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Do Chelsea even need a manager?

2 April 2013 by

After Rafael Benítez’ inevitable departure at the end of the season, Roman Abramovich will have seen four Champions League winning managers leave his club, only one of whom has succeeded in leading Chelsea to a Champions League final. Despite high-profile managers coming and going on a regular basis, Chelsea’s two Champions League final appearances have come during periods of transient management following a sacking of a high profile manager: Avram Grantin 2008 who replaced Jose Mourinho and Roberto Di Matteo in 2012 who took charge following André Villas-Boas’ departure.  Roberto Di Matteo of course went one further than Grant, leading Chelsea Football Club to their first ever Champions League title whilst serving as ‘Interim Manager’; however there is much doubt as to how much of an effect he really had on Chelsea’s success following the sacking of the unsuccessful André Villas-Boas.

Much of Villas-Boas’ failure at Chelsea came from his inability to overcome the renowned player power at Stamford Bridge, resulting in him dropping Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard for the away leg of Chelsea’s clash with Napoli – a game which Chelsea went on to lose, and Villas-Boas was sacked not soon after. After taking over in early March, Di Matteo resorted to the simplest solution to the evident player power problem at the club – work with it, as opposed to fruitlessly attempting to hold it back. Immediately he began to perform in opposition to Villas-Boas’ previous management, bringing back both Lampard and Cole for the home tie against Napoli, who along with Terry, Drogba and Čech, contributed to Chelsea’s unexpected come-back, and took Chelsea through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Having gone off injured in extra –time, Terry was seen barking orders on the touchline – as if he was the manager himself, and from that moment on, the question was raised as to who was really in control of the Chelsea squad; Di Matteo, or a subdivision of the squad itself.

A similar scenario developed under Avram Grant’s management in 2008 following the sacking of Mourinho – the club’s (at the time) greatest ever manager, and father-figure to a majority of the squad.  Rather than go into the dressing room and implement his own ideals and disciplines, Grant simply continued Mourinho’s legacy, befriending the players, and granting (excuse the pun) power to the influential players within the dressing room. The result of this was a team that each game went out onto the pitch with 5 or 6 captain figures, who worked alongside each other, and carried their team all the way to the Luzhniki Stadium, culminating in Chelsea being a few inches away from Champions League glory.

Following Di Matteo’s success, Abramovich took a number of months to decide whether or not to hand the Chelsea legend a permanent managerial contract. During this period, Chelsea signed Eden Hazard and César Azpilicueta, both of whom during their times under Di Matteo would have known that they might not necessarily have been in Di Matteo’s transfer plans. The same can be said for the likes of Torres and Shevchenko who were reportedly forced upon their respective managers at the time of their arrival.

Knowing that their manager may not want them in the squad, a player cannot attach himself to his boss in the way that the Barcelona squad did with Pep Guardiola for example. Under Guardiola’s management, Barcelona went on to conquer the football-world, partly down to the strong bond between Guardiola – the managerial leader-figure – and his immensely talented squad. Upon his arrival, Guardiola set about removing those he deemed to be surplus – including former world player of the year Ronaldinho – and completely reshaped Barcelona from top to bottom.  Appreciating that Barcelona would see through Guardiola’s project and not sack him in the way the Chelsea board tend to do, the squad bought into his methods, and developed into arguably the greatest club team ever.

Under both Grant and Di Matteo, the Chelsea squad consisted of a number of cliques, all attached to separate managers. Rather than try to win them over in the way that Scolari, Villas-Boas and even Ancelotti to an extent failed to do, the ‘interim’ bosses instead permitted these players to work to whichever conditions suited them. Being intrinsically linked with the glory days under Mourinho; Terry, Lampard and Drogba were naturally the leaders of the dressing-room, which both managers used to their advantage, allowing the powerful players to fill in for the missing presence of the ‘special one’, and it is no coincidence that both saw their team reach un-expected heights during their provisional periods.  As long as the so called ‘big-names’ in the dressing room are contracted to Chelsea, this division will continue – making it near impossible for any manager to bring sustained success to the club. As we saw under Ancelotti, given time the player power will overcome any boss who tries to contain it, thus making Chelsea’s best chance for success short periods of caretaker management.

The question as to whether or not the club even needs a manager depends on how we define ‘manager’. Tactically, the players themselves are inept and would never be able to suppress a team like Barcelona as Chelsea achieved under Di Matteo; therefore as a tactician, a ‘manager’ is most certainly required. As a motivator and leader however, nobody but Mourinho himself would be able to overcome the influence of those linked with his time at the club, meaning whoever manages the club would have limited control over his own squad. Of course Chelsea would never do such a thing as let Terry, Lampard and Co. run the team as player-manager like figures (just imagine a different player each week attending post-match managerial press conferences and shaking hands with the opposition manager before each game); however by maintaining a constant cycle of managers in and out of the club, Abramovich is simply fuelling the player-power within the squad, which in the short-term allows interim bosses to come in and bring success to the club, however until the ‘old-guard’ of Chelsea leave the club, long-term sustained success is most definitely out of the question.

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