In retrospect, you should’ve read between the lines. With Chelsea, a European football powerhouse accustomed to being in the headlines, the most telling stories are often the ones never told, the ones that upon materializing make you slap your knees and go ‘a ha!’. During the ruckus in all the days preceding, and subsequent to the signing of Andre Villas Boas by the club, what went mostly unnoticed to the untrained eye was that the Portuguese was designated the role of manager. Carlo Ancelotti, despite his pedigree, could only manage a humble ‘First Team Coach’ in comparison.
What this meant was that Andre Villas Boas, would be handed a greater say in the club’s affairs than his Italian predecessor could dream of. It would also behoove him to act with greater caution. So far Andre has shown little reluctance in ushering in a new era, and continuity hardly seems to be the managerial method of choice. And what better way to take charge at Chelsea than to bring in a former darling of the club. Which might have been what Hiddink would’ve done too, except his returnee of choice would have been Ray Wilkins. Andre’s was Roberto Di Matteo.
Who is Roberto Di Matteo?
Here’s someone who has enough reason to be attached to three different countries – Switzerland, where he was born and spent his formative years; Italy, the country of his origin and nationality, and England, the country where he tasted his greatest success both as a player, and as a manager. Currently 41 years old, he won the Swiss Nationalliga A with Aarau, then spent 3 years at Lazio, before making his way to Chelsea FC where he won a whopping 6 trophies in 4 seasons.
When did he serve at Chelsea?
How many people out there can boast about having had the honor of serving one of England’s top clubs, as both a player and a member of the staff? As a player, Di Matteo wrote his way into the Blues’ history books scoring the fastest goal for the club in his first ever FA Cup final in 1997. He was also Chelsea’s most expensive player, signed during the pre-Roman golden era ushered in by the likes of Ruud Gullit and Zola. He certainly had a thing for the old Wembley, the scene of some of his greatest triumphs. A midfielder with a knack of scoring long range scorchers, he certainly played his part in vaulting the club into the top rung of the Premier League – something that brought the Blues into Roman’s household vocabulary.
On a promising Wednesday morning, the 29th of June 2011 to be specific, Roberto formally returned to the club as Assistant First-Team Coach under Andre Villas Boas. The operative word here, of course, is formally. Using the Cobham gym for personal purposes isn’t exactly completing a full circle.
Why Roberto and not someone else?
Well, getting Ray Wilkins was certainly out of the question, with Roman unlikely to allow a public admission of having made an error in judgement. Bruno DeMichelis was unlikely to stick on, after Carlo Ancelotti’s exit. Michael Emenalo hardly exercised any influence over Chelsea’s on-field matters. Guus Hiddink’s name was mooted as a Director of Football – which would’ve been a polite way of saying the club had not yet reposed its entire faith in the young Villas-Boas. Paul Clement seemed a safe choice, but the new manager clearly had set his sights on triggering a summer clearout. Ruud Gullit would have been unwilling to return to a role that was essentially inferior to his earlier role at the club. Liverpool staged a coup when it offered Steve Clarke the role of deputy to Kenny Dalglish, in January 2011 and was then handed a contract extension to keep him at Anfield for the next 3 years. Getting Gianfranco Zola would’ve required a massive leap of faith, considering the Chelsea wizard has had a pretty ordinary managerial career.
How can Di Matteo help Chelsea?
Roberto Di Matteo, was admittedly a surprising choice but one worth betting on. Boas will be hoping Di Matteo brings in a sense of familiarity to the club, while also not scuttling his attempts at bringing in a breath of fresh air in an increasingly stale dressing room atmosphere. Di Matteo had a successful first year at West Bromwich Albion, getting them promoted to the Premier League while also ensuring his team could punch above their weight. Chelsea have been, in the Roman era especially, a midfield-centric club with some of its biggest names operating in that critical zone between the forwards and defense. Di Matteo would certainly rank as one of the most glittering talents to have figured in that role in the modern era. His advice, experience and tactical nous will come in handy, because in his heyday the Italian was seen as an architect of goals and an expert at long-range stunners.
Chelsea’s 2010-11 season fell apart because of the injuries, and lack of fresh legs and ideas that plagued its midfield. Even when its defense rose admirably to the challenge, and its forwards regained a semblance of venom up-front, the midfield were bereft of ideas. This is where Di Matteo can and must step in. Chelsea will need to sign a pint-sized creative midfielder, a role they currently have nobody for, and Di Matteo’s primary area of concern would be getting him to function effectively in a team used to Frank Lampard being the fulcrum.
What must Di Matteo do to avoid getting fired?
While the Sword of Damocles hangs chiefly over Andre Villas-Boas’ head, it is not unknown for an assistant manager to survive the departure of his boss. Should it ever come to that, while that would certainly be unfortunate for Boas and Chelsea, there are a few things Robert Di MAtteo can do to avoid being a casualty himself? First, get Roman’s confidence. There is no evidence to just what contribution Michael Emenalo brings the side, but he seems to have Abramovich’s ear and that has served as a pretty effective insurance against premature termination of employment. Also on his list, ought to be the common sense to avoid any confrontation with the manager or the squad. The last thing Boas would appreciate is his deputy having designs on the grand job himself. A squad that will see some of its big names leave this summer, might need to be cajoled back to normalcy. The younger players will need a dependable shoulder, considering the seniors will take most of Boas’ time.
A overtly forceful coach, and there is no indication Di Matteo is one, will lose the dressing room and wreck the team’s campaign. Di Matteo was an effective midfielder, but will be dwarfed in stature by the likes of Michael Essien and Frank Lampard. He’ll be walking a veritable tight rope ensuring he doesn’t bruise any egos. On a cynical note, Roberto must also learn how to impart his experiences and anecdotal wisdom to a changed midfield in the 2011-12 season, without being seen as the architect of a new midfield project. That would be akin to sticking his neck on the line – something that brings with it the risk of being held responsible as the solitary scapegoat in trying times. Di Matteo worked a miracle with a West Bromwich Albion squad that was not nearly half as good as his new wards.
He’s just as fortunate as the club is to have him back. Perhaps, even more so.