The Strange Serenity Of Roberto di Matteo

In a new series that looks at the men, women, children, animals and minerals in our game, we're delighted to welcome Andi Thomas. First up, it's the oddly calm Roberto di Matteo...

Last Updated: 16/08/12 at 16:28 Post Comment

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Watching managers on the touchline is one of the great unacknowledged pleasures of televised football. This is because managers are very peculiar people doing a very peculiar thing; trying, via the medium of the gesture, the shout, the whistle, the wave, the scream, the oath, the head-shake, the bellow, and the furtive whispered conference, to control something over which they have far less power than either they or we would like to admit.

Whether it's Avram Grant spending his last days at West Ham bellowing like an elephant with a spear in his flank, Mark Hughes' peculiar cocktail of glowering contempt and immaculate ball control, or Arsène Wenger's war on water bottles, those who harbour water bottles, those who provide succour or logistical support to water bottles, and their friends and families, the touchline is often where the real entertainment is. Watching the ball clank into touch off the shin of a well-paid galoot is depressing; watching another man explode as a result is comical. But even by the standards of his 19 domestic counterparts and the continental colleagues he ran into, there is - or was, at any rate - something very strange about Roberto di Matteo, Chelsea manager.

Where others might have fretted, he exuded an unearthly ease from the touchline and a frankly suspicious sense of perspective in interviews. His eyes twinkled, even in defeat, while at all times a knowing half-smile played around his mouth, giving him the patient air of an evangelical preacher, perfectly happy to engage with the pell and the mell of this grubby, squalid world because he's guaranteed a beachfront property with excellent transport connections and two reception rooms in the next. Peace. Calm. Safety.

Taking over a club like Chelsea in the wake of a manager like Andre Villas-Boas is the closest thing to heaven on earth a manager is ever likely to see. The squad are so happy at having seen off the oddball who kept asking them to train at funny times and stay awake during tactical briefings that their performances tick up out of simple relief; the fans are delighted that the cackhanded reinvention has been brought to a shuddering halt; the boss is annoyed at your predecessor for making him look like a bit of a fool and looks to you not in expectation but in hope. There is but one job requirement. Don't be the last bloke.

That's where Di Matteo's air of blissed-out security came from; the knowledge that his successes would be his own but any failures would be the failures of another. This calmness then spread out through his squad, John Terry aside, and they responded by parking buses all over Europe with accuracy, effectiveness, and just a little bit of luck, which would have been unthinkable under Villas-Boas and his fizzy meerkat stylings. (Di Matteo's general nattiness may also have contributed here. The man even made Catalan sexpot Pep Guardiola look like a balding man in a cardigan.)

Now, though, everything's different. It may be only a pre-season friendly with ideas above its station, but that air of unnatural self-assurance was gone from the touchline during last Sunday's Charity Shield. For the first time in Chelsea colours, Di Matteo looked like a real, proper football manager; stressed, worried, and vulnerable. This is not to say that failure is inevitable, but the liberation offered by the inadequacies of others is a fleeting gift, and now it's gone forever.

The last man this happened to, Kenny Dalglish, found out that being measured against the world in general is much harder than being held up against a convenient dipstick. Meanwhile, the last Chelsea manager in a similar position was Guus Hiddink, and he had the wit to get out while the going was good. He knew that a caretaker without a mess is just a peculiar man holding a gratuitous broom and shouting, and we've all seen enough Scooby Doo to know how that ends.

So Roberto, if you're reading, here's what you need to do. First, promote Eddie Newton. Second, settle back into your old office, and check that your broom is close at hand. Third, wait patiently. Soon the sweet sound of things falling apart will revisit Stamford Bridge, and it will be your time again.

Andi Thomas

Andi also writes for SB Nation and the FCF, and is on Twitter. He also contributed to the Surreal Football Magazine #1, which is out now, and available here.

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