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Another Blues manager bites the dust

Defending European champs Chelsea sack manager Roberto Di Matteo.
Defending European champs Chelsea sack manager Roberto Di Matteo.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Two hundred and sixty two days. That’s all Roberto Di Matteo got. Just 262 days to turn Chelsea around. To reinvigorate an old, lumbering, underperforming, mutinous team and win some things.

He pulled off that daunting task, too. He bagged the 2011-12 UEFA Champions League against near-impossible odds after taking over an imploded team on an interim basis.

He snapped up the FA Cup too. And in spite of Chelsea’s oligarch owner Roman Abramovich plainly lusting after Pep Guardiola before finally handing Di Matteo the job full-time, the Italian club veteran had his side playing marvelous soccer in the opening months of the season, orchestrated by a threesome of bright young playmakers.

But then his team slumped and he was gone, fired after Tuesday’s 3-0 Champions League loss to Juventus, which will probably eliminate the defending champions. Three months and a day after the start of the Premier League, which his team led for seven out of 12 rounds, he was out.

Di Matteo had lasted six days longer than Andre Villas-Boas, the man he replaced. Fifteen days longer than another former Chelsea manager, Avram Grant. 39 days longer than Luiz Felipe Scolari managed to keep the job.

Chelsea dazzled in the early going of the Premier League winning seven and drawing one. It started its European campaign with a home draw with Juve and an away win at Nordsjaelland. Since Oct. 20, however, Chelsea has lost four times, drawn twice and won just once in those two competitions, tumbling from first to third in the league.

A slump. Little more than that. To be expected when a team so dramatically overhauls its style from a dreary catenaccio to the pleasing run-and-gun offense Abramovich desired. To be expected when fitting in two key recruits like Eden Hazard and Oscar who drastically alter the team’s texture and rhythm. To be expected when the team badly needed a striker but was saddled with Fernando Torres, the fecklessly deficient one Abramovich had so grossly overpaid for and implicitly pressured his managers to field. (Which Di Matteo did in every game he could until his last one, which precipitated his firing.) To be expected when pillars like John Terry and Frank Lampard are injured. To be expected when, admittedly, Chelsea was resoundingly beaten by Juventus — but its luck in several Premier League losses, most notably against Manchester United, had been terrible.

But firing Di Matteo anyway speaks to the sort of reckless impulsiveness that has seen to it that just two of the eight managers Abramovich has employed in nine years have lasted more than a season.

This latest ugly chapter in Chelsea’s modern history is symptomatic of a sport where the incumbent is never in vogue. Where managers come and go so quickly — in spite of ample evidence that longevity and stability really does win the day — that they are forever forging stop-gap solutions in order to hold on to their jobs rather than building for long-term success.

So long as Di Matteo was pragmatic and won things ugly, he was secure. But when he tried to execute a grander vision and foster some pizzazz in his team, as demanded by Abramovich, and suffered a hiccup in form, he was shunted through the nearest exit. When he got adventurous and aspirational — as with his strikerless lineup against Juve — and stumbled, he was yanked.

This tells managers to play in the now and not worry so much about tomorrow, since you probably won’t be here. This is to the detriment of the sport. Because every team that’s worth watching in it was painstakingly assembled and raised slowly and organically. Take this edition of the Champions League. The most consistent and stylistically appealing teams — Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Manchester United and Shakhtar Donetsk — are the ones that have had the same manager (or a like-minded continuity in management in Barcelona’s case) and core of players for the prolonged spell of time that is rare in modern soccer.

The quick trigger never makes the product better. But winning a little now is subservient to winning more in the long run.

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Abramovich is the foremost proponent of taking Old Yeller out back, but he’s hardly alone. Of the three English managers that won silverware just last spring, only one now remains in place. Di Matteo is out. Kenny Dalglish, who won the Carling Cup with Liverpool, was dismissed after the season. And league winner Roberto Mancini’s hold on the Manchester City job is by no means firm. There are just four managers in the Barclays Premier League who have completed four seasons in their current jobs. There are nine who are in their first year.

To football’s power brokers, what’s out there is always more attractive than what they hold. The man in the seat is boring. So let’s go out and get one of the men that are in another seat. Or in no seat at all. They may almost all be damaged goods, and statistically unlikely to do better than the man we have now, but what the hell. Out with the old, in with the new.

Di Matteo deserved some leeway, in spite of Chelsea’s continental failings. He’d earned the chance to bend a mere slump, which any manager will suffer at least once a year, back into a winning season.

But Abramovich’s eyes wandered. He’d rather cast his lot with someone else. Someone new. Someone with a clean slate. To whom you can attach endless possibilities.

The king is dead. Long live the king.

Amy Lawrence is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who has been writing about the game since USA `94, covering the Premier League, Champions League, European leagues and international soccer.

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