Benitez is back as Chelsea switch managers again

Chelsea’s billionaire owner has dumped the team’s manager for the eighth time since taking charge in 2003. Fans are grumbling – but how much difference does a manager really make?

When Roberto Di Matteo arrived at Chelsea 264 days ago, the club was in disarray. Top players were in mutiny, the team was lagging at fifth in the table, and exit from the Champions League and FA Cup seemed imminent. Just over two months later, Di Matteo had guided the club to three major trophies, beating the world’s greatest team to claim the most precious and elusive prize of all: the Champions League.

At most football clubs, such a record would have earned Di Matteo immortality: a statue perhaps, or part of the stadium named after him. At Chelsea all he got was a two-year contract, and even that was grudgingly given. Now, after a run of disappointing results, Di Matteo has been sacked and replaced by former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez.

Benitez is the ninth manager to take over at Chelsea since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003. Of the last five, only one has finished a season that he began. This managerial merry-go-round is costly to run: each sacking involves a hefty pay-off fee, and altogether Abramovich’s impatience has cost him an astonishing £77 million.

To a man as rich as Abramovich, though, this is little more than an irritation. The Russian oligarch has a personal fortune estimated at £12 billion, built on shrewd manoeuvring after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Still, building a great team is usually assumed to take time and consistency: Alex Ferguson, the most successful manager in British football, has had 26 years to instil his ethos into Manchester United. Critics refer to Chelsea as nothing but a billionaire’s ‘playpen’.

Yet Abramovich’s trigger happy approach has not been totally unsuccessful. He has won twelve trophies, including every major prize in English football, and Di Matteo himself is proof that switching managers mid-season can work.

Part of the explanation may be that people tend to massively overestimate the importance of managers. When economist Stefan Szymanski examined the factors that contributed to a club’s performance, the identity of the manager barely made a dent. Only one thing really mattered: money.


That is ridiculous, most football fans object – managers are the most important people in the game. They train the players, pick the team, tweak the tactics and are ultimately responsible for everything that happens on the pitch. And it is not just football: all success is grounded on great leadership.

Pure illusion, reply economists. Given a rich club blessed with talented, highly-paid players, any half-decent manager can reel in the results. Pinning every triumph and disaster on an individual leader is easy, but it is wrong. In reality, a manager is little more than a figurehead.

You Decide

  1. Are super-rich owners like Roman Abramovich ruining football?
  2. How important are leaders?


  1. Write a profile of a great leader – from sport or any other field. How important do you think they were, and why?
  2. Find data for the overall wage bill of five Premier League clubs and rank them. Then rank them on how high they came in last season’s table. Write an evaluation of your results – how closely are money and performance linked?

Some People Say...

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.’Proverbs 29:18”

What do you think?

Q & A

Football means nothing to me.
This isn’t only about football. The idea that a leader’s importance is often overrated has applied to many situations. The great Russian writer Nikolai Tolstoy made a similar argument about military leaders: ‘Historians provided cunningly devised evidence of the foresight and genius of the generals, who of all the blind instruments of history were the most enslaved and involuntary.’
But that’s the military – armies always have clear leaders.
Management is considered important in all organisations. Dynamic headteachers are often credited with a school’s success; a prime minister might take the praise or blame for the government’s achievements. Leaders also get paid much more. If their role is overrated, should they really be given so much credit and cash?

Word Watch

World’s greatest team
In recent years, Barcelona have dominated European football. In the space of a year their former manager Pep Guardiola – now desperately wanted by Abramovich – won an amazing six competitions.
Pay-off fee
When an employee is asked to leave a job while their contract is still running, they are allowed to claim ‘severance pay’, most of which is made up of unpaid wages. When top football managers are sacked, the size of their salaries can make the severance pay enormous. Jose Mourinho, for instance, is paid £8.4 million per year.
Collapse of the Soviet Union
In the Communist system of the USSR, all industries and resources were owned by the state. As the Soviet system collapsed in the 1990s, they were sold off into private hands in deals that many believed to be thoroughly corrupt. Roman Abramovich was one of the main beneficiaries in this period, taking control of much of the country’s oil and then defeating rival oligarchs in the infamous ‘aluminium wars’.
Barely made a dent
Player wage bills accounted for over 90% of a team’s success, and most managers were not found to substantially change that. There were a few exceptional managers, however, who were found to significantly boost their teams’ performance. Some of those were world famous managers like Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Bob Paisley; others were total unknowns from the lower leagues, whose worth had not been appreciated.


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