What ever happened to Roberto Di Matteo? The last the footballing world saw of him, he was heading out of Stamford Bridge after becoming the latest victim of Mr Abramovich’s infamous trigger finger.
But unlike oh so many before him, Di Matteo left SW6 with his head firmly held high. There was very little he did wrong at Chelsea, and was cruelly sacked. Too much was made of Chelsea fans’ resentment of Rafa Benitez and the negative reaction to his appointment as Robbie’s successor, that people tend to forget that Chelsea fans were outraged not simply at the hiring of Benitez, but at how appallingly a Chelsea legend had been treated. One who had just given Roman Abramovich the trophy he desired most.
The word ‘legend’ is thrown around a lot in football. But ‘RDM’ is more than deserving of that label. A successful player at Chelsea who scored two goals in two FA Cup Finals as Chelsea won their 2nd and 3rd FA Cup respectively. He also scored in Chelsea’s League Cup Final victory against Middlesbrough. Popular amongst supporters as a player clearly, but he brought further adulation from the Chelsea faithful during his stint as manager. We all have decent memories so there’s very little point in going in to detail but an FA Cup and a Champions League in three month period is… well, incredible.
His cheery nature, warm smile and slightly timid appearance were well received by Blues fans. A cool head on the touchline which was a welcome change from his predecessor Andre Villas-Boas’ highly animated goal celebrations, and an obvious love for the club made Di Matteo and easy man to admire. But what was perhaps even more respectable was the manner in which he departed the club. He made no complaints, no sly digs in the media towards the Chelsea hierarchy. No criticisms of Abramovich, which is more than can be said for some former Chelsea bosses like Avram Grant, Luis Felipe Scolari and current Tottenham Hotspur boss André Villas-Boas. If Grant’s sacking seemed harsh, if Ancelotti’s sacking seemed harsh, it was nothing compared to Di Matteo’s. Still he kept his mouth firmly shut about the situation publicly and to this day has continued in doing so. Of course there may be an agreement whereby he’s forbidden to speak out, but still, given the harsh nature of his sacking, it would only be human nature to complain a little. After all, just what did he do wrong? What did he do to deserve to be sacked?
Well, Di Matteo was fired with Chelsea one point off the top of the Premier League table. Shocking isn’t it? Until a somewhat controversial defeat to Man United at Stamford Bridge, only a mere 3 weeks before his sacking, Di Matteo had Chelsea four points clear at the top of the table. After knocking Man United out of the Capital One Cup a few days later, a further two draws to Swansea and Liverpool, and two losses to Juventus and West Brom followed before Di Matteo was axed. Now, all clubs have their rough patches don’t they? This wasn’t some unmitigated disaster. Sure, some may say that it was Chelsea’s dire Champions League position which led to Abramovich pulling the trigger, but by the time RDM was sacked and Benitez brought in, all that was left was a game against Nordsjælland, which I highly doubt Abramovich thought Di Matteo would lose. And even with a win, which Chelsea got, progression to the last 16 was out of their hands anyway.
There is no doubt about it. RDM was unjustly sacked. There are various theories as to why, but as of yet, there is no official explanation. But my question is: why is he still unemployed?
It’s rare for anyone who wins the Champions League to not be highly sought after, and despite Di Matteo originally only being a caretaker manager, he did an extremely impressive job.
Let’s forget about the medals he won for a second. What is highly commendable is the way that RDM took a poor Chelsea side, struggling in the league, limping in the Champions League, and turned them into world beaters overnight. There was infighting, there were rumours of a divided dressing room, there was tension over the treatment of Anelka and Alex (who both handed in transfer requests and were forced to train, eat and park in the same car park as the youth team!). Di Matteo removed all of this in one swift movement as he lead Chelsea to one of the most exciting climaxes to a season in recent times.
There is one mistake people shouldn’t make, and that is underestimating Di Matteo’s job. Much was made of the manner in which Chelsea went about becoming Champions of Europe. Their style of play was widely criticised, they were branded ‘negative’, particularly against Barcelona and Bayern Munich. But there was so much more to Di Matteo’s Chelsea than simply parking the bus. That mistake mustn’t be made. Anyone who thinks Chelsea simply parked the bus against Barcelona needs a serious reality check. What they had was a strategy. They didn’t just throw bodies behind the ball and hope for a miracle, as much as it may have seemed that way. 18 teams do that every season in Spain and most of them fail miserably. Di Matteo had Chelsea well organised, well structured, well drilled. He had analysed where Barcelona are most deadly, and that is when they have the ball between the opposition’s midfield and defensive line. From there they can flick and knock and slide balls through to the attackers and score. Di Matteo realised this, and so throughout both Champions League semi final legs, he had his midfield stick very close to his defenders, He completely shut down the space for Barcelona to pass into. And it made a huge difference. Passing through four players is reasonably easy, but passing through a group of seven or eight or even nine players? Not so easy.
