As a Chelsea fan, I woke to the best news of 2012 on Sunday when I read on Facebook that Chelsea had announced, only a few minutes earlier, Andre Villa-Boas’s departure and Roberto Di Matteo’s appointment as interim manager.
Watching Chelsea’s loss to West Brom on Saturday, I had suggested the very same change myself. I’m thankful that the Chelsea hierarchy came to its senses and made the change now rather than wait until Tuesday’s FA Cup replay with Birmingham or the following week’s second leg Champions League match against Napoli.
I’m aware that there were a few Chelsea supporters, players, and employees, as well as television commentators and news journalists, who as late as this week believed AVB deserved more time, but I have no idea what those people were thinking. Even from Boston, MA, a distance of more than 3,200 miles from London, I could see that Andre Villas-Boas was nothing more than an abject lesson in how not to lead.
And if the Chelsea hierarchy want to show some leadership in response, they’ll have to raise their hands and admit they made a very significant error in judgment by bringing AVB in and by keeping him in the manager’s seat as long as they did.
While there’s little question that Chelsea could benefit tremendously from stable management, it has been painfully obvious to a growing number of Chelsea fans for many months that Roman Abramovich, Bruce Buck and Ron Gourlay would be making a huge mistake in rewarding AVB’s underperformance with more time simply because the trigger finger may have been too itchy in the past.
Personally, I thought Ancelotti was a terrific manager, and the team would be far better off today, I believe, if he’d been permitted to come back for a third season. However tepid the team’s results in Ancelotti’s second season (they still managed second place in the Premier League, a whisker ahead of Man City), Ancelotti’s leadership and communication were always calm and assured, and he appeared to be much admired by the players.
In two seasons at Chelsea, I never heard Ancelotti blame a result on a referee. But when Chelsea chalked up a loss in only the sixth game of this season, after an away match at Manchester United, AVB immediately pointed a finger of blame at the referees when an examination of his own tactics – the much discussed high defensive line – might have proved a more useful place to draw lessons.
But the catalog of AVB’s mistakes is voluminous – poor team selections, mind-boggling substitutions, an immaturity when dealing with the press, pride in place of common sense, humiliating players who’d given much to the club and delighted fans for years, spending millions on players who would earn only a few minutes playing time, loaning the most promising young talent away, talking down his own players in the foreign press, and – worst of all in my opinion – pitting the players against one another. Witness David Luiz recently characterizing Frank Lampard as a mere “employee” of the club.
Recall also the January 2 match away at Wolves when, after Ramires’ 54th minute goal, the team’s Brazilian and Portuguese quartet — Ramires, Luiz, Bosingwa and Meireles — ran to AVB to celebrate, whereas when Frank Lampard scored the match winner in the 88th minute, he, Fernando Torres, and others celebrated in the far corner of the field without a glance in AVB’s direction.
More recently, AVB claimed that he didn’t need the players to back his “project” (which largely seemed to be oriented around disassembling and weakening the team), only the owner needed to back him. Today he must realize that his brand of leadership deserved support from no one.
The Chelsea hierarchy have made another expensive error, without question – but it is far better to endure that expense now rather than watch the costs mount with time, particularly if the team face the real possibility of missing out on Europe next season. To allow the risks to mount would be a case of throwing good money after bad, and that’s both bad business and bad leadership in its own right. And while the squad’s readiness to face Birmingham in the FA Cup and Napoli in the Champions League is far from assured, the team has in the past demonstrated a capacity to improve through these interim periods – as they did under Guus Hiddink.
Let’s allow Di Matteo a chance to see out the season and, hopefully, earn Chelsea a Champions League spot for next season – and perhaps even a chance at the FA Cup title. If the summer brings a Pep Guardiola or – it is conceivable? – a return of Jose Mourinho, or some other experienced and capable manager, terrific. What matters most at the moment, though, is that the players close the book on the last eight months and consider the immediate future – namely, the opportunity to make themselves and their fans proud again.