“Oh yes, that would be so nice” – memorable lyrics from the enigmatic Brazilian chanteuse of the 1960s, Astrud Gilberto. I was reminded of this Bossa Nova classic during the Newcastle match, not only because of the rhythmic Carnaval football unleashed upon the Geordies, but during one incident in particular – the lovely Eva Carneiro attending to the temporarily injured David Luiz. Head wound comforted and bandage wrapped tight, she proceeded to console the defender by sympathetically rubbing his chest, a tender gesture I’m sure Wayne Rooney would’ve liked after having his thigh lacerated by the protruding edge of a cleat. Nice of her, eh?
Without reading too deeply into isolated events and the sentimentality of team doctors, that little moment encapsulated the grander mood at the club. Apart from eighty million pounds’ worth of new recruits, there is a distinctly different aura when this season’s starting XI strides out onto the pitch. A thick ether that once seemingly plagued its inner workings appears to have been eviscerated. Yes, the world is indeed a different place with an etched star presiding over the club crest in what I’m sure is only the first sighting in a constellation of European triumph. But something larger is at play, reverberating from the boardroom to Fulham Broadway. And one need not look farther than Roberto Di Matteo to understand the positive shift in energies collectively oozing from everyone involved.
Calm and composed as a player and even more stoic as a manager, RDM’s managerial style was uncannily reflected in Eva’s brief comforting moment. We hear a lot of talk from the pantheon of punditry and slick-voiced commentators about the need to “impose” one’s style onto a football club. Is that actually necessary? Jose was successful at doing so because of his unique ability to enamour a shared siege mentality onto everyone at Cobham, possibly even the cooking staff. How about the rest that came, saw and… failed miserably and went home with their tail tucked in between their track suit? As far as clueless, imposing clowns go, AVB and Scolari still have nothing nice to say about their time at the club.
Robbie, on the other hand, is not a footballing missionary. He certainly does not feel the need to proselytize his unwavering philosophies. In the technical area, we are not subjected to an overarching boss barking orders at his charges, gesticulating wildly or condemning the referee with a fury reminiscent of some of the more outspoken managers in the league, past and present. Instead, RDM has championed a transformational style of management, one which seeks to devolve power throughout the squad while maintaining a respectable degree of authority. A sturdy head wrap, a pat on the chest and an arm around the shoulder, if you will. In the business world, consider Richard Branson, whose vast success has often been attributed to his disdain for top-heavy management, not all too dissimilar from our own dashing pioneer.
The Matteoan school of thought has also perhaps transformed the club as a whole. Sketchy back-room politics seem to be a thing of the past. Player power never looks like it will enter the equation again. Tension between the layered bureaucracy Abramovich has created over the years is not rearing its ugly head. The board, the Russian’s advisors, Michael Emenalo and the manager would appear to be working in tandem – for once. All is quiet on the West London front. The owner, after all, has not just craved expansive attacking play, but a man at the helm who accepts his larger capacity as a coach rather than a Machiavellian manager. What role Di Matteo played in the surge of transfer dealings is debatable, but it is working despite whoever is whispering into Abramovich’s ear, and, as a result, we are being treated to the best opening exchanges of football in years.
Man management is, however, most effective only when combined with an intimate structural knowledge of the English game and peppered with bold tactical acumen. The first three matches have, in fact, shown Robbie at his best. Hazard and Mata have been authorized to wander and link as they like, a further example of his policy of devolution. The full-backs have been encouraged to get as far forward as possible, culminating in two Ivanovic goals (what an absolute hero this man is) and a delicate assist by Ashley Cole. Trailing against Reading, Di Matteo waited less than 10 minutes into the second half to make changes and soon replaced Mikel, leaving the midfield quite barren. It worked. The Catenaccio style brought about by Robbie to steady the ship last season is evolving, and the convincing dismissal of Wigan, Reading and a now-reputed Newcastle should silence any doubters of the man’s ability to build a team front to back. A midfield trio of Meireles, Mikel and Bertrand would have had most fans spilling their stout not too long ago, yet Robbie made it tick oh so well.
Regarding Eden Hazard: has anyone ever seen a foreign player, aged 21, enter the Premier League – the hypercompetitive contemporary league at that – adapt and ransack opposing teams of their training and preparation ever so quickly? If Chelsea were to achieve something extraordinary this season, Hazard would undoubtedly play a key role, and, if you ask this writer, the Belgian sensation, a perfect blend of silk and steel, has every chance of becoming the club’s very first Ballon d’Or winner. I imagine Fernando Torres will have a framed photo of Hazard by his bedside if they continue to one-two their way to glory.
And that is perhaps the last weight off the shoulders of all those involved with Chelsea Football Club – the indelible resurgence of a Spaniard who has acknowledged – and perhaps in part thrived from – the unconditional backing from a gracious legion of loyal supporters. Rabonas, cushioned heel passes and belting toe pokes into the top corner all seem to have made their way into a rivetingly confident repertoire. The fans have done their job and stuck by him. Di Matteo has revitalized his self-belief. The Hazard-Mata axis will supply him for seasons to come. He’s even getting that tad bit luckier given the questionable offside call against Reading, one which would have never gone in his favour in seasons prior.
But one would be foolish to discount the impact Didier Drogba’s departure has had on Torres. It is one thing to have Drogba charging full force or leaning the entirety of his 90 kilograms of bulk onto you. It is quite another to have the Ivorian peacemaker – and the closest thing to footballing royalty – breathing down your neck in the dressing room. No striker ever came close to being Chelsea’s main man when Didier was around, injured, suspended or otherwise. Torres now has the unenviable task of leading the line of the European champions by default. With the uncertainty and fear that once clouded his judgement and the domineering presence of our African king all but gone, it is an opportunity he is grabbing by the jugular.
I, too, fear virtually no one this season. Business on the pitch looks promising, to say the least. Off it, Moses and Azpilcueta (cannot wait to see what the fans nickname this fella) have completed a squad that is without doubt the deepest in England – and perhaps even Europe. Commercially, the club has also struck some impressive deals by bringing on board Audi, Gazprom (probably not hardest deal to close) and Delta Airlines as sponsors.
We now are on the verge of perhaps claiming our first piece of silverware this season. Surely the European Super Cup will mean less in the media and internet forum circles once John Terry lifts it. I imagine Michel and Sepp will tweet their plans to eradicate the trophy were it to happen. Lunacy of the powers that be aside, it will be a much-welcomed addition to an already abundant trophy cabinet.
Just six months ago, possibly every Chelsea fan the world over pondered, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we won the Champions League, went on to sign some of the finest young talent in the modern game in the summer and topped the league by August end through efficiently beautiful football?” So nice indeed.