Cosmic Trigger Happy

What a strange club Chelsea are. Their whole history is defined by the nine-and-a-half years of their current owner, which now consists of nine managers and counting in which they have won a few trophies but few friends.

Roman Abramovich’s ambition has always been to align attractive football with European dominance. But his methods of aggressive headhunting have failed him. He brought in Peter Kenyon from Manchester United as a Chief Executive, poached Tottenham Hotspur’s Director of Football, Frank Arnesen, and later tried to buy Steven Gerrard, Thierry Henry and Rio Ferdinand, with a hostile approach that makes it highly probable he also went for Arsenal’s stadium before setting his sights on Earls Court.

For the managerial hot-seat, he first tried to get Sven Goran Eriksson while Claudio Ranieri the incumbent in the job when he took over, was still in situ. The flood of players that followed in Abramovich’s first summer, including relatively large sums spent on Glen Johnson, Wayne Bridge and Joe Cole, had Ericsson’s finger prints on the dealings.  But Ericsson got cold feet, Jose Mourinho came the following summer after winning the European Cup with Porto and Abramovich’s first managerial change paid off.

Mourinho fell out of favour eventually, a poor performance in Europe in front of empty seats being the final straw for Abramovich’s weak back. Six managers later and European Cup success finally came this May, but the manner was so dour that the term “doing a Chelsea” soon became an insult in its own right in punditry during the following month’s  European Championships.

Despite himself, Abramovich stuck with Roberto Di Matteo, finding it too hard to dispense with an interim coach who had won the trophy he always wanted as well as an FA Cup, especially considering the man he really wanted was planning a sabbatical in New York. This season though, with the addition of Eden Hazard and Oscar alongside Juan Mata, a club that looked bereft of ideas on the pitch for the previous 18 months, were playing above themselves, and their standing of the sixth best team in last season’ English Premier League.

Chelsea’s statement this evening announcing Rafa Benetiz is their new interim Manager emphasises the fact that his success in his time in England as Liverpool was signified by a European Cup and an FA Cup. The same achievements as the man he is replacing. There is of course nothing about producing free-flowing football in Benitez’s bio, because he is not that man. He is the man that wanted to replace Xabi Alonso with Gareth Barry. A man whose philosophy is based on defensive shape. And more notebook and statistic led than he is intuitively a football man – a bit like Di Matteo’s predecessor, Andre Villas-Boas.

Villas-Boas got that job, and arguably his current job at Spurs, as Chairmen look for a new Jose Mourinho, a man who can bring success to a club based on a specialist approach to coaching. But he left Chelsea with the least successful win percentage of all the nine Chelsea Managers there have been in Abramovich’s tenure and his football is not exactly setting pulses racing at White Hart Lane either.

It is unlikely Benitez has been appointed to instill some discipline in to a team that already has an experience back four and plays with two sitting midfielders. Especially if the owner remembers Benitez is the man who left Dietmar Hamann out of the starting XI of the 2005 European Cup Final which led to them going 3-0 down against Milan.

The only plausible reason Benitez has been taken on is a desperate gamble that he can resurrect something in Fernando Torres that was lost over two years ago, when he was still at Anfield, like a Mojo that slipped down the back of a sofa that is now lying in an unidentified landfill site. Di Matteo’s decision to leave Torres out last night and effectively play without a front man invited trouble from his boss following defeat at the Hawthorns at the weekend, so intrinsically linked are Torres’ success and Abramovich’s decision making.

Whether it works or not, Benitez’s stay is likely to be temporary. After Ericsson, Carlo Ancelotti and Villas-Boas, Pep Guardiola is the latest gleam in the owner’s eye. But almost inevitably the tenth Chelsea manager in Abramovich’s reign, if Guardiola fanices a few months in London or not, will at some point become the latest rabbit in the headlights.


The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to preview for free and download for less than the price of a pint in the Champions League Final from Amazon and Smashwords. It documents football at the highest level and the journey of travelling around Europe following a sport where money is now valued alongside trophies. It ends with an epilogue written the day after Chelsea beat Bayern Munich to win the European Cup in May. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.