Roberto Di Matteo has turned around the struggling Blues, but the team's recent success is masking an underlying problem.Don’t believe the hype. Chelsea is not healed. All is not well in West London now that erstwhile-assistant Roberto Di Matteo has taken over from Andre Villas-Boas. Chelsea, rather, owes its remarkable turnaround in form to the placebo effect that’s very common after a failing manager is fired and a caretaker put in place.
Yes, Chelsea is 11-1-4 since Di Matteo took over, punctuated by a 6-1 thumping of Queens Park Rangers on Sunday. Yes, it turned around a seemingly hopeless 3-1 deficit to Napoli in the Round of 16 of the Champions League. Yes, it has since pushed into the Champions League final, shocking even itself by Catenaccio-ing past Barcelona. And yes, it has made the FA Cup final too, redeeming a season roaring down the drain into potentially the club’s most decorated ever.
But to attribute all this to the effect of Di Matteo’s temporary promotion would be a mistake.
When a new manager comes in mid-season, a number of positives tend to ensue that have little to do with who the man in charge is specifically, but more with what he represents. A new manager is a clean slate, a flagging season started anew; gripes forgotten and frustrations set aside. It’s a new man to impress, a chance to start over – even if that man was already on staff at the club.
The best example is perhaps Chelsea itself.
When Jose Mourinho left in a huff in September 2007, fed up with demanding Russian owner Roman Abramovich’s interference, he had a 37.5 winning percentage over the first eight games of the season. His replacement, Avram Grant, won 66 percent of his games to finish out the season and made the Champions League final, where Chelsea lost to Manchester United on penalties. Luiz Felipe Scolari was fired in February 2009 after winning just 56 percent of his games. His caretaker replacement, Guus Hiddink, won 73 percent of the time and lifted the FA Cup. Di Matteo’s has won 68.75 percent of games to Villas-Boas’s 48 percent.
Does this mean Chelsea was as dramatically improved under Grant, Hiddink and Di Matteo as the numbers suggest? No. It means flawed teams in dire need of a re-boot were rejuvenated and started playing the way they should have all along. These incoming managers deserve some of the credit to be sure, but they were just as much the beneficiaries of what they represented: a fresh start.
With this season winding down, Chelsea should ready itself for serious turnover in the offseason. Failing to poke through the illusion that it is suddenly a new and better team – no matter how good it’s looked of late – would do no more than prolong the problem and postpone the pursuit of real solutions to the indefinite future.
Roberto Di Matteo was and is not the answer. Change is. Which isn’t to say Di Matteo can’t stay. But for his success to last, Chelsea will have to keep changing, or risk relapsing into the rut of the first eight months of the season and continuing to cycle through a carousel of caretakers.