Carlo Ancelotti: An Undeserved Inescapable Fate

Carlo Ancelotti has been relieved of his duties in the most vulgar sense of “with immediate effect”.

Carlo Ancelotti just waking up or just knowing that end is close…

While remaining fans waited out the pain of M62 traffic amid Goodison Park’s littered aisles, Carlo Ancelotti was relieved of his duties at Chelsea. There is little surprise; speculation about his future had been growing for some time. Had a top Premier League manager been asked about his future as often as Ancelotti? The smell of a slow death was covered up by his casual Zen-like acceptance of fate. His shrug and frown a sign that he had taken of control by yielding it (or tacitly admitting that he hadn’t anything to yield in the first place). The shocking part comes from the expediency of his dismissal following his post-game press conference.

General opinion had been making a case for Ancelotti’s stay based on leading Chelsea to its first double, his history of achievements as a manager and player, and his affability and integrity. For all the advantages that controversy brings to the media, the majority support of the manager perhaps points to a combative position—not anti-Chelsea or anti-Abramovich—but a collective fight against pointless madness. Why really was he sacked?

One of the great mysteries of the Premier League season was Chelsea’s severe drop in form in November and December, which saw them go 2-4-3 in league matches, taking only ten points from a possible twenty-seven after starting the season 8-1-1, taking twenty-five points of the first thirty. This was a prolonged slump for a team like Chelsea. In January and February, the club began to turn things around, and from March though the end of the season Chelsea went 8-2-2.

If the club hadn’t re-discovered the early season form that touted them as the league’s projected winner in October, any number of explanations from an aging squad to the narrow formation to Ancelotti’s uninspiring calm composure would have been sufficient. By chasing Manchester United into the final weeks of the season, after long being declared out of the title race, derails the customary analyses. Which conditions had changed so radically during this period to account for the severe slump? Nothing convincing has been put forth.

It is reductionist at this point to say that Ancelotti was sacked for not winning the Champions League. Although Roman Abramovich seems to be refining his performance review in this direction, to date no manager has been sacked for not winning the Champions League in a season when the Premier League has been won. And since no Chelsea manager under Abramovich has won the Champions League when not winning the Premier League, it must be assumed that Ancelotti’s sacking was based on the failure to take the consolation prize of league title, which has its origin in the mysterious mid-season slump.

There is good reason to believe that the slump accounts for Ancelotti’s dismissal. For much of the second half of the season his future was a topic of discussion that included him as a participant. Blaming Ancelotti carries the assumption that another (better?) manager could have turned the team around sooner. Who could this have been and what does he possess that Ancelotti doesn’t? How could this imaginary manager’s ability be assessed without identifying what the problem was in the first place?

Further, what is it that Ancelotti lacked? What is his inherent deficiency that kept him from halting the slide and why didn’t this deficiency have an effect last season or reveal itself in the early and late months of this season? There is nothing in the man or his management skills that suddenly, but temporarily altered so radically.

The core of the squad that won two titles under Jose Mourinho hasn’t fundamentally changed with the exception of Ricardo Carvalho. Some have pointed to his departure as reason for a weakened squad, but statistically this is not an explanation. Chelsea conceded thirty-three goals this season to last year’s thirty-two. Letting Carvalho go, even if this was a choice for Ancelotti, can’t be considered a poor decision in these terms.

The most significant statistical difference from last season is goals scored. Chelsea scored 103 goals last season (2.71g/game) to just 69 this season (1.82g/game) with the same strikers. Frank Lampard’s absence, while significant, can’t account for a thirty-four goal- difference. Neatly, Chelsea scored twenty-seven goals in their first ten games this season for an average of 2.7g/game. In November and December this fell to .67g/game. The dip in offense ushered in Fernando Torres, and whether or not this was Ancelotti’s signing, he can’t be indicted for failing to bring in a top striker in January. Even though Torres didn’t score until late April, Chelsea’s offense rebounded to average 1.92g/game.

Some have also pointed to last summer’s departures of veterans, particularly Michael Ballack and Joe Cole, and to a lesser degree Deco. Only in hindsight has this become a criticism. Before each of the last three seasons, many asked when the age of this squad would catch up to them. It never happened, but one always believed it could. Shedding older players like Ballack and Deco were sensible decisions that many also would have made.

But these older players were also jettisoned for their impact on wages. Abramovich wanted to reduce costs and so cut the wage bill, like all clubs do, with the exception of the always exceptional Barcelona, who offset loses with increased revenue by selling jersey sponsorship to the certainly struggling Qatar Foundation. The €166m fee was paid by the Qatar Sports Investment, an arm of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund run by the Emir of Qatar. This was a generous gift to the foundation as well to the Emir’s wife who runs it. Too bad Abramovich didn’t work out a sponsorship deal with Sibneft—likely because he couldn’t due to Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on Oligarchs— when he sold his assets of the oil giant for £8bn to the Russian government in 2005. As has been quickly established, Emirs trump oligarchs in the Premier League hierarchy.

The belt tightened when these big wage earners weren’t replaced. This was caution calculation, strange for the bold, new money spendthrift who dumped more than a £100m into new players in his first year of ownership and bought the world’s largest yacht for £300m in 2008. With most of his assets in cash, it’s difficult to measure the wealth drained by the global recession, but almost overnight Abramovich had been branded a tight wad, cheapskate, or through contextual sleight-of-hand, a miser, once one migrated to Stamford Bridge’s away section to freely chant “Yid”. Greece-like austerity was even put forth as reason for sacking the relatively low paid coach Ray Wilkins. At peace through this tiny saving, Abramovich could sail away to the next destination. Pizza night is now back on aboard the ‘Eclipse’.

The plan was to fill these spots with young talent groomed in Chelsea’s youth system. It quickly became clear that most weren’t close to taking on first team roles. Sporting Director, Frank Arnesen, in charge of building the youth system, announced that he would step down at year’s end. The announcement came less than three weeks after Ray Wilkins’ departure, providing a bookend to November. Ancelotti can’t be blamed for not replacing his elder members and slashing wages, or for the perceived failure of the youth system.

While Ancelotti did bring in David Luis and Ramires, Chelsea remained an essentially unchanged squad. The first time around Ancelotti won the double; the second time he won nothing, except second place in the league and a Champions League quarterfinal.

What is left to point to for why Ancelotti was tossed aside like Neapolitan garbage? Of course, any of these explanations could have been sufficient reason for Abramovich, even if unjustified. Clearer reason may emerge over the summer from the qualities of Ancelotti’s replacement. If anything, Ancelotti’s deficiencies (whatever they may be) would come to the foreground as primary culprits if the current squad is to be retained in the off-season. But accompanying Ancelotti’s dismissal was the declaration that the squad will be somewhat overhauled. How then can he take the blame for failure if the team is also thought to be ill-equipped to win?

Neither Roman Abramovich nor Chelsea has yet grown tiresome. But the madness of their decisions has. When logic, reason, or sense is applied in the effort to understand the club’s behavior, the only outcome is the proof of redundancy: the logic is logical and the irrational is irrational, as all the sensible explanations boomerang off the impervious and rubbery crazies.

5/24/11

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