Mo’ money Ro’ problems for Abramovich

In Sport on November 22, 2012 at 9:17 PM

So another one bites the dust, and another is appointed, albeit temporarily, to the quite possibly the most poisoned, though no doubt lucrative, chalice in football. In case you haven’t guessed, this is the news Roberto Di Matteo has been sacked as Chelsea manager, despite having won the FA Cup and Champions League in under a year, and been replaced with Rafa Benitez, in the ‘interim’ at least.

I’m not entirely sure Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea is what Notorious B.I.G. (and Mase and Puff Daddy) was singing about when he sang Mo Money Mo Problems, but it certainly holds true, what with eight managers in eight years signalling a discontent which to 99% would be incommensurate with Chelsea’s nine major trophies since 2005. (This in addition to a legal case brought against him by one-time business partner Boris Berezovsky; the estimated most expensive divorce case ever (with settlement figures of £5.5 billion conjectured), and a 40-person “private army of bodyguards”.)

The idea of Abramovich treating Chelsea as a ‘plaything’, a ‘kid’s toy project’ is a well-worn cliché, but never truer than now. For Roberto Di Matteo had been thrown in at the deep end, in the middle of the season, and managed to win both the FA Cup and Champions League in addition to rescuing a pretty wretched league campaign, dealing with the recent racism controversy about as well as he could, and perhaps most importantly galvanising and uniting a team seemingly riven by internal strife. Even this season, Chelsea have done relatively well. Granted, they have had a mediocre Champions League campaign, but they can still progress. And the attacking midfield trio Mata, Hazard and Oscar (“Mazacar”) – the latter bought if not by Di Matteo, then at least in his tenure – have at times set the Premiership alive with their creativity and industry, taking them to a respectable third. So even by Abramovich’s standards, this must go down as a ruthless sacking. To wit, consider that there were, at least to my knowledge, no harbingers of dooms for this decision, even among the often voracious, vulture-like British press (see the current Mark Hughes situation) – or not since Di Matteo’s quick success put paid to the pre-emptive strikes, anyway.

So, rash? Definitely. Idiotic? Quite possibly. Time will help with that one. But Abramovich presumably has some reasoning behind the decision. Di Matteo’s sacking certainly adds fuel to the fire of suspicions that the Italian was merely keeping the seat warm for Pep Guardiola – with suggestions the former Barcelona manager has already been called but couldn’t be coaxed out of his self-imposed “sabbatical” in New York. And while it might be a bit much to suggest Abramovich in some way did not want the success of last season, it’s fair to say it would have made the decision to axe Di Matteo, who we can now say with some certainty was only ever thought of as temporary, easier and more justifiable. And the interim in Benitez’s title implies a similar predicament for the Spaniard…unless he somehow contrives to win the World Cup, one can only assume. (The omens do not look good for the former Liverpool man, either; supporters’ groups are against him and some have labelled him Rafa ‘beneathus’ – though admittedly much of this could be put down to mere club rivalry.)  Indeed, as the joke doing the rounds goes, maybe no Chelsea manager can be anything but ‘interim’.

Reading between the lines, there’s maybe also some undue affinity with Torres. While Di Matteo’s sacking and the fact that Torres’ was dropped against Juventus on Tuesday night could, in isolation, easily be put down to coincidence, when put in the wider context it’s certainly a plausible reason. Abramovich has long been dogged with suggestions he press-gangs his managers into playing his favourites, often despite evidence radically to the contrary. It was widely cited as a reason for Jose Mourinho’s somewhat shock departure from the Bridge; notably the (understandable) lack of game-time for Shevchenko, bought as a £30.8m flagship signing, allegedly far more due to Abramovich’s wishes than Mourinho’s.

A friend very aptly put it that Abramovich is a man who “knows the price of everything but the value of nothing”. But in a way the opposite is true, as the Shevchenko saga shows. Let’s face it, the immediate worth of £30 or £50 million to a man worth over an estimated $7.6 billion is not too much, but the intangible, the reputational value, if you will, may well be much more. Because, for all his hard-nosed business past, Abramovich often seems a man of whimsy and caprice, given to vanity and wary of losing (supposed) face. It was similar accusations – that Abramovich took a dislike to the benching of much off the ‘old guard’ such as Terry and Lampard – that attended the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas last season.

A similar kind of attachment and stubbornness is not unfeasible in terms of Torres – again supposedly an ‘Abramovich signing’ – a £50m, one-time (still?) world-class signing who, in nearly two years, still weighs in at nearly £5m per goal for Chelsea. And it’s certainly a view Neil Ashton, writing in the Daily Mail, takes. It hardly seems fair to place Torres’ poor performance at the door at Di Matteo, though – Torres is playing in the lone striker role in which he’s excelled at Liverpool and Atlético Madrid and receiving great service from Mata, Hazard and Oscar (“Mazacar”). But by no means all in Abramovich’s world is fair (and I’m sure Di Matteo’s pay-off will go some way to easing the pain).

Di Matteo’s sacking also lends weight to the idea that Abramovich has an overarching desire for the Champions League – an ostentatious billionaire’s playground to some degree – since this is the only competition Chelsea are really disappointing in at present.

Yet, in all this madness, the sacking might yet work, as Jonathan Liew argues in this piece, because football is such a mercenary world now, not least in the court of a Russian oligarch. In it, Liew shows the respective success enjoyed since 2005 by Chelsea, who have had eight managers in that period, and by Manchester United and Arsenal, who have both had just one:


Teams’ trophies per manager since 2005

So one more trophy for Chelsea than United – though one less Premiership title – and eight more than Arsenal. But the crucial stat missing here is the finances. In fact, Chelsea fare pretty badly when it’s factored in that, in basically same period (since the 2005 summer transfer market), they are £326.5m in deficit in the transfer market (including agent fees – but not wages…and the approximate £70m in managerial pay-offs). If one spends an average of over £40m in excess of what one takes in every season, is it any wonder one’s winning titles?! Frankly, with all the expensively-assembled world-class talent at Chelsea’s disposal, it would take a really rather shit manager for them not to win anything, and it’s not unreasonable to suggest they might have done even better had managers had more time to create real stability and unity in the camp.  As a point of comparison, United’s outlay in this period was £93.7m and Arsenal actually gained £41.82m. So, using an admittedly crude calculation (though arguably no less so than the above chart), this works out at £32.68m per trophy for Chelsea, £11.71m for United, and Arsenal, in a sense, getting paid £41.82m for winning a solitary FA Cup.

But, hey, it’s Roman’s money*, not ours. And despite – or because of – him appearing to be auditioning for a part in the sequel to mediocre Hollywood comedy Horrible Bosses, it’s been a fun ride hasn’t it…

*Notwithstanding socio-economic arguments of his money actually being stolen from the Russian people in his underhand seizure of lucrative oilfields after the break-up of communism and successful investment of black market money…but that’s a different story.

Joel Durston

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