Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Another sacking from Abramovich, another bad decision?

Just today, Roberto di Matteo has been sacked by Chelsea in the wake of the club's 3-0 Champions League defeat to Juventus, and his replacement will become their eight manager (not including Ray Wilkins for that one match at Watford in the cup a few years ago) in the space of eight years. I know if I was Abramovich, I'd have stuck with the Italian purely because the club is clearly in desperate need of some stability, they did win the Champions League and FA Cup last season and if every chairman sacked their manager every time their team had a bad patch, nobody would be in a job. Having said that, he did show a limited sense of tactical nous and judgement in the transfer window which I'd like to explore, and I've also got a feeling due to the club's statement saying that the new manager will be announced shortly, that the Russian has managed to persuade Pep Guardiola to come the club. If Chelsea can get Pep, the second best manager in the world behind Ferguson in my opinion, of course everything will be forgotten.
Past managers
Let's start with the fact that after this sacking, the average Chelsea manager since Claudio Ranieri has had approximately nine and a half months in charge. In my opinion, this is not enough time for a manager to bring in his own players, to bring in his own philosophy, to fully get to know his best eleven even. But let's have a quick look back at the managers they've had since Abramovich took over, what they had won, and why they left:

Jose Mourinho


Won: 5 trophies in 3 years, including back-to-back Premier League titles.
Reason left: a disagreement between him and Abramovich about which new players to bring in, such as Shevchenko.

Avram Grant

Won: nothing, but took the 07/08 title race to the last day of the season, and reached the Champions League final. On both accounts, they were denied by Manchester United
 and in the latter, a slippery piece of grass on the penalty spot.
Reason left: he didn't win a trophy.

Luiz Felipe Scolari


Won: nothing
Reason left: sacked after a poor run of results, including a 2-0 defeat at Liverpool, followed by a goalless draw at home to Hull with the club sitting 4th in the table.

Guus Hiddink

Won: the FA Cup with Chelsea, notably in just a four month tenure.
Reason left: Abramovich had less to do with it on this occassion; he wanted the Russian national team job and left after winning the FA Cup despite the likes of Cech, Terry and Ballack amongst other Chelsea players wanting him to stay. 
Carlo Ancelotti 


Won: the domestic double in his first season in charge, the Premiership title and FA Cup.
Reason left: because they finished 2nd the season afterwards, although some say it was also because he had an aging squad and wasn't bringing through the replacements quickly enough.

Andre Villas-Boas
Won: nothing.
Reason left: was trying to bring through his new tactical system too quickly, and it may have resulted in him losing the respect of the dressing room and the team falling down to 5th in the table.

Roberto Di Matteo

Won: the Champions League and FA Cup in his first three months in charge.
Reason left: debatable. Possibly a combination of poor tactics and ability in the transfer market, plus also the club will have at least had Guardiola in mind to replace him, if they haven't necessarily held talks.

Of these seven dismissals, only the cases with Scolari and AVB you could possibly forgive Abramovich for due to the sides poor form, although I personally would have been more loyal in those circumstances, because they only had seven and nine months in charge respectively, but on the whole you can understand the reasons why they were sacked. Sacking Ancelotti made no sense at all. I've got some friends who are Chelsea fans
 who say that the reason behind it was that the old guard wasn't being replaced but I think there's got to be an element of trust from the chairman, in what the manager is doing, otherwise it can't work and it was a poor decision to sack him. Mourinho wasn't technically sacked, but he hardly left of his own accord. A lot of it was because of Abramovich interfering with his transfer policy, which shows a disappointing lack of trust considering how much the special one had won, and Avram Grant was sacked purely because they didn't win a trophy! You can't sack a manager on that basis, particularly when they came so close that season Guus Hiddink was the only one where Roman wasn't involved, and even then you could question whether he should have made more of an effort to hold onto him if he had so much of the players' respect.

