The Abramovich Situation
The sudden, unexpected sacking of Roberto Di Matteo yesterday, and his instant replacement with Rafa Benitez as interim manager, is yet another episode in high budget soap opera taking place in West London. Or as AVB aptly commented, ‘just another day at the office’ for Chelsea. But it raises questions about just how Roman Abramovich continues to go about his running of the club – and whether the short-termism he’s displayed over the course of his tenure is really in Chelsea’s best interests.
Until 2003 Chelsea were a plucky, medium size club. We brought in exciting foreign talent and played ‘sexy football’. We were popular. Our increasingly less stuttering Italian manager and league form made us popular. We were humble, we didn’t even have a training ground, sharing fields and a clubhouse with a university campus near Hatton Cross, three stops from Heathrow on the Piccadilly line. We played in Europe with moderate success. Much like the Kings Road in the 60’s, we were cool.
Then, that fateful day when, according to the stories, Abramovich flew over Stamford Bridge after being turned down by Spurs and decided to be our new owner.
What followed as Abromovich’s legacy was a multimillion pound deluge, recruiting some of the most exciting talent from around the globe (and ruining a few careers in the process, see Wright-Phillips, Kezman, Crespo, Shevchenko etc). The stream of players in and out of SW6 was matched only by the management staff. The first casualty was the aforementioned Italian, Claudio Ranieri. The much loved replacement to Gianluca Vialli, Ranieri’s season before Abramovich took the reins boasted a 2nd placed finish in the Premier League. This impressive position that would see him fired the following year.
Ranieri’s departure made way for the arrival of the world’s most sought after manager, Jose Mourinho. The swaggering portugeezer, the self proclaimed ‘Special One’ brought success to Chelsea in the form of back to back league titles plus success in both domestic cups. Unlucky exits from the Champions League were the only real black mark on Mourinho’s copy book. He was accused of playing negative football, his reliance on a stoic defence often created the victories desired by the owner. In the end, these victories weren’t enough. We didn’t play the brand of football seen at the Bernabeu or Camp Nou and this was enough for Jose and Roman to part ways.
Short spells in quick succession have followed as Abramovich’s pal Avram Grant, ‘Big’ Phil Scolari, Gus Hiddink, and the perma-arched eyebrowed Carlo Ancellotti all took the reins. Ancellotti won the double in 2010 with Chelsea scoring over 100 league goals and beating Man United in the FA cup final. While impressive to most fans, it still failed to meet Abramovich’s ever-raising bar.
With the short-termism undermining whoever was in the hot seat, player-power came to the fore. AVB was the first manager to attempt to stand up to it – standing on the balcony at the new training base to make sure the players arrived on time. It became a game for players to taunt their new young manager by hiding in their cars around the corner and screeching into the car park at the last minute. AVB snapped back selling Alex and Anelka as a way of exerting his authority. But it didn’t work and following a spate of bad results he lost his job. It’s interesting that, like his successor, AVB’s last 2 defeats were West Brom in the league and an Italian team in the Champions League.
So what went wrong for RDM?
This season started with a big loss, Didier Drogba. The Ivorian and the club deciding that his winning penalty in the Champions League final would be the last time he kicked a ball in a Chelsea strip. This left a 6 foot 2 hole in the Chelsea squad and despite heavy investment in small skilful players the squad still seems to be lacking something. Torres is not the player he was. Whether it’s the job he’s being asked to do or the weight of a £50 million price tag continuing to hang around his neck, we may never know, but he’s not got the class to lead a Premier League team right now – and potentially may never be.
Abramovich surely can’t ignore the fact that much of Chelsea’s disappointment this season has been outside of the manager’s control. What with the Terry court case and Ashley Cole’s loose tweeting, RDM has had more than most managers have had to deal with on top of his job. Despite being blamed for a lot of Chelsea’s problems over the last couple of years it’s actually the absence of the ‘Old Guard’ that’s hurt Chelsea in recent games. Before Lampard and Cole’s injuries and Terry’s ban, Chelsea sat top of the league having beaten Arsenal and Tottenham away along the way. Since the three have been absent we’ve drawn 2 and lost 2 in the league. Players that have had to take on extra responsibility as a result haven’t sufficiently filled that void – David Luiz is certainly talented, but he’s no leader to rely on in a crisis. RDM has added to these problems with his recruitment, as Chelsea have developed a squad full of creative yet irresponsible players. It’s great when it works. Against Juve, it really didn’t – Hazard up front, Azpilicueta right midfield and the Mata narrow on the left allowing the marauding Leichensteiner space didn’t exactly help.
Is Abramovich’s approach working?
Since 2003, the Roman Revolution has brought three Premier League titles, four FA cups, two League cups, two Community shields, and a Champions League title. Can any Chelsea fans argue with that? The height of our achievements in the decade before he arrived a one-nil Cup Winners Cup win in 1998. Sure, some beloved characters left SW6 with nothing more than a multimillion pound pay off. And sure Manchester United and Arsenal fans enjoy crowing about their long term managers. But would you trade all the silverware to see Ranieri sat in the home dugout at the bridge?
So what does Roman want? He wants attractive football that wins titles. He’s spent a lot of money on this club. How can anyone deny him anything? If he creates an English football dynasty (as he aims to do0, who will remember the people he cast off on the way? On top of recent successes Chelsea have posted profit for the first time in the last fiscal year. A measly £1.4m but good to know the club is moving in the right direction. Why should Roman change his successful management style?
Rafa Benitez wasn’t a popular figure amongst Chelsea fans when he was Liverpool manager and the brand of football he plays is unlikely to please the boss but if he sures up our defence and gets Torres firing, good luck to him. But as history proves, interim manager or not, any silver gained between now and the summer is no guarantee of security under the Abramovich regime.
Written by Dan Northcote-Smith and Nick Moss (@dnsandnick)