Although we were expecting a transitional season from Chelsea, we probably weren't anticipating a transition of quite this nature. Andre Villas-Boas has been shown the door, and a host of big names are linked to the 'vacant' managerial job this summer. Both the sacking of Villas-Boas and the possible identity of his long-term replacement are taking up considerable amounts of virtual ink, but neither of them is that important to the club right now. At least, not compared to the huge task that faces interim manager Roberto di Matteo.
Chelsea must finish in the top four this season. If Champions League qualification was not a concern, Villas-Boas would still be in charge and preparing for his summer clearout, but failure to get into the group stages next season would come with an enormous price tag and is not something the club can countenance. That puts di Matteo in a rather problematic position, since he now has to overhaul one of Arsenal or Tottenham Hotspur in the final ten games of the season.
That won't be easy. Although Spurs are mired in a slump right now, they still have an excellent team and are four points ahead of the Blues. Arsenal, meanwhile, are level on points with us, but have both a superior goal differential and a game in hand. Chelsea, despite probably having the strongest squad of the London clubs, are in the weakest position in terms of the table, and things might get worse before they get better with a trip to Manchester City a week from now.
In other words, di Matteo, a man who, in his own words 'has no friends', has a very tough task on his hands. That the Chelsea hierarchy gave him the green light to replace Villas-Boas rather than spending money to bring in a short-term fix like Fabio Capello or Rafa Benitez means that they, at least, have some confidence in his ability to suceed where Villas-Boas failed. Di Matteo's reign has gotten off to a strong start with a win at Birmingham and then the 1-0 victory against Stoke City on Saturday, but then again so too did Villas-Boas', and we all know how that turned out.
If di Matteo is to succeed in transforming Chelsea's season from catastrophic to merely bad, he'll have to do what Villas-Boas could not: Motivate his players and set up the team according to their strengths (and the opposition's!) rather than to than an all-consuming ideology.
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Di Matteo brings impeccable playing credentials to his new role as manager.
Although there were some reports claiming that the players were no fonder of the caretaker manager than they had been of Villas-Boas, those always seemed wide of the mark thanks to di Matteo's status as a former player and club hero. Certainly, the players have looked far more up for the games since Villas-Boas was sacked, and although it's easy to say that when they're winning everyone is saying all the right things about di Matteo's young tenure in charge.
More impressive than the team's performance, however, is di Matteo's clear understanding to the game and his willingness to deploy players in ways that both work for them and help to thwart the opposition. Against Stoke, he did something Villas-Boas would never have countenanced, dropping the physically frail Juan Mata and stocking up on players who would be able to deal with the Potter's aerial threat.
The plan worked like a charm - Stoke were battered in the air whenever they came into the Chelsea half - and even more impressively, di Matteo reacted instantly to the changed tactical situation that came when Ricardo Fuller was dismissed midway through the first half. Off came Raul Meireles and on went Mata, just the man to break down a team that was suddenly hunkering down in a low block and defending for their lives, and it was the substitute who eventually set up Didier Drogba for the winning goal.
Chelsea's approach resulted in them having total control of the match. Di Matteo's selection decisions, especially the inclusion of John Obi Mikel in the centre, paid off in a way that you don't often see against Stoke, who looked to have all the fight of an especially timid blade of grass even while they were at full strength. While the attacking approach was straight out of Villas-Boas' playbook (although far better executed), the level of defensive organisation Chelsea demonstrated was a real breath of fresh air.
No, the win wasn't pretty, but games against Stoke rarely are, and di Matteo showed an understanding of exactly how events unfolded in his post-match comments:
When you play against Stoke City you know it is going to be difficult to break them down because they defend well and they defend with a lot of players.
The sending off really didn't change much because they still had two banks of four and defended very deep, so it was just a case of getting one goal, and if you get an early goal it obviously makes it easier.
Sometimes you have to win like this, it is not always going to be pretty. Sometimes you have to win playing scrappy.
Now, this is fairly basic stuff, but it's refreshing to see a manager make tactical concessions like di Matteo did against Stoke. I'm not going to say that Villas-Boas was a poor tactician, because the body of work strongly suggests that he is in fact rather brilliant, but he was incredibly stubborn about how he wanted the team to play, and our position right now requires a more pragmatic approach.
I'm still not comfortable that Chelsea will finish in the top four - the numbers say it'll be a very tough fight - but di Matteo's first two matches in charge have demonstrated that the team won't go down quietly. If he can get something out of this season, it'll be a real feather in the cap of a man who's already done a huge amount for the club.
Maybe he'll even make some friends.