Thursday 23 January 2020

Henry Winter: Di Matteo in unjustified line of fire

Dark whispers do the rounds, knives are sharpened and the clock ticks on another Chelsea manager's tenure. Grim headlines gather like storm clouds around Roberto Di Matteo. He's been manager only since March.

He's only won the FA Cup and Champions League. And his job is under threat. Crazy.

Dole or no dole: that is the high-stakes game Di Matteo plays this week. His Chelsea side must avoid defeat against Juventus in Turin, so staying on course for the knockout stage of the competition Di Matteo helped them win, and then resist Manchester City at the Bridge on Sunday.

Even if this week witnesses back-to-back setbacks, does Di Matteo really deserve to be shown the door? While acknowledging that all managers are caretakers under Roman Abramovich, there is still a strong case for persisting with the Italian. A bad month doesn't make him a bad manager.

So what has Roberto ever done for Roman? Let's start with calming a fractious dressing-room, restoring belief and organisation after the troubled final days of Andre Villas-Boas' spell in charge. Let's remember the journeys to Wembley and Munich and then the unforgettable showpiece occasions, famous trophies and endless special memories.

Abramovich may have a short memory but Chelsea fans don't. They appreciate and understand the difficult job that Di Matteo is doing.


Even in his hours of glory last spring, Di Matteo was unfairly assailed with questions about whether it was simply the strong men in the dressing-room that propelled Chelsea to those twin peaks.

The will to win of Didier Drogba and company was undoubtedly ferocious and admirable but to suggest Chelsea were on auto-pilot is nonsense.

Di Matteo made big calls on starting line-ups, tweaked tactics, kept the mood positive and on October 25 was named amongst luminaries like Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Roberto Mancini and Vicente Del Bosque on the 10-man list for Fifa Coach of the Year. His stewardship of Chelsea has won him many admirers on Planet Football.

So what else has Di Matteo done? After sating Abramovich's craving for the Champions League, taking Chelsea to a special place where even Mourinho failed to lead them, Di Matteo then set about meeting the oligarch's latest demand, namely making Chelsea more attractive, a Barca in Blue.

For all the recent disparaging, Di Matteo's blending and embedding of Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard into the team was celebrated in the season's early months as Chelsea won seven and drew one of their opening Premier League games. His decision to give Mata a breather after the Spaniard's busy summer was hailed as a masterstroke of man-management. Chelsea's subsequent dip as the temperatures drop is hardly a new event.

What else has Di Matteo done for Abramovich? The manager has worked with players favoured by the owner, the likes of David Luiz and Fernando Torres.

Luiz's concentration levels are insufficient for the intense Premier League, where every second of every game against every opponent matters.

Torres has been poor after a promising start to the season. He may move on, possibly back to Atletico Madrid with the much-coveted Falcao heading to the Bridge. Insert Falcao at the top of Di Matteo's 4-2-3-1 system and Chelsea could boast the most feared attack around.

The troubling undercurrent in all this, the unspoken fear for the man in charge, is that he is simply putting in place the foundations for Guardiola's arrival next summer. Guardiola is a fine manager, and would be welcomed at the Bridge, although his sensitive, soulful side might be tested in the cold court of Abramovich. Di Matteo diligently and uncomplainingly continues his duties, ignoring the Guardiola headlines.

Di Matteo has been dealt a hand of aces, knaves and jokers but he handles all the dramas with dignity. Chelsea are often derided as a club without class, a slight generalisation as honourable souls can be found within like Frank Lampard, Petr Cech and Mata on the playing side, let alone a community department that does important if often unheralded work. Yet Chelsea's public image is poor, a perception not helped by the likes of John Terry and Ashley Cole.


Smiling for the cameras, Di Matteo takes his place on the dais, facing with serenity frequent awkward questions about the team.

He is asked about handshakes, about the morality of Terry still being captain, about Cole's tweeting skills, about Torres' body language mood, about Luiz's defensive satnav, about the club's decision to pursue Mark Clattenburg. He never snaps. He never hides. He just carries on representing the club well.

The chairman, Bruce Buck, and chief executive Ron Gourlay occasionally pop their heads over the parapet, making a pronouncement or two on the latest blaze at the Bridge, but most of the time it is Di Matteo playing the fireman, the loyal company-man.

Certain legitimate concerns can be voiced about Di Matteo's management, such as tactical rigidity. He was defensive last season, adventurous this term whereas the best teams blend both. He has already talked of tempering Chelsea's attacking focus in Turin. His substitutions have been questioned but it was the newly-arrived Victor Moses who scored that last-gasp winner against Shakhtar Donetsk.

Abramovich should be grateful to have someone of Di Matteo's integrity, popularity amongst the fans, passion for the club and willingness to work within the complex environment where the owner and players are habitually so forceful. For once in his Chelsea life, Abramovich needs to show some patience. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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