How Much Does Di Matteo’s Success Prove?

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An FA Cup and the club’s first Champions’ League win represents a remarkable success for any manager, in any season. Yet for an interim manager in charge for the remaining three months of an abject season it is nothing short of brilliant. Ironically, Di Matteo brought  to owner Abramovic the one elusive trophy that he had been looking for, just when nobody thought it possible, and whilst his back was turned looking for future manager’s who could build a team to do this. However, it is important to deconstruct Di Matteo’s performance objectively to decide whether Di Matteo is the right man for the next Chelsea era.

Firstly, the case for Di Matteo being reappointed. Abramovic’s dream has long been winning in Europe and after it cruelly eluded him in Moscow at the hands of a Jon Terry slip in 2008, it looked like the best opportunity had been and passed. Yet Di Matteo’s cautious and considerate approach ensured they could level the playing field and compete against Barcelona. This, coupled with a good FA Cup final win, has seen Di Matteo earmarked as deserving to continue as manager next season, cutting short Abramovic’s search for a long term successor. However, whilst Di Matteo’s wins are of course wins, the circumstances of them suggest the victories were less a result of managerial nous and skill than we are giving credit.

Abramovic’s investment is loosely suggested to be £1bn since his takeover, and as such Chelsea have become a firmly established club side in Europe, with this season seeing the first real decline in player ability from previous years. However, in spite of establishing themselves in Europe’s elite, and given the tremendous outpour of resources the owner has provided, the style of play exhibited by Chelsea approaching their games in Europe is utterly different to the big club style that is expected, to the extent that Chelsea resembled a relegation threatened team playing away at top of the league. As we are continually reminded football is a results business, yet it might be more worthwhile to consider intentions, as these are constant and cannot be influenced by luck. Thus, Di Matteo, rather than go out with the intention of beating the opposition, was in fact exercising a damage limitation system, intending to contain the opposition at all costs and forgoing much of their attacking threat.

Crucially, this is not to suggest that good defensive play is bad football. It isn’t. Mourinho has consistently garnered results through strategic defensive play, sitting deep and exposing the opposition on the break. And whilst there are echoes of Chelsea vs Barcelona in that, there is in fact a big discrepancy between the two. Mourinho’s set up against Barcelona, as admittedly nullifying and defensive it was with Inter, and now is with Madrid, dramatically reduces Barcelona’s chances. It contains them and blocks them, makes them look as if they lack incision and prolificacy. Yet Chelsea in neither of the semi finals nor the final did this; theirs was just meek and ineffective attempt at it. Even with every player possible forming a shield in front of the penalty box, Barcelona had a plethora of good opportunities and a handful of clear cut opportunities, and of course Bayern too had gaping chances to seal the match. This illustrates that Chelsea’s defensive tactics weren’t even effective, as it was error and mistakes from the opposition players in finishing that ensured Chelsea weren’t comfortably brushed aside. Similarly, Greece’s Euro 2004 win saw them contain and negate the opposition whilst breaking on the counter and winning set pieces. However, they were successful in preventing the opposition from having good opportunities, effectively keeping their destiny in their own hands somewhat, whereas Chelsea relied predominantly on freakish happenstance ensuring two of the world’s best players spurned match winning penalties. This does not come down to effective systems and tactics, but simply a reliance on luck.

Whatever Abramovic ultimately decides, and he’s never been one to pander to fans and media pressure, Di Matteo’s remarkable success should be taken with a pinch of salt. After all, when your success hinges on whether a man with 73 goals in one season will score a penalty or not, you’re largely helpless.

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