Chelsea’s Russian billionaire owner has a simple message for the coach who’ll replace Roberto Di Matteo, fired by the west London soccer club today: Win.
Roman Abramovich’s reaction to poor form is swift. Di Matteo, who in May turned Chelsea into the U.K. capital’s first European champion, lasted only 262 days, yet three other coaches hired by Abramovich were fired earlier in their tenures.
“Our philosophy, and the club has made no secret about it, is all about building on the success on the field,” Chelsea Chief Executive Officer Ron Gourlay said in an interview this month. “At the end of the day, every manager who comes clearly knows what the objectives of the football club are.”
Chelsea said in a statement tonight that former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, who led the Reds to the Champions League title in 2005, will take over as interim coach for the rest of the season. The 52-year-old Spaniard will be Chelsea’s ninth manager since Abramovich’s 2003 takeover.
Chelsea was leading the Premier League after winning seven of the first eight matches this season, yet has slipped in recent games. The club has won two of the last eight in all competitions and last night’s 3-0 defeat at Juventus leaves it close to becoming the first Champions League winner to be eliminated in the group stages.
Di Matteo, a former Chelsea and Italy midfielder, was promoted from assistant to manager when Abramovich fired Andre Villas-Boas within eight months of paying Porto 15 million euros ($19 million) for the Portuguese coach. Originally getting the post as an interim manager in March, the 42-year-old was given a permanent contract in June after the team secured a penalty shootout win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League final and a fourth F.A. Cup in six seasons.
Di Matteo’s overnight exit demonstrates “not decisive leadership, but knee-jerk authoritarianism,” said Chris Roebuck, a leadership expert at Cass Business School in London.
“Given the performance Di Matteo has delivered and the chance a ‘bad patch’ was always on the cards, a more tolerant approach would have made common sense,” he said.
While Abramovich has had as many managers as Chelsea did in the first 70 years of its existence, he’s also been responsible for the most successful period in the club’s history.
The 46-year-old rarely speaks publicly, but is a regular at the team’s Stamford Bridge stadium and its Cobham training ground on the outskirts of London. He’s spent more than $1 billion on building a team capable of competing for trophies and talent. During his nine-year reign, Chelsea has won three Premier League titles, four F.A. Cups, two League Cups and the Champions League, a competition the owner craved since buying into soccer.
“Everybody says ‘Does the owner demand that we win every competition?’” Gourlay said. “No, but the owner expects with the investment that we put into the football club that we want to be competing in every competition. We want to be in the finals and we want to be playing the game in a nice way.”
Di Matteo’s firing resembles that of his predecessor. Villas-Boas dropped two senior players, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, ahead of a 3-1 Champions League defeat to Napoli. Villas-Boas was ousted following a loss to West Bromwich Albion 11 days later.
Di Matteo, who helped Chelsea advance last season by overturning the deficit to Napoli, yesterday dropped striker Fernando Torres for the loss to Juventus. The player, who cost a U.K.-record 50 million pounds ($80 million) in January 2011, was on the bench for the first 70 minutes of the game. His last league game ended in a 2-1 loss at West Brom.
While Chelsea looks for another man to occupy its dugout, critics say such a rapid turnover affects its long-term planning. Manchester United has had the same manager since 1986. Alex Ferguson took four years to win his first trophy before going on to win 12 Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues.
“The stability at our club is something our manager rarely gets praise for...don’t under estimate that,” United defender Rio Ferdinand said on Twitter, shortly after Chelsea announced Di Matteo’s exit.
Media reports have said that former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola is Chelsea’s preferred choice for the permanent job.
“Who would accept such a role with the chance of being sacked in the middle of the night? This event just goes to confirm the significant dangers of command and control leadership,” Roebuck said.
The churn of managers has also hurt Chelsea’s bottom line. The club this season announced its first profit in Abramovich’s era. A year earlier it lost 67.7 million pounds, much of which was from coaching changes.
To limit its losses, Chelsea’s payoffs to Carlo Ancelotti and Villas-Boas, the two previous departed coaches, have been restricted to paying their salaries up until they found new work. Luiz Felipe Scolari and his coaching team received a lump sum of 12.6 million pounds in 2009. Spokesman Steve Atkins said terms of Di Matteo’s contract were confidential.
“In the world of football, as in business, sometimes things don’t go the way we want, but a short-term view of life can end up being counterproductive to both long-term performance and revenue generation,” Roebuck said.