Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Benitez, a new Chelsea

The sacking of Roberto Di Matteo as Chelsea manager is one of the harshest in recent memory; the man had just won the Champions League, the FA Cup and rescued a season that seemed destined for disaster.

It again shows, for all their investment, the disconnect today’s mega-rich owners can have with clubs and fans. But, this has come to be the way at Chelsea.
The new boss at Chelsea
Rafael Benitez
The man to replace Di Matteo is former Chelsea foe Rafael Benitez.

A number of Chelsea supporters have already voiced their displeasure at Benitez’s appointment with protests by certain sections even mooted.

While not wishing to justify Di Matteo’s sacking or show the Italian as a bad manager, the hiring of Benitez could in fact be a boost for Chelsea. Benitez will certainly introduce a more organised game, which is what Chelsea probably need at the moment.

Chelsea have not been at the races defensively this season and in Benitez they get one of the very best tacticians in Europe.

Though not quite Pep Guardiola, Benitez is also a revolutionary and visionary of the game. He is a football teacher, something vividly visible through his personal website which is a pantheon of football analysis.

Benitez is a man of ideas and strategy. He is credited with introducing the 4-2-3-1 formation in its now standard form of using an attacking midfielder behind a centre-forward instead of a second striker dropping deep – perfecting this with Pablo Aimar at Valencia and then Steven Gerrard at Liverpool.  

Winning La Liga twice, in arguably its most competitive ever era, as well the Uefa Cup with Valencia, then winning the 2005 Champions League, the 2006 FA Cup, reaching the 2007 Champions League final, and finishing second in the Premiership in 2009 (with 86 points), is an excellent record by any measure.

While Chelsea have been good to watch this season they have been ripped apart several times, notably against Atletico Madrid in the Uefa Super Cup and in the first 30 minutes of their 3-2 loss to Manchester United in the league. Those displays were a worry. The two players in the centre of midfield (normally Mikel and Ramires) were often overwhelmed and it was unsustainable to believe Chelsea could win enough games over the course of a season in this manner, especially with Fernando Torres misfiring upfront.

Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, and Oscar are exciting players but they are not yet consistent defensively, in terms of helping out in their own half for a full 90 minutes. This will undoubtedly be one of the first areas Benitez will look to address; and if his track record is anything to go by, it may mean one of the Mata, Hazard and Oscar is not included for some games with a more traditional or steady wide player preferred.

Another of the reasons it seems Benitez has been hired is because he’s worked so well with Torres in the past. Torres, speaking last year, stated that Benitez had been the only manager able to get the best out of him during his career. Under Benitez, Torres scored 33 goals in 46 appearances during his first season at Liverpool (2007/08), 17 goals in 38 in his second and 24 in 32 appearances in the pair’s third and final campaign together – by far Torres’ most prolific period as a striker.
Happy Times...
Torres and Benitez... at Anfield
One of the worries of Chelsea fans, perhaps, is their team will become defensive under Benitez. However, it would be harsh to label Benitez as overly defensive, rather his teams are well-organised – which the first key to success at the highest level. His record at Valencia also shows they were progressive over time in terms of their offensive output. Even at Anfield, things started off with a solid, almost counter-reactive side before Liverpool blossomed into quite an enterprising team.

At Valencia, Benitez’s first league winning team of 2001/02 had a return of just 51 goals in 38 games. Two years later in their second win Valencia scored 71 goals while conceding the same amount (27 goals). A similar story unfolded at Liverpool with the 2008-09 version of Liverpool well-oiled offensively, resulting