Have Chelsea stumbled upon the answer?
A year ago, Roberto Di Matteo was spending his time visiting clubs around the continent, furthering his coaching education on the quiet. Sacked by West Bromwich Albion after enduring a horrible mid-season slump that had yielded one win in nine league games, he was seeking to rebuild his reputation. Having initially returned to Stamford Bridge as a familiar face, he is now proving the perfect antidote to Chelsea's peaky campaign.
Di Matteo is revelling as the caretaker. After 13 games, his record is identical to that of Guus Hiddink – won 10, drawn two, lost one – after the experienced Dutchman took over in a similar capacity from Luiz Felipe Scolari in 2009. Hiddink, too, confronted Barcelona in the last four of the Champions League and reached an FA Cup final, and was unbeaten in his remaining nine matches before returning to full-time employment with the Russian Football Federation. There is a sense of deja vu at present. This group of players has a history of uniting, and rallying, once a manager who has not convinced all in the dressing room has been ousted.
The difference between Hiddink and Di Matteo, the former's vast experience aside, is the Italian will be available to take up the position full-time. The veteran Dutchman had always been destined to return to Moscow, with even Roman Abramovich unable to convince him or a federation over which he exerts considerable influence that he should be released from his duties with the national team. Di Matteo, on the other hand, is out of contract at the club in the summer and will recognise this as an opportunity to make himself a long-term fixture. After all, the chance to coach a Champions League contender comes round very rarely.
So what has he done that has been so successful?
Di Matteo's has been a study in common-sense management. He was thrust into the interim first-team coach role with Chelsea fifth in the Premier League, facing an awkward fifth-round FA Cup replay at Birmingham, and well adrift in their Champions League last-16 tie against Napoli. Senior players were disillusioned having been marginalised by André Villas-Boas. The stand-in was charged with securing a top-four place; progress in cup competitions would be considered a bonus.
Faced with that scenario, with no time in a crammed schedule to instigate radical change and no transfer window to introduce new faces, the pragmatist in Di Matteo clicked in. Chelsea's squad had consistently qualified for the Champions League playing a style of football that suited them, so he allowed them to express themselves the way they knew best. Out went his predecessor's desire for patient, possession football and in came the urgency and strength of old. All the long-term planning this club had hoped to put in place through Villas-Boas was simply put on hold. Most of the players have delighted in the familiar routine.
Even the in-house doubters – and there were plenty initially who were unconvinced by the 41-year-old's pedigree – have been won over by the manager's simple willingness to communicate. One of the principal criticisms of Villas-Boas was a lack of dialogue from the top, but virtually every assessment of his replacement has included an acknowledgement that there is clarity these days in everything asked of them. He made peace with those who were disaffected. There has been a maturity to his approach throughout.
And it has had an effect on the pitch
The stand-in has proved tactically assured to date while also sensibly shifting his resources to ensure a hefty fixture schedule does not drain momentum from the campaign. Senior players have been more readily willing to accept life on the fringes when clear reasoning has been offered, and effectively with guarantees that all will play some part in the weeks ahead.
Approaching matches game by game, concentrating on who is fit, in form and may best impose himself on immediate opponents, was a simple, practical philosophy. Players such as Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou are edging towards the end of their contracts, and lucrative summer moves away, but the need to look short-term rather than further into the club's future has allowed Di Matteo to rely upon all-comers. Training has been tweaked rather than completely remodelled. The players, content in a winning side, have been convinced, recognising perhaps that this represents – for some – a last hurrah on this stage.
And, with less anxiety creeping into their play, Chelsea under Di Matteo have benefited from better fortune than they did under Villas-Boas. The Portuguese's results were undermined by profligacy, yet now Chelsea feel ruthless again. The Barcelona game was an extreme example of that – one shot on target, one goal – but the victory against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday was another, a 5-1 success that combined a dose of luck with some devastating finishing.
But is he the man to instigate the changes still required?
While Di Matteo has flourished to date in what was always a salvage mission, the longer-term issues that so flummoxed Villas-Boas still have to be addressed. This squad still requires an injection of new blood if they are to challenge in the Premier League – they are 25 points behind Manchester United at the top at present, which feels unacceptable – and the owner will still cherish a team playing the slick, forward-thinking football Barça tend to muster. After all, he had enjoyed the style with silverware Villas-Boas had instigated at Porto.
The summer still promises to be one of change. Players will leave regardless of whether this squad reaches – or even wins – the Champions League in Munich. Drogba may have beaten Barcelona but is expected to start the summer under Nicolas Anelka at Shanghai Shenhua, and his will not be the only high-profile exit. Replacements will be required, and the team's approach adapted to accommodate the new faces.
Di Matteo would relish the opportunity to oversee such a transformation, but that task was considered too much for Carlo Ancelotti, a two-time European Cup winning manager, and quickly overwhelmed Villas-Boas, the brightest young coach of the moment upon his appointment last summer. Would Abramovich be willing to ask the stand-in to take it on? Results achieved with the old guard are one thing, but a long term-vision is something else. The Italian must convince the oligarch, and most immediately his eyes and ears at Cobham – the technical director, Michael Emenalo – that he warrants inclusion high on the shortlist for the long-term position.
Who else would be available?
The reality is that the club will be tempted to scrutinise the market over the summer, with the hierarchy perhaps wary of acting with haste on an appointment. Avram Grant, with a team rallying around strong characters, lost only two league games in charge of the team after taking over from José Mourinho in the autumn of 2007, as well as reaching finals in the Champions League and Carling Cup, though the three-and-a-half-year contract awarded the Israeli always felt injudicious. He was ultimately sacked nine months into the deal.
Chelsea may not be the only side seeking changes at the top in the summer, and there could be candidates aplenty. The focus invariably fixes upon Pep Guardiola – yet to sign a contract extension at Barça, but inclined to take a sabbatical if he does leave the Camp Nou – and Mourinho, whose future at Real Madrid could also be in question. But there are others who may be considered: Everton's David Moyes; the France coach, Laurent Blanc; Marseille's Didier Deschamps; and Marcelo Bielsa at Athletic Bilbao. Indeed, a number of prominent coaches could be on the market after Euro 2012, keen to restore Chelsea as Premier League contenders. Di Matteo can point to his results as evidence of his ability. He will hope that counts for plenty.