I'm struggling to see Chelsea winning anything until Abramovich learns to respect his manager, and to create that climate of trust. How can a manager motivate his team properly when he's constantly fearing for his job? Or how can the players
 put all of their focus and energy onto the pitch when they think that somebody could be about to be sacked? It's like Abramovich has come to the club as if it's a computer. It might seem a strange comparison to make, but he seems to have made this formula in his head:

Pump money into club = club can afford best players + best manager = club wins trophies

The reality is, that is very close to how football works, but the missing ingredients are time, hard work and trust. I think it takes a few years once a manager has come into the club for the players to get to know him and build a relationship with the manager, understand the system that he wants his team
 to play, and also for the manager to bring in his own players, his own philosophy. In fact, only Carlo Ancelotti and Jose Mourinho have had longer than a season to do this. It's just not enough time, and Abramovich needs to understand this.

Di Matteo's poor judgement in the transfer market

I do think there are faults from di Matteo in which his inexperience becomes evident, that are certainly worth considering. When Didier Drogba left for China, the first thought for any Chelsea manager at that point would be how to replace him. The Ivory Coast international
 was instrumental in the team's Champions League success, scoring the crucial goal to give Chelsea the lead in the semi-final, the last-minute equalizer in the final, and of course the winning penalty amongst others. Chelsea needed a target man to replace Drogba, Lukaku was deemed too young and was sent out on loan to West Brom, which was arguably right. Really they needed somebody, in my opinion, like Edinson Cavani, who has the work rate to always influence play, can hold up the ball, brings others into play and is also a great finisher. Torres has tracked back a lot, but naturally he's best as a poacher and somebody like Cavani alongside him to do all the donkeywork and get the flick-ons would suit the Spaniard perfectly, and take some of the pressure off him.

Instead, what di Matteo has done is, firstly he's only kept the one out-and-out striker in the squad
 which seems idiotic, considering Chelsea would play in four competitions this season. You must have strength in depth and the decision to stick with Torres alone, plus Sturridge who's more of an inside forward anyway, shows a real lack of experience from the Italian's point of view. But also, the strategy has been to sign players, like Hazard and Oscar, who fit Torres's style of play more, the idea being based on threaded through balls for Torres to run onto, as opposed to last season when a lot of the team revolved around the height of Drogba. This has worked early on in the season, but it's also meant there's not been enough of a plan B in games, someone who can come off the bench and give the opposition something completely different to worry about. This is crucial to winning matches and di Matteo has left himself with limited options.

The signings of Marko Marin and Victor Moses cost Chelsea approximately £16 million, and given the striker situation, and perhaps the need for another centre-back or even backup goalkeeper, (bear in mind Chelsea haven't kept a clean sheet in 10 matches now, in all competitions) that investment shows a significant lack of prioritising. Moses might have scored a couple of goals
 for Chelsea already this season and has done okay but Marin has barely got a game in and ultimately they didn't need another two creative midfielders when they already have: Mata, Hazard, Oscar, Ramires, De Bruyne, Lampard, Sturridge, Malouda- all of which play in a similar sort of position. How will these players get game time?

Di Matteo's lack of tactical nous

Roberto Di Matteo's rotation policy must be questioned, which has been to hardly rotate the team at all. He's played basically the same team in all Champions League matches and all Carling Cup games, even including matches against smaller teams like Nordsjaelland and Wolves, who you'd expect them to beat anyway, when they had important Premiership
 matches the weekend afterwards in those games.

Surely the whole point behind buying so many talented attacking midfielders (which I personally think was a flawed transfer policy in the first place) is that you can rotate the team, keep players fresh, balance a healthy motivation and competition for places within the squad. It's a fact that players can't play at their best if they are bombarded with games week in, midweek, week out. They just can't. Not maintained over a season. In my opinion, it's crucial that players where possible, can spend the whole week mentally preparing for a game and focusing on it, getting to their physical peak so they are completely ready once that first whistle goes, but European trips will inevitably take it out of them in terms of fatigue, but also things like sleeping patterns. In the first few weeks of the season, Chelsea
 got away with fielding their first team in all matches because the season had just started and players had had all of pre-season to prepare, so they won those games, but now they looked drained of all energy from what I saw of them against Juventus, and I think the selection policy from earlier in the season has cost them now, and it's only November.

