Saturday, November 3, 2012
Chelsea under the microscope
Roberto Di Matteo puffs his cheeks and exhales loudly.
"It's nothing new," he sighs. "People comment about the way we play, the way we deal with issues... it's been happening for years. It's not a surprise."
• RDM: Refs favour Man Utd
• Blog: Racism haunts Chelsea
What is new, however, is the exact scale of how people have been commenting about Chelsea in the last week. Over the last few years - and, in some cases, decades - certain sections of the media and other clubs' support have criticised the West London team for the perceptions of some players, the spending power of their owner and even the behaviour of some fans.
This week, though, that all went to a different level as two of the game's leading figures in Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, as well as a fair few others, made some implicit and explicit criticisms of the club over the Mark Clattenburg affair.
It was, perhaps, hugely eyebrow raising that so many influential people would feel secure enough to comment on an investigation that is ongoing. To a certain extent, though, this feeds into the question about how much of Chelsea's image is concrete truth and how much is caricature. In other words, figures like Ferguson felt they were within their rights to effectively question the validity of the club's allegations against Clattenburg.
Certainly, it must be said that many people who visit Stamford Bridge expecting some kind of corporate monster are often pleasantly surprised by the sheer decency of many of those who work within it.
Perhaps the true question is how much the perception, and products of that perception, actually affect the running of the club. Such controversies, after all, have been going on for well over two years. And, at the end of yet another press conference dominated by issues other than football, Di Matteo was asked whether he actually enjoys the job.
At the very least, he laughed at the question:
"Ha! Yes, I am, yes. It makes it a little bit more complex but, ultimately, I enjoy working and training with the players, preparing games. The majority of my time is still that."
In the meantime, though, Di Matteo has become a little bit more complex - even difficult - himself. For much of his tenure, his press conferences have been notorious for the manner in which the Italian refuses to be drawn on anything even remotely contentious. Put simply, given the amount of coverage Chelsea generate anyway, Di Matteo didn't want to offer up anything extra. In the past few weeks, though, he hasn't been so content to keep his head down; he's lifted it up and pointedly bit back.
Take his comments about Ferguson and Manchester United. They are set to help turn what was already a cool relationship into a positively frosty one.
Of course, in the criticism of United and their manager, Premier League referees also caught a bit of fire. And, after the manner a number of officials also defended Clattenburg this week, an eminently fair question is whether Di Matteo fears this will change how Chelsea games are refereed.
"I really hope not. I believe that they won't," he said. "We have faith in the referees. They are people that are under a lot of pressure. They are human beings like everyone else. You have to try your best but sometimes mistakes can happen."
If the Chelsea job is occasionally testing, though, Di Matteo is clear on something else: he wouldn't want to feel the pressure referees do, saying:
"It's a difficult job. At some point you have to admire people who actually go into that. You do get a lot of abuse and dealing with that is not easy as a person."
From that concession, Di Matteo is asked whether the anger - which he himself displayed on Wednesday night against United in the Capitol One Cup - is justified. Replying:
"I think I made my feelings very clear after the game [on Sunday] and after the game on Wednesday. It was very clear. The evidence with the TV was very clear that certain decisions were wrong."
But if Di Matteo feels that all the controversy won't affect referees, will it affect Chelsea? Does the club's capacity to deal with - and, to be fair, defy - so much flak have a finite point?
"Again, I really hope not," Di Matteo says. "We have been dealing with outside situations, external situations for quite a period of time and we've been able to focus on our football and we'll have to carry on like that."
With so many questions being asked about the endless controversies, one other big one has been largely overlooked: how will Chelsea respond to their first league defeat? To a degree, the answer came in the League Cup game. Given the talent Di Matteo put out and the seriousness with which they took the match, it was clearly vital to Chelsea not to lose three games in a row overall.
"It was a great win for us and the spirit of the group. Winning is always a good factor for the team and for the group," he claims.
"We are okay. The team is playing well. Despite one defeat we had in the league, we showed how strong we are, that we can compete with any other team."
Sharpening all of this, of course, is that, on Saturday, Chelsea take on a Swansea team that everyone seems to like - as well as one that appear to have recovered from a bad run of defeats themselves.
"I think they still have the same philosophy [as when Brendan Rodgers was there], keeping a lot of possession," Di Matteo reveals. "I think they're a little bit more clinical now compared to the last few seasons, where they had a lot of possession but didn't create chances. They go forward a little quicker, score a few more goals than they did in the past. That has changed in the Swansea team."
Which raises another point that ties all this up. Di Matteo agrees with the idea that Chelsea haven't got enough praise for changes they've made, for winning the European Cup, for playing more cavalier football.
"You [the media] play a big part in that, guys," he concludes. "We're going to continue on our road. We respect other people's views and comments, but believe in what we do. We believe we behave correctly and will try to continue like that. We have an objective in front of us and are going to continue to work for that. If other people have different objectives or opinions it won't influence us."