Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has been much criticized for the decision to dismiss Di Matteo. What’s fascinating now is not just whether Chelsea fans will accept Benitez but whether Abramovich will accept the new manager’s approach.
As boos rang out around Stamford Bridge on Sunday, the eye was drawn immediately to Roman Abramovich. What did he think, hearing his choice as interim manager jeered before kick-off? How did he feel, listening to fans chanting the name of the manager he had just sacked? It was impossible to tell, for he was smiling as benignly as ever, huddled down in his big padded Champions League jacket. We’ll never know for sure, of course, because Abramovich doesn’t give interviews but all the evidence is that he doesn’t care at all what fans think.
And why would he? At the end of his first season as owner, in the summer of 2004, he dismissed the popular Claudio Ranieri and appointed Jose Mourinho. Fans continued to sing Ranieri’s name long into the season that followed, even as Mourinho’s side went on to win the league for only the second time in the club’s history. Then the crowd attitude seemed to be that they still liked Ranieri but accepted Abramovich had taken a tough decision and replaced him with somebody better.
Again Abramovich has been unsentimental in getting rid of a popular manager he decided wasn’t quite good enough; the difference this time is that he has replaced him not with the brightest young manager in Europe – as Mourinho was in 2004 – but with Rafa Benitez, a coach hated by Chelsea fans for comments he made about the club while Liverpool manager. The level of vitriol seems baffling for a man who always comes across as likable if obsessive, but it is genuine enough, as the boos at kick-off and the chants during the first half of Sunday’s 0-0 draw against Manchester City made clear.
Abramovich has been much criticized for the decision to dismiss Di Matteo, the consensus being that the Italian deserved more time after winning the Champions League. Perhaps he did, but Abramovich is not somebody to do something for appearance’s sake. It’s impossible to know exactly why he took the decision but an argument could be mounted that tactically Di Matteo was struggling.
The transition from the doggedness and muscularity that brought success last season to something ore rooted in passing and possession was never going to be easy and from that point of view perhaps Di Matteo was unfortunate and Abramovich’s expectations unrealistic. But the fact remains that it was apparent from the start of the season that playing 4-2-3-1 with Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata as the creative trident, although it produced at times sublime attacking football, left the full-backs isolated, particularly on the left where Hazard barely tracked back at all.
Even in Chelsea’s 4-2 victory over Reading, it was notable that both Reading goals stemmed from moves that originated in the space between Hazard and Ashley Cole. Cole was left in a hopeless position; he couldn’t advance to the man with the ball without upsetting the back line, but with Hazard drifting infield he was in no position to put pressure on the opponent even if he had the inclination to do so. That’s not necessarily to criticize Hazard, for his incursions give Chelsea an unpredictability going forward; it’s merely to say that that comes at a cost.
Arsenal lost 2-1 to Chelsea at the Emirates but they troubled Chelsea again and again down the right. Di Matteo spoke of the need to get the balance right and there was evidence that he was trying to get Mikel John Obi to cover. Against Juventus at home, though, although Ramires did a fine job of stymying Kwadwoh Asamoah on the left, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Juve’s right wing-back, ran free. Di Matteo opted for a similar system against Shakhtar in Donetsk, but their fluidity was pulling Chelsea apart even before an injury to Frank Lampard meant the introduction of Hazard early in the first half.
That game seemed telling because it showed just how vulnerable Chelsea were to high-class forward play. Atletico Madrid had exposed them in the Super Cup final, but that game tended to be written off as Chelsea not being especially motivated. Here, though, the evidence was incontrovertible. What happened in Turin was confirmation. Juventus’s three-man defence plus wing-backs had caused Chelsea great problems at Stamford Bridge, but so wholly did Di Matteo’s attempts to plug the flanks prove that Asamoah twice crossed for Lichtsteiner. Of course it’s incredibly harsh to write off a manager after less than half a season but it is at least possible to see why Abramovich might have decided Di Matteo lacked the tactical nous for the job.
In appointing Benitez, Abramovich, who supposedly craves attacking, fluent football, seems to made an unexpected lurch into pragmatism. Benitez’s sides aren’t necessarily defensive but he is a controlling figure who prefers system to the individual, who tends to caution. It’s no coincidence that, after 10 games without a clean sheet, Chelsea kept Manchester City out in the Spaniard’s first game.
Although he kept the same basic 4-2-3-1 shape Di Matteo had employed – not surprisingly, given he used it successfully at both Valencia and Liverpool – there were obvious differences. Ramires and Mikel barely moved from their posts in front of the back four, with the result that Chelsea played rather more long balls than has been common this season. The wide players, Mata and Hazard, both had clear instructions to track the City full-backs. Benitez was notably animated in encouraging Hazard to close down Pablo Zabaleta and for long spells he had Oscar, a far more disciplined player, operating on the left with Hazard taking his place in the centre. Torres, although still from being the attacking threat he used to be, dropped deep, often alongside Oscar or Hazard when City had the ball, creating an additional barrier.
Di Matteo acknowledged he hadn’t got the balance of Chelsea right, erring too much on the attacking side. Benitez got the defending right but as Chelsea failed to score at home for the first time this season, it was evident that he too must find a balance. The difference is he’s coming from the other side of the spectrum to Di Matteo. What’s fascinating now is not just whether Chelsea fans will accept Benitez but whether Abramovich will accept that sort of approach.