Take the Carling Cup game against Wolves, for instance. They had to play Arsenal
 away the weekend after that, which I'm sure you'll agree was a big match in the title race. Here was where di Matteo had to show a true sense of pragmatism, methodicalness and balance risk and reward. If he played his second string team in that match: there would be about a 70% chance his team would win anyway, with his whole first teamers completely fresh and ready for the match against Arsenal. If he played his first team in that match: there would be roughly an increased 90% chance his team would win and reap the minor benefit of getting to the 4th round of the Carling Cup, but his players would lose fitness and concentration ahead of the massive game on Saturday. He chose to play his first team, and the fact that they actually won both of those games somewhat distorts di Matteo's lack of judgement. He got away with it because they won both and stayed top, but he continued to field his best team and eventually they couldn't keep it up, and have lost an awful lot of points in the past few weeks, which people say are due to lack of desire and commitment within the team, but I think it's simply because they've run out of energy. You have to blame di Matteo for that.

Should he have been sacked?

I'm personally not sure, and would welcome any comments from people on what they think. If you look at the facts, you'll know what a happy-sacker Roman Abramovich is, and to sack a manager after winning the FA Cup and Champions League last season, when just 4pts off the top this year seems ludicrous, so those who look at it from the outside would be more than entitled to say it's just Abramovich being stupidly impatient again. I am of the opinion that Chelsea will struggle to achieve prelonged success if the Russian continues to fire managers at the drop of a hat, I almost think the club needs a manager to be there for five years or so to create that atmosphere of trust and respect, which I think it needs.

However, whether he should have been sacked depends an awful lot on the club's ability to get Guardiola. Although I'm not entirely sure his nuturing management style would be entirely suited to Chelsea's splash-the-cash approach, he is without doubt one of the best managers in the world and I think the best tactician. If he's the man (rather than Benitez who Chelsea fans don't seem to want) to replace di Matteo I don't think many will cause a fuss, because they will have taken an upward turn in terms of the calibre manager they have. Although it would actually be interesting to see Abramovich's attitude to Pep, whom he's chased for so long, if they get off to a bad start, because he must be the most impatient chairman in the world.

Amongst this factor in the decision, I think it would have been more impressive if Chelsea had won the title last season, because you win the league entirely on merit. A degree of luck is needed to win the Champions League, as John Terry proved four years ago, because it's a knockout. It was still an amazing achievement, but you only have to be better than Barcelona over the course of 180 minutes, not Man United
 or City over the course of nine months.

If Chelsea beat Man City on Sunday, they'll be right back in the title race, so at first glance it does seem another reactionary move from Abramovich to sack Roberto di Matteo, but his decisions do have to be questioned. We don't know whether he had any influence, like with Mourinho, over his transfer policy, because the decision to have ten creative midfielders in the squad and only one recognised striker seems to show an abysmal lack of common sense. What's more, not even attempting to give these players the playing time they want by not rotating the team is even more questionable, and I'd be inclined to think that di Matteo may have needed more time being an assistant manager at a big club to get to know how to motivate players and get the best out of them, before being manager at one.

On the whole, no tears will be shed if the Blues can attract Guardiola to Stamford Bridge and he can do a better job. However, if he doesn't want to come, I think it's a bad decision from the Chelsea board because, more than anything, the club needs stability and RdM is a manager still learning and will do over time, I'd have been inclined to stick with him. Then again, if Pep does want to come, then I think another sacking was probably worth it for Abramovich to get the man he really wants.

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