So, another unveiling; another bloke waving his arms on the touchline for a few months while he waits for his multi-million pound severance package; another round of arguments between those who think The Old Bloke Had To Go and those who think The New Bloke Is Going To be Worse, while those of us who only wish that Abramovich would stop acting like a particularly vile four-year-old and make his fucking mind up (like, you know, grown-ups and intelligent people do) wedge our hands under our bums and try to enjoy the experience of watching gifted players do their stuff.
I have my own opinions about our managers past, present and future, but really, what’s the point of airing them? What does it matter who’s directing the players when it’ll be someone else in less than a year?
We’ve got away with it since the José days for two reasons: first and most important, because Abramovich keeps pumping money into the club, thereby enabling us to buy bloody good players – and good players will always have a chance against less good ones, no matter who the manager is; and second, more subtly, because the core of the team José created was so ridiculously strong-willed that it could basically manage itself, as long as the new boss didn’t try imposing their own ideas (as both Scolari and Villas-Boas attempted to).
We’re not going to get away with it any more. There’ll be no repeat of last year, where we reverted to type half way through the season and fought and fluked our way to a magnificently implausible triumph. There’s no type to revert to any more. The type is playing out its twilight years in Shanghai, or heading off to Paris because it hates the English media for pointing out that it’s basically a complete dick. The type is gone.
The club’s future – brilliantly gifted footballers with their best years ahead of them – are not the sort to stick their chests out and decide to run the team on their own. They’re urbane, modest types, soft-spoken or non-Anglophone (or both). They need a manager to stay with them, work with them, direct them into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. They need to be able to develop in a coherent, planned, sustained fashion. What they don’t need is to be given a new set of instructions and a new way of working every six months (twelve if they’re lucky); to fall in and out of favour, to be asked to play different positions, to be first-choice one season and third-choice the next.
But that’s what they’re going to get, of course.
All we can do is enjoy watching them while they’re here. As for the bloke on the sidelines: forget him. Whether he’s earned our love, like Robbie, or our suspicion and contempt, as Mad Rafa has, there’s no point giving him any thought. There are managers out there who’d love to install an overarching vision at Chelsea, but – by definition – none of them are stupid enough to answer the phone if Abramovich’s spineless lackeys come calling. As Brendan Rogers so succinctly put it this time last year: “I’m trying to build my career, not destroy it.”
I’ll confine myself to reporting on events.
There were several loud choruses of “There’s only one Di Matteo” going around the ground as the players came out, and by “around the ground” I mean everywhere including the well-behaved and generally rather quiet Upper East Stand where I sit. As impressive as this show of feeling was, it was nothing compared to the furious booing which broke out when mic man and general club patsy Neil Barnett hurriedly mentioned Mad Rafa’s name. Clattenburg never got booed like that. Not even Ovrebo got booed like that. I’ve never heard anything like it. Barnett’s attempt to quiet the crowd to mark the death of Dave Sexton was drowned out by the booing: indeed, if it hadn’t been for the fact that the players were obviously gathering around the centre circle for some kind of minute’s silence/applause, I doubt whether the crowd would have let him speak at all.
Predictably, though, the manager was forgotten once the game started, bar a few rounds of “You’re not welcome here” from bits of the Matthew Harding stand, and the pre-arranged show of support for Robbie in the 16th minute.
It was immediately obvious that Cashley and Azpilicueta had been told to hold their position rather than make overlapping attacking runs, and that the midfield would line up in a bank of four when we didn’t have the ball.
The result: Citeh controlled possession with nonchalant ease, but without creating very many chances. Ramires and Obi impressed with their defensive work, and the back four looked very confident. But the hallmark of the team so far this season – the attacking interplay between the three behind Nando – was nowhere to be seen. When we had possession, Mata or Oscar or Hazard found anywhere between five and eight Citeh players in front of them, and with no outlets to the side they were easily dispossessed.
In the first half we managed one shot. One. And it was a free kick from somewhere in Shepherd’s Bush, which was moving about as fast as Mad Rafa at a gentle jog by the time it got through to Joe Hart.
Meanwhile, both Silva and Aguero missed free headers from short range; though, to be fair, Citeh otherwise had little to show for their obvious dominance. Dzeko was utterly invisible; he made Nando look positively threatening by comparison.
In the second half, Cashley and Azpilicueta were both allowed a little more leeway. The latter in particular started popping up in attacking positions on the right quite regularly. The game began to move a bit faster for a while, and we put together two or three decent attacking sequences.
Then, at around the 65th minute, both teams seemed to reach a collective agreement that a draw was probably fine and that they had more interesting things to think about.
And that was that.
I’ve never been able to warm to Cashley, but he was excellent today. Azpilicueta also defended calmly and intelligently and looked another very good prospect. Branners made his usual case for being our first choice centre-half, while Crazy David was back to something like his form of the second half of last season. Obi – who’s quietly having his best season for Chelsea – was disciplined and efficient, and given that he was up against Yaya Touré and Silva you might have to make him our man of the match.
Dave Sexton. Before my time, but he deserved to be higher in everyone’s thoughts today.
Oh, and the ref was good.
Mata and Oscar were marked very tightly and never found enough options in attack to look dangerous. Hazard’s gone a little quiet for a month or two. Nando ran around energetically without seeing much of the ball; his close control will probably never come back but he got in plenty of good positions and had one decent chance which he struck with proper striker’s confidence and power, only letting himself down in the small matter of direction …
… everyone can start arguing about managers, based on selective evidence, personal bias, and absurd correlations between the chances and vagaries of a complex game played out by twenty-two people and the presence of one other man who stands or sits a few yards away, waving his arms about. Meanwhile, The Point will stroll quietly down the Fulham Road, missed by all and sundry.
The Guardian, Daniel Taylor: “The mutiny was loud and sustained and, for Rafael Benitez, callous in its intentions. His team only sporadically threatened to lift the mood and Benitez’s first match as Chelsea’s manager will be remembered only for the vitriol that was waiting for him inside Stamford Bridge. Benitez should probably just be grateful that Manchester City were just as flat and uninspiring because goodness knows what kind of reaction there would have been if Roberto Mancini’s team had put away one of the game’s few chances.”
The Daily Telegraph, Henry Winter: “This was the first time that divorce papers were filed on the first date. As Rafael Benitez stepped out of the tunnel, Chelsea fans made venomously clear their total unwillingness to form any sort of relationship with this “interim first-team manager” who had replaced the popular Roberto di Matteo and who had derided those who keep the blue flag flying high during his Liverpool days. This was brutal.”
The Independent, Sam Wallace: “It was a quite remarkable response to the arrival of a new man at this or any club, one that had been brewing all afternoon and was delivered just seconds before kick-off when Benitez finally arrived by the side of the pitch. There had been banners and grumblings and talk of a protest but the moment that all the frustration came out was a spontaneous howl of anger.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “Rafael Benitez’s reign as Chelsea interim manager saw the Blues and Manchester City play out a goalless draw, only the second occasion this season on which we’ve failed to score in the league.”
- Dave Sexton 1930-2012
- Dave Sexton: Footballer who went on to manage Chelsea, QPR and Manchester United