Breaking Down Roberto Di Matteo's Influence on Chelsea's Resurgence
Chelsea heads into its match with Norwich City on Saturday atop the Premier League table, three points clear of second place after six games. It's just the latest sign of success under manager Roberto Di Matteo, who has transformed the Blues since taking over.
One debate that has raged on for as long as sports have existed is the overall impact of a coach or manager. Some analysts would argue their impact is minimal while others would say they are crucial to success, and, in reality, the answer is likely somewhere in between the two extremes.
Yet, it's impossible to look at the Chelsea situation and discount the job Di Matteo has done to turn the storied club back into a top European contender despite not having a large roster overhaul since taking the reigns from Andre Villas-Boas.
The 42-year-old Italian took over last March on an interim basis with the team out of form and destined to finish the campaign in disappointing fashion. Chelsea had won just one of its last seven matches and were on the brink of Champions League elimination.
Everything changed in the blink of an eye. Suddenly the Blues were playing with more confidence and energy, and the results showed followed suit. It was almost like an entirely different team was taking the field all of a sudden.
Chelsea won its first four games under the guidance of Di Matteo, including a stunning Champions League comeback against Napoli, a match that was the first clear sign something special was going on Stamford Bridge.
Football fans around the globe know what happened from there. Chelsea completed an amazing run in the Champions League, knocking off Benfica, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, and also lifted the FA Cup by defeating Liverpool.
The surprising late-season charge begs one question: How did Di Matteo get his players to turn off a dead-end road and back on the path to championships so quickly?
Taking over a team in the middle of a season is extremely difficult. Players have spent months adapting to a certain style and it's virtually impossible to make significant changes in the midst of so many league and tournament games.
That's where Di Matteo's brilliance came into play. The former midfielder knew he was going to have to work with the pieces that were already in place, led by veterans like Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and John Terry.
Instead of making radical changes he simply shifted the team's outlook. He imposed on the Blues a level of confidence that was sorely lacking under his predecessor, using motivation as way to get the players to play at or above their expected level of performance.
No player is a better example of that than Fernando Torres. The Spanish striker was in a deep, prolonged slump prior to Di Matteo taking charge at Chelsea, going a span of 22 matches without scoring a goal. He looked completely lost in situations when he used to thrive.
Two weeks after Di Matteo too over, he notched two goals and two assists in a game against Leicester City. He added five more goals before season's end, including a key tally against Barca to ensure Chelsea would advance to the Champions League final.
Will Di Matteo continue to succeed at Chelsea?
It happened throughout the squad as if better form was contagious and everybody was catching it. Drogba turned back the clock, becoming a dominant force in key moments. Goalkeeper Petr Cech made huge saves left and right like a brick wall between the posts.
The players didn't change, but their belief in themselves and the team did. Di Matteo forced them to think they could compete with the top teams in Europe and jumping that mental hurdle ahead of time is often just as important as the matches.
As this season began, the biggest concern was whether Di Matteo could carry any of that magic over to a fresh campaign. While it's still very early, the results would point toward a resounding yes, making the decision to give him the manager spot look like a genius move.
Ultimately, the players are the ones who win or lose games. But after watching Chelsea's resurgence since March, you'd be hard-pressed to develop an argument that Di Matteo hasn't had a major impact on the rapid turnaround.
He's done a tremendous job, but now comes the tough part of living up to the hype. While only time will tell if he can do that, Chelsea and its supporters are certainly riding high right now.
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