Chelsea beat QPR 6-1 today, after their amazing 10 man triumph over Barcelona – sacred Barcelona – in the Champions league semi final last Tuesday. Torres scored three, after his breakthrough against Barca. All is well in the Chelsea camp. The players are lobbying through the media for Roberto di Matteo’s temporary managership to be made permanent. Such a far cry from the agony and strife that characterised the final weeks of Andre Villas Boas’s tenure (see my Sportsthoughts 15).
So what changed? I was taken by a quote from Branislav Ivanovic, which I read in today’s Observer. With respect for the fact that English is not his first language.
His [di Matteo’s] tactics are more natural… he organised our team to get the best from the players. He does not try to put a strategy on the players, he does the opposite: his approach is that if the players have these qualities, then we must do everything to show these qualities.
Now this could be used as evidence that player power has triumphed at Chelsea. Or has it? Is it actually something much more basic – just getting the best out of what is before you?
AVB inherited a squad that was talented, but beginning to age. There are good youngsters coming through the system, but they seem to be not quite ready. A few players were brought in, but not enough, of sufficient quality, to shape the team and its way of playing. So AVB wanted Chelsea to be the new Barcelona, pressing, defending high up the pitch, passing short, patient, incisive. But the players weren’t ready, not enough of them. He tried to impose a revolution, clearly failed in some basic man management, and paid the price. The existing players couldn’t cope with his strategy, or tactics, or style. There are strong, well-established characters there, and they revolted back, or just sulked. It was all going horribly wrong.
Di Matteo was already on the management team. He has Chelsea history: a fine, dynamic midfield player whose career was cut short by injury. He had started well in management, first at Milton Keynes Dons, then West Brom, whom he took into the Premier League, playing attractive football. He got the sack after a run of defeats about half way through last season. Harsh, but effective, because Roy Hodgson – himself sacked by Liverpool – came in and kept them in the PL.
It was a surprising appointment to the top job at Chelsea, big, brutal Chelsea. People assumed the likes of Lampard and Terry must be pulling the strings behind the scenes. Maybe they are; but whatever is happening, it is working, big time. Chelsea have lost one game since di Matteo took over and they are now in the FA Cup and Champions League finals. They have rediscovered their essence, their power, their solidity in defence, their midfield elan, their speed on the break. Drogba is marauding again up front (when he isn’t writhing on the ground), Torres is revitalised, Frankie L is bossing the midfield.
So what has di Matteo done? Judging by the Ivanovic quote, he has simply listened to the players, treated them as individuals, designed systems that play to their strengths. He has used the materials at his disposal to shape the team, rather than decide the shape and try to fit the players into it. Organic, evolutionary, effective. If he gets the job permanently, he will no doubt seek to bring in younger players to realise his vision. But for now, that vision, whatever it might be, is married to pragmatism. Getting the best out of the people you have.
I can relate to this. It’s how I approach work, as a fairly senior manager. When I move to a new post, with a team already in place, it’s pretty clear right away what is working well and what needs improving. It’s rarely a complete disaster, but there is often scope to do better. But if you go in and say, “this is how I do things so you had better do so too”, you will get nowhere. People will resist, maybe pay lip service, or in some cases overreact in trying to meet your wishes. No, my approach is to go in, get to know the people, find out what makes them tick, and slowly but surely, when you have their confidence and trust, start to suggest how things could be different. Share your vision and values, but listen to theirs. Make it a joint enterprise. That way, when people look back, and think about how much has changed, they can say: we did it ourselves…
This, I think, is what Roberto di Matteo is doing at Chelsea, and he seems to be doing a very good job of it. I hope he gets the chance to see it through.