It was what got Chelsea through. And you will notice, both of Barcelona’s goals came from times when they got the ball between the midfield and defensive lines. RDM realised the importance of shutting this space down and instructed his team accordingly. And no, this is not some biased Chelsea fan blindly defending his team to the bitter end, this is a proper analysis of how Di Matteo set Chelsea up to win. Saying they just ‘parked the bus’ is lazy.
It was an extremely impressive piece of ingenuity on RDM’s part. He knew there was no way he could outplay them. But why does the better team necessarily have to win? Make no mistake, Di Matteo knew what he was doing.
It was a similar story in the final, although it must be said, that Bayern’s poor finishing cost them dearly.
During his period of resurrecting Chelsea, he had them playing a new formation. He switched from 4-3-3, which had been used by Chelsea since Mourinho and started using a 4-2-3-1 formation. A brave decision, but one that paid off. He also began to deploy Frank Lampard in a deeper role and moved Juan Mata, Chelsea’s metronome, into the centre, again, two brave decisions which paid off. He displayed a great deal of adaptability, and also flexibility.
It must be remembered that during Di Matteo’s tenure in 2011/12, Chelsea were fighting on three fronts. They were pushing for fourth place in the league, and gunning for the FA Cup and Champions League at the same time. The fixtures were piling up. In fact there was a 6 day period where Chelsea faced Barcelona on Wednesday, had Spurs in the FA Cup semi final on the Sunday and then had to travel to the Nou Camp for a game on the Tuesday. RDM was continuously rotating his squad, trying to keep everyone fit, all the while juggling injuries to key players like Luiz and Cahill and having to deal with suspensions to other key players. He had a monumental task to continue delivering results, but the good results continued to come. He rotated his squad excellently, seemingly prioritising certain players for certain matches extremely well. His Chelsea side were effectively playing two games every week. Still, Di Matteo managed to come out of the ordeal with an FA Cup winners medal, and a Champions League winners medal. The only two real ‘ugly’ results came at the home of eventual champions Manchester City and at Anfield (where Chelsea had rested many players following their FA Cup final victory against Liverpool just a few days before).
RDM managed to get an incredible level of performance out of his players in the 2011/12 season, all the while proving that he has what it takes to run a club successfully under extreme pressure.
Moving on to the 2012/13 season. Chelsea appoint Di Matteo as permanent head coach. They bring skilful new players like Eden Hazard and Oscar, and suddenly RDM is required to adopt a brand new, fast paced, attacking style. During his brief time in charge of Chelsea in 2012/13, Robbie once again showed his tactical nous as well as his adaptability by flying out of the blocks with this new-look Chelsea. Seemingly effortlessly transitioning from a steely, solid defensive Chelsea in the Spring to a quick, flashy, tiki-take type Chelsea in the Autumn. No one can deny that he had success. Away victories at Tottenham and Arsenal had Chelsea as early favourites for the title, and there were few games under RDM where Chelsea didn’t impress their audience. Sadly though, it all ended in tears after a shaky 4 game run, Di Matteo was gone, and has since been somewhat forgotten. How far could Di Matteo have taken Chelsea?
All the signs were good. He showed a fantastic array of tactical knowledge, both about his opponents and his own side. He managed to get Chelsea to perform to levels that seemed impossible, and of course he achieved the impossible on the 19th May 2012. He beat the odds in April and May and took the Premier League by storm in September and October. He showed how he can manage both defensive and attacking sides. He knew the limits of his squad and his players and he was well liked by fans and players alike. Which makes me wonder why a big European team hasn’t snapped him up yet. Ok, he’s inexperienced yes, but he’s arguably more successful than André Villas-Boas but that didn’t stop him landing the Chelsea and Tottenham jobs and has this summer been strongly linked to PSG.
Di Matteo has shown every sign of making a great manager, and he has the results to back him up. Maybe he’s waiting for the perfect job offer, which is fine. Or perhaps he’s been promised a job sometime in the future, who knows? Or perhaps he’s simply taking a sabbatical, and enjoying life, after all, his 6 months of top level management were up there with the best. The so-called ‘best interim manager of all time’ has got to be pretty content for now at least.
But surely there’s more to come from him. There was nothing at Chelsea which seemed to doubt his qualities as a manager, and surely, we’ll see him back on the touchline at a top European club soon. He deserves it.