Chelsea's Transition Was Never Going To Be Painless, Di Matteo's Dismissal Makes It Harder

Roberto DiMatteo had the tough task of transforming Chelsea into a team that played attractive, intricate, attacking football, a task that cost the club results. Now the next manager will once again take Chelsea back to the dark arts of defending...


Any analysis of last night's match I might have thought of doing is now tragically informed by the knowledge that Roberto Di Matteo was sacked by Chelsea. The question now remains: which manager is bold enough to go where so many have failed before him?

It is often hard to understand what goes on in the minds of today's CEOs, presidents, directors, managers or voters. It seems that people dedicate less and less time to assess processes, rather focusing on results and results alone – ignoring that results may sometimes be random, whereas processes are not.

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich fired José Mourinho in September 2007, a few months into that season. The precedent for sacking coaches in the middle of the season had been established and only Carlo Ancelotti managed to see out two full seasons (even if he was fired by the end of the second after winning an unprecedented double in his first year in charge). After that, Luiz Felipe Scolari, André Villas-Boas and now Roberto Di Matteo have all been axed before the end of the season.

The Italian manager was André Villas-Boas' assistant coach during the Portuguese's few months in charge and therefore was able to watch first-hand the developments of his former boss' sacking, which meant that he had to be aware of the pressure that had been mounting over the past weeks. Despite leading Chelsea to the Champions League for the first time, Di Matteo's position never looked secure and Abramovich actually seemed reluctant to hire him on a permanent basis as the club's manager.

Di Matteo succeeded where AVB had failed for numerous reasons, but it was particularly because he was not so adamant at casting the dressing room owners aside - possibly one of AVB's biggest mistakes - and, most importantly in my view, because he went for the diametrically opposed: a cautious, compact and disciplined team that broke quickly and exploited the space left by their opponents.


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Despite their ultimate success, Abramovich was not satisfied, insisting on winning with panache - and took out his seemingly endless chequebook and signed players that were specifically designed to bring the attractive and spectacular, if not romantic, approach he has been craving for so long.

Now any coach will tell you that defending is the easiest - and most likely best -starting point while coaching a team. Yes, it can be challenging at times, but deploying your players in two compact banks of four when you have players - such as John Terry, John Obi Mikel, Didier Drogba or Petr Cech - who thrive on that particular brand of football was clearly the easiest and familiar way to go. That was why I was so curious to see what Roberto Di Matteo would bring when next season started.

To be honest, all the signs were there. Even though Chelsea managed to grab several wins and hold on near the top of the Premier League for a few weeks, it didn't look like a case of "if", but "when". While it was true the Blues were playing a more expansive kind of football, they were also displaying leaks all over the place and there were no significant adjustments made to the initial plan of playing all of Óscar, Mata and Hazard behind the ever unhappy Torres.

Chelsea kept playing fast, attacking football, which was sometimes enough, but kept conceding too many goals, giving the ball away too cheaply. They were constantly overrun in the middle, not because Mikel and Ramires were poor, but because they were so often left exposed by their front four - and too often Ashley Cole, whose defensive positioning is becoming more and more questionable by the day.

Mind you, they didn't forget how to defend - they were simply out of their comfort zone. Terry is not a quick defender and is vulnerable to balls over the top. Ricardo Carvalho, the player who used to cover for him, is long gone and neither David Luiz nor Gary Cahill are good replacements for that particular sort of task.


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When the two men felt the heat from above, Villas-Boas and Di Matteo went in different directions. AVB remained true - probably ill-advisedly - to his principles and stood his ground in a crucial match for the team's aspirations (at Napoli) by daring to leave out some of the squad's key figures and showing who was the boss (not him, evidently). Di Matteo, conversely, tried to steer into safety and resorted to a strategy that had worked miracles in the past, playing compact, benching Fernando Torres, deploying the right-back Azpilicueta further up front, and leaving Hazard up front on his own, trying to exploit the space behind the apparently unstoppable Lichtsteiner.

To be honest, even though I'm aware that Chelsea lost 3-0 and that Cech was back to his golden days, I have to admit that it was the most comfortable I have seen Chelsea play this season. Yes, Juventus bossed them around, but that was pretty much what happened during the last few months of last season - and it still yielded results. On the other hand, whenever Chelsea managed to break free from Juventus' initial pressure, they were extremely dangerous, particularly through the sheer speed and skills of Óscar and Hazard.

Regardless of the identity of the new Chelsea manager, it will be extremely hard not to see a return to safer shores. The new gaffer will have no time, no wiggle room to implement his ideas and will probably go back to basics: Where and how to defend, break quickly, bench Torres and take advantage of Hazard's swiftness and dribbling skills, and Óscar's vision.

Despite the unfortunate end, Di Matteo's last match in charge could well prove a blueprint for the next man - provided he has the time to put it in place.