Among the many who watched in disbelief as Chelsea defied all odds and all logic to produce an incredulous victory over Barcelona, there would have been one man in particular who would have been considerably baffled, and most certainly aggrieved. It was a performance of immense character, discipline, desire and resilience from the English side, qualities that had been starkly absent, however, in the same players not too long ago – under former manager Andre Villas-Boas.
When the Portuguese departed at the beginning of March after just nine months in charge, the club was in complete disarray. Poor results, insipid performances and unrest within the team had raised questions about Villas-Boas’ managerial abilities, tactical choices and man-management skills. When the short thread of owner Roman Abramovich’s patience finally snapped, Chelsea were fifth in the Premier League, facing an uncomfortable fifth-round replay against Birmingham in the FA Cup and a 3-1 deficit against Napoli in their Champions League last-16 tie. With the prospect of their worst season ever since the Russian’s arrival at Stamford Bridge looming large, assistant manager Roberto di Matteo was tasked with salvaging Chelsea’s sinking season. Even he, however, would never have dreamt of the remarkable transformation that has taken place since.
With a run of 10 wins, four draws and only one defeat in his 15 games in charge, Chelsea now find themselves on the verge of an unexpected double, having reached the final of the FA Cup and the Champions League. A season that had threatened to end in misery and ignominy now holds the promise of unprecedented glory. And it is not just Villas-Boas who will be struggling to explain his former side’s resurgence.
The managerial change, of course, has played its part, though perhaps di Matteo has not received his fair share of the credit. Put in a position where short-term success took precedence over long-term planning, the pragmatic Italian turned to the past to consolidate the immediate future. In recent games, Chelsea’s performances have been strongly reminiscent of those under Jose Mourinho, who laid the foundation of much of their success, or Guus Hiddink, another caretaker manager who performed a similar rescue act. Villas-Boas’ high defensive line and over-elaborate style of play has been ditched for a system more familiar to the players – and this approach of going back to the basics and doing “the simple things,” as Frank Lampard explained it, has paid dividends.
It is not just in his tactics, however, that di Matteo has turned the clock back. By relying on the much-maligned ‘senior players’ and restoring their importance, the former Chelsea man has coaxed out of them the backing and support his predecessor never enjoyed. While Villas-Boas was often accused of being high-handed in his relations with the players, the 41-year-old has adopted a more open and relaxed attitude, and has spoken individually to each team member to ensure they are all on board and clear about the role they have to play.
The players, in turn, have responded magnificently, with their strength and battling spirit the basis of the stunning 2-2 draw at Camp Nou. The experienced John Terry (his moment of madness against Barcelona aside), Ashley Cole, Petr Cech, Frank Lampard, and Didier Drogba have shown the form many believed was past them, while even fringe players like Salomon Kalou have played with a point to prove. With the pressure off, others like David Luiz, Gary Cahill, Raul Meireles and Fernando Torres have had some of their best games in a Chelsea shirt, with Branislav Ivanovic and Ramires the stand-out performers of the season. “We always get something special out when we need to. I think that’s part of the DNA of these players,” praised di Matteo.
While critics will legitimately question why such committed displays were not produced for Villas-Boas, di Matteo has been able to go about his job unburdened by expectation. Few gave Chelsea a chance against the mighty Barcelona, not even after they nicked a win in the first leg. Yet for all their dominance and tiki-taka, the Catalans were outscored by the Blues. Pep Guardiola’s side did hit the post on several occasions and even missed a penalty, but di Matteo has enjoyed a considerable slice of luck so far – again something that eluded the unfortunate Villas-Boas – even in earlier matches against Wigan, Fulham and Tottenham, and that has also made a difference.
The plaudits di Matteo and his team are now receiving are justified, but Chelsea would do well to remember that this revival is doomed to be short-lived, even if it does end with trophies. The ageing squad may have managed to muster the will and gumption for one last fight, but the ‘old guard’ cannot be expected to carry the team on a regular basis for much longer. Indeed, as Chelsea’s troubles in the Premier League have shown – they are currently sixth in the table, 25 points behind leaders Manchester United, and may still miss out on Champions League football next season – the transition that Villas-Boas was brought in to oversee is still badly required. The team needs an urgent overhaul and changes need to be made in both personnel and approach, if they are to consistently challenge for titles and avoid the fate of Liverpool and Arsenal. Abramovich, meanwhile, will demand exciting football and continued success, and that will not make the job any easier for the manager who takes charge next season.
Whether that is the confident di Matteo or another manager, they will face the same challenges as Villas-Boas did a year earlier. Their success will determine how far Chelsea’s resurgence can last. For the time being though, it has given the players who have formed the core of much of Chelsea’s recent achievements a chance to end their era with a defining and memorable triumph.