Ninety Minutes From The Sack

Last week, Manchester United unveiled a statue of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Bronze-Fergie’s hands are di matteofolded across bronze-Fergie’s chest, and while bronze-Fergie seems to be missing flesh-Fergie’s legendary watch, the sculptor looks to have done a pretty accurate job. Ferguson has coached United for more than 25 years. In that time, ten Liverpool managers have come and gone. Among the top English clubs (sorry, Everton), only Arsenal has a coach whose longevity rivals Sir Alex’s, and even he trails Fergie by a decade.

Ferguson is the last survivor of a dying era. Last month, Mark Hughes of Queens Park Rangers and Roberto Di Matteo of Chelsea were both fired after less than a year at their respective clubs. Hughes’ sacking came after a disappointing start to QPR’s season, but Chelsea won the Champions League earlier this year, and, at the time of Di Matteo’s dismissal, was only four points off the top of the Premier League. The team was also playing attractive football, which, for Chelsea – a club whose blunt, bullying, borderline-racist players[1] have been intimidating the West Broms of this world for about seven years – is not so much highly unusual as highly suspicious.

At least 90 percent of Di Matteo’s downfall had more to do with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich and his bizarre, illogical management than it did with Di Matteo himself. Abramovich is an entertainingly shady Russian billionaire whose penchant for firing managers who probably don’t deserve to be fired has turned him into a bit of a cartoon enemy. There are probably lots of kind, humble Chelsea supporters who are deeply ashamed of their inability to hate Abramovich, and who spend at least a couple of minutes each day pondering this moral failure[2]. Without Ambramovich, Chelsea wouldn’t fire managers on a regular basis: his bizarre egomania forces the sackings, and his billions fund the big severance checks that departing managers take with them as a sort of consolation prize[3]. But remove Ambramovich from the equation, and Chelsea is a mid-table team. The Stamford Bridge faithful is obligated to love him.

No doubt, when the history of this season is written, The Mark Hughes Fiasco will be swept to one side, left for a few (very, very) masochistic QPR fans to chew over. What’s unfair about Hughes’ plight is that while Chelsea fans, Premier League managers, and national newspapers – everyone short of Rafa Benitez’s mom – have been mourning Di Matteo (it’s so unfair and he was such a sweet bloke) since the second his firing was announced, no one has shed a tear for QPR’s (now former) coach.

Yet Hughes is a victim of the same cruel logic that did for his Chelsea counterpart[4]. It’s unreasonable to expect coaches on either end of the quality spectrum to construct winning teams immediately, especially when those coaches are working with players who may never have played together before and don’t fancy making room for the new guy’s ego, or forfeiting parking space to the new guy’s Ferrari, or whatever. The media has, perhaps unconsciously, subscribed to the same perverse philosophy that Ambramovich introduced to the Premier League when he sacked[5] Jose Mourinho: every manager’s career is a ticking time bomb, and when the bomb goes off – when a couple of results swing in favor of the opposition, when the manager fails to stop Big Ego X from smashing New Guy Y’s Ferrari – it’s curtains for the dude in the dugout.

Short-termism is an issue in every sport, but because football is the most popular sport in the world, football’s short-termism is amplified in ways that the LA Lakers can’t quite match. Take Roberto Di Matteo, for instance. His entire Chelsea career was a study in the fundamental randomness of Roman Abramovich’s fucked-up mind. Di Matteo took over from Andre Villas-Boas in February, as interim manager. In May, he won the Champions League. Abramovich then waited three weeks before officially appointing Di Matteo as permanent head coach. In the time between the Champions League final and Di Matteo’s official appointment, Chelsea was rumored to be holding advanced discussions with Pep Guardiola – the same Pep Guardiola who left Barcelona because endless media shenanigans wore him down. Now that Di Matteo is gone – replaced by another interim coach, Rafa Benitez – Chelsea fans are starting to whisper about Guardiola again.

It’s worth mentioning Guardiola, since, for the past four seasons, he’s floated above all this nonsensical firing and hiring. Barcelona is the most consistent, stable organization in football: from the youth academy all the way up to the first team, Barca’s players practice a single, unifying strategy. Between 2008 and 2012, Barca stuck with the same manager, and when Guardiola finally left, his assistant, Tito Vilanova, took over immediately. Now Barca is 11 points clear of Real Madrid and cruising to another championship.

More than anything, Abramovich wants Chelsea to emulate Barcelona’s possession style. He doesn’t seem to realize, however, that constant firings disrupt whatever semblance of continuity the fired coaches have managed to instill,[6] thereby delaying the whole project. How can the Chelsea players learn to produce sustained passing moves when the man whose responsibility it is to orchestrate those moves is always one mistake away from the sack?

In the wake of Di Matteo’s dismissal, Chelsea has played out two disappointing 0-0 draws. The fans are already complaining. Manchester United and Manchester City are beginning to pull away, and if results don’t improve soon, Chelsea will be cut adrift. All the while, Benitez stands in the dugout, boos raining down from the stands. Upstairs, a Russian watches intently. Benitez continues to stand, emotionless, as still as a statue.

[1] John Terry. Cough.

[2] Lots of Chelsea fans are unhappy about the way the club treated Di Matteo, but none of that unhappiness manifests as anti-Abramovich chants, t-shirts or banners. Instead, the fans have concentrated their ire on new coach Rafa Benitez, the one Chelsea employee who had absolutely nothing to do with Di Matteo’s dismissal.

[3] Roman seems more than happy to sign those checks: he’s fired six coaches in the last seven seasons, one of whom, Andre Villas-Boas, walked away with a cool 12 million pounds in compensation.

[4] Only, in Hughes’ case, it was even less logical. Di Matteo’s Chelsea was battling at the top of the league; Hughes’ QPR was battling for survival. Tony Fernandes’ decision only seems straightforward if you think that Chelsea and QPR should be held to the same standards, which they clearly shouldn’t. Relative to his pre-season ambitions, Di Matteo wasn’t doing all that much better than Hughes. Remember: Chelsea, despite its glorious attacking football, is 90 minutes away from Champions League elimination.

[5] Mutual consent, my ass.

[6] You know, the stuff coaches work on when they’re not dodging bullets or walking across tight ropes or doing both at the same time in front of 40,000 screaming “fans.”

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