Appointing Rafael Benitez was the right call say Chelsea
WHEN Roberto Di Matteo was removed by the Chelsea board in November, the rationale behind the decision was that the club needed a manager who could give the side a style and identity that it was perceived to lack, in spite of its status as European champions. Identifying the same cracks as had been discernible under Andre Villas-Boas the previous season, it was felt prudent to make changes quickly rather than wait until the new year.
Three months on from that decision and the mood outside the club is that the appointment of Rafa Benitez has backfired. Not so, say those who run Chelsea, who believe that, in spite of all that has happened, it was still the right call.
What has changed is that the small chance that Benitez, Chelsea's manager for the interim, might have done enough to claim the job as his own is now officially extinguished. There was a faint hope that he could solve all the club's problems by announcing himself as the man to do the job in the long term, but no longer.
What Chelsea's owner and board want is an identity for their club, and a manager who can implement one and be successful - no mean feat - is what the big hitters, chairman Bruce Buck, chief executive Ron Gourlay and technical director Michael Emenalo have sought. The obvious template is Barcelona, but Manchester United are another regarded as another example, a team that nearly always attacks, with a history of winning games late on and has a reputation that precedes it.
It was that instinct that persuaded them to appoint Villas-Boas in 2011, an appointment that, at the time, the club desperately wanted to succeed. So much so that with hindsight they feel they should have sacked him earlier. In the end they left it to March to sack Villas-Boas and finished outside the Champions League places, only qualifying again because of their improbable success in the competition last season.
Last summer, despite severe misgivings, they entrusted the job to Roberto Di Matteo against their better instincts. Having won the European Cup with a team that stifled the opposition and defended for its life, Di Matteo told the board he could change style. They were unconvinced, and as things started to get worse the decision was made to take the pain early and move on rather than see if Di Matteo could change.
It was games that looked fairly innocuous, such as the failure to attack Queens Park Rangers in the last period of a goalless draw at Loftus Road in September that helped convince the club Di Matteo had not thrown off his natural caution. They took the bold step of appointing Benitez. Now the tenth manager of Roman Abramovich's ownership must be appointed this summer. But who?
The key factor that has changed since Benitez's appointment in November is the decision by Pep Guardiola to sign a three-year deal with Bayern Munich. That announcement was born by Chelsea at bracely as they could muster. They have, at times, believed that they were close to a commitment from the former Barcelona coach and their No 1 choice. The attitude is that the club is bigger than any one man, but they would have given Guardiola whatever he asked for.
There is understood to have been preliminary contact with Jose Mourinho who is open to the idea. Naturally the return of the club's most successful ever manager would solve the issue of fan discontent at a stroke, not that the club's board are too concerned on that score. Mourinho's record is not in doubt and there are no fears he could build a team capable of challenging for the major trophies.
But the problem with Mourinho is that Chelsea fear they will find themselves back in the same position in two or three years' time. Certainly, along the way there would be every chance that he might bring them trophies and excitement, but his track record dictates that he stays for a relatively short period of time and then moves on. Despite their track record, they want a manager for the long-term.
David Moyes is another manager who has merited serious consideration at the club. Again, the question asked of Moyes by those in the club's hierarchy is whether he can build a side and a style of play that makes Chelsea more than a very successful trophy-winning side and enables them to build a philosophy that they can draw on for many years to come.
Michael Laudrup is another attractive proposition who has fitted into English football extremely successfully. He has embraced Swansea's approach, that they pick managers with similar values in order that there does not need to be wholesale change of players every time the manager changes. Exactly what Chelsea want themselves.
Two former Chelsea players who have made great strides in the Championship over also cannot be discounted. Gus Poyet is managing on a small budget at Brighton but as well as taking them to sixth place this season, his team play with a discernible style and flair. Even Arsene Wenger was moved to praise them after Arsenal's fourth round FA Cup tie there last month.
Poyet, who has two more years on his contract after the summer, has the qualities that appeal to Abramovich. He has played for Chelsea, and he has the kind of personality that would be respected among the club's biggest names . So too his former team-mate at the club, Gianfranco Zola, whose Watford are second in the Championship.
Considering those range of options, Chelsea are not in a bad position, especially if Benitez can get them Champions League football next year. The board and the owner would, ideally, like a manager who can establish himself long-term - even if they have a funny way of showing it.