Di Matteo's brief Chelsea reign veered from one extreme to the other

Posted by Miguel Delaney

It says a lot about the Roman Abramovich era that, although Roberto Di Matteo's sacking always seemed inevitable, the exact timing of it still managed to surprise.

This is the modern Chelsea.

This, however, is also the difficulty when it comes to fully and fairly analysing the club's latest decision.

Given Di Matteo's generally detached demeanour through the many controversies he has faced during his brief time in charge, as well as over his trying last few days, it is highly unlikely he didn't know this was coming.

He need only have looked back to the manner in which he himself was appointed just eight months ago. At that point, Chelsea had come off the back of a poor run of domestic results before suffering a defeat in Italy that involved conceding three goals and seemed certain to eliminate the club from the Champions League.

History has repeated itself.

The most immediate question, though, is whether the club should have been so coerced by Di Matteo admirably making history in the first place.

After the Italian improbably overturned that 3-1 defeat in Napoli and surfed the waves of momentum all the way to that magnificent double of Champions League and FA Cup, there was an understandable groundswell of opinion that he should get the job permanently.

That doesn't necessarily mean it was correct, though. Ultimately, there is a huge difference between coming in short-term and immediately rectifying what is wrong and planning for the long term and attempting to put in place what is right. They are two very different jobs, and that's a fact that the nuances of two knockout competitions should not negate. Just because you're equipped for one does not necessarily mean you're suited to the other.

It is also the very push-and-pull that has constantly complicated affairs for the club: desire against demand.

Most creditably, Di Matteo realised that the only way to guide Chelsea through the post-Andre Villas-Boas chaos was to go back to basics and revert to what they knew best: the defensive base that had been initially built up by Jose Mourinho.

For that, he deserves praise. Not only did he adjust to a difficult situation, he engendered a sense of spirit and momentum.

It can't be denied, though, that he also benefitted from the swings of fortune. Because of the exact dynamics of Chelsea's situation in March, Di Matteo found himself in the unusual position of being able to effectively downscale the more exacting parameters of the league and devote the team's energies to the openness of the cups. So while clubs like Barcelona had to ensure their efforts were spread across three competitions, Di Matteo could absolutely maximise the club's preparation for individual games. As a consequence, that spirit and momentum only increased in the knockout competitions.

Even then, though, their victory in the Champions League still came down to umpteen missed chances from both Barca and Bayern, as well as a series of missed penalties across both games.

That, however, is knockout football. Individual moments can have an oddly disproportionate effect. Again, it is to Di Matteo's credit that he rode the waves and played the percentages as best he could in a constrained situation.

To a certain degree, though, such extremes also created a safety net. Because playing a league campaign, not to mention the type of football Abramovich wants, is a very different proposition.

The first slight warnings of Di Matteo's difficulty in adjusting came in the first few games of the season. As Chelsea oscillated between oddly defensive displays away to Wigan and then contrastingly open ones at home to Reading, it seemed the Italian was struggling to marry the old defence that brought such great success with the new attack expected to usher in an even more glorious future.

Given such extremes, of course, overtly criticising the manager was outright unfair. Similarly, there were a number of arguments in his favour: one, the fact that it was still so ludicrously early in the campaign and so soon after the Champions League win; two, the victories over Arsenal and Tottenham as well as an unbeaten run that lasted until the end of October.

But sometimes, as Alex Ferguson said about the game in general, "you just know."

Because, at the same time, there were a fair few arguments against Di Matteo.

First of all, there was his first real job. The trajectory of his West Brom stint had actually foreshadowed Chelsea a fair bit: initial success before starting to fade when expectation grew. That isn't exactly the best preparation for a job this intense.

Secondly, there was the forgiving nature of those opening fixtures, right down to the implosions of Arsenal and Spurs. It always looked like the club's early form was something of a false position.

Similarly, as one figure closely connected to Stamford Bridge said during the spate of recent controversies, it always looked like Chelsea were on the verge of imploding themselves. That happened from the very moment they encountered their first on-pitch difficulty against Manchester United, but the scale of the deterioration has still been startling.

Aside from a massive swing in the title race that has seen Chelsea drop to third, they are in real danger of becoming the first European champions to fall at the first round for 32 years.

Again, it's a case of veering from one extreme to the other.
That, however, is a further complicating factor in all of this. When you stand back and look at Di Matteo's time in charge, there has never been a steady, even keel to at least allow the manager to collect himself. Almost everything has been done on waves of emotion. Look, for example, at the sequence: the sacking of Villas-Boas, the cup runs, the euphoria following victory, the hangover, the endless controversies and, finally, an unusually poor run.

And that's the biggest criticism you can level at Chelsea. They never allowed Di Matteo to test himself on stable ground. Then again, it is doubtful whether there is ever stable ground at Stamford Bridge under Abramovich.

It also doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong. If you look through all eight managerial sackings, the majority have been broadly proved right in the context of the club's curious situation.

Claudio Ranieri gave way to Mourinho. Avram Grant proved a failure at West Ham; Guus Hiddink restored credibility after Felipe Scolari, and we all know what happened to Villas-Boas. He himself, though, illustrated the biggest problem with Chelsea: trying to implement a long-term plan in a club with short-term expectations.

The only major exception to all of that is Mourinho. Perhaps, though, that's also because he is the ultimate short-term manager and has never lasted at a club into a fourth season.

In the end, Di Matteo didn't even get one.

The problem from the start, however, was the difficulty in judging whether he deserved it.

The problem that remains, meanwhile, is that Chelsea are a club tied in short-term thinking. This is the root of so many ructions.

There's a famous story about Abramovich asking Txiki Begiristain what it would take to get his team playing like Barcelona. "Ten years," came the response.

The full meaning of that doesn't yet seem to have registered.

Time, yet again, has been of the essence.

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