost every team he’s managed. Several fan groups have already spoken out against the appointment of Benitez, saying that he’ll never be accepted by Chelsea fans, so he’s not exactly being welcomed with open arms.
Add to that the fact the combustible mix of Benitez’s stubbornness with the equally large stubborn streak possessed by Abramovich and the fact that a manager who expects to be in total control of the teams he manages is now working for an owner who is every bit as big a control freak as he is. Also, Benitez isn’t a guy who respects reputations, so it is very likely that some of the big egos that exist in the Chelsea team will have their feathers ruffled and it remains to be seen just how much those players will respond to his methods. Andre Villas-Boas didn’t respect reputations either when he was Chelsea manager, and look how well that turned out.
Many people in the media here in England are predicting that this will be a disaster, wich will be embarrassing for Abramovich, but nobody seems to be talking about the other potentially embarrassing outcome, which is what happens if Benitez is a big success? Chelsea are certainly in the running for the league title at present, and the defeat at Juventus, still could qualify from their Champions League group if they beat Nordsjaelland and Shakhtar Donetsk beat Juventus and still have both domestic cups to play for.
For all the criticism that comes his way about his hiring and firing, Abramovich at least knows what he wants, which is more than can be said for many club owners. He has a dream that Chelsea will not only be a successful club, but a club that plays the attractive attacking football that he fell in love with; basically, he wants Chelsea to be another Barcelona. So if Benitez does deliver success to Chelsea, and considering that Benitez is more of a counter-attacking manager than Abramovich would like, so it is unlikely that he would have Chelsea playing in a way that Abramovich would want to see, would Abramovich really be prepared to not offer him the job?
Even if it is made patently clear to Benitez that this is nothing more than a short-term deal, he wouldn’t be human if he wasn’t thinking that if he does well in the time he is in charge, he could get the job long-term. How many people take jobs on 6 or 12 month contracts in the hopes that if they do well, it could lead to something permanent? Benitez will be no different, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have taken this job if he didn’t think he had a chance of it turning into something long-term.
That’s the problem with interim managers. They’re usually only meant to be a stopgap until the manager the owner wants, or the type of manager if there isn’t a specific person in mind, becomes available, but if they are successful in their own right, it can be hard not to give them the job, which means that they miss out on the manager they really do want or have to put on hold the plans that they have for the club.
Interim managers are a relatively new trend in English football. What used to happen when a club fired a manager was that a ‘Caretaker’ would be appointed. These were usually one or two of the coaching staff at the club who would step in for a few games until a permanent manager was appointed. The advantage to this was that it minimised disruption to the club, and more often than not, the caretaker knew that it was only going to be a short-term spell in charge, so that it wasn’t messy when a new manager was appointed.
That seems to have changed, and nowadays clubs take much longer in appointing a permanent manager, so now it is usually someone with previous managerial experience who takes the reins for increasingly long periods of time.
Last year Abramovich felt compelled to give Roberto Di Matteo the Chelsea job on a permanent basis. Even though Di Matteo was only meant to be a stopgap until the end of the season when a bigger name manager could be appointed, he must have felt that he couldn’t discard the man who had brought the Champions League success he had craved since taking Chelsea over.
Two seasons ago, Liverpool fired Roy Hodgson mid-season and appointed Kenny Dalglish after a poor start to the season. Under Dalglish, Liverpool went on a great run of results and finished the season strongly. Liverpool’s new owners, FSG, had envisioned a young up and coming manager as part of their vision for the club, but Dalglish’s performance as interim manager was so strong that it was almost impossible for FSG not to give him the manager’s job on a permanent basis, which meant they had to put their vision for the club on hold.
Similarly, Steve Kean was appointed as interim manager of Blackburn Rovers two seasons ago following the decision to fire Sam Allardyce. Kean was eventually given the job permanently, which owed more to the Blackburn owners not having a clue as to what they wanted rather than any positive work from Kean.
Roman Abramovich has once again demonstrated that he knows what he wants and if he doesn’t like what he sees will make a change. His plan is seemingly to try and tempt Pep Guardiola to manage the club at the end of this season, which is when Guardiola’s self-imposed exile from management is supposed to end.
In the meantime he’s handed the reins to a vastly experienced manager who is capable of putting him in the same difficult position he was put in last season where he may well feel forced to appoint a manager he doesn’t really want, but has delivered success to the club. As Robert Burns said “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”, and if Abramovich’s plans go awry, Chelsea’s chopping and changing of managers may go on for some time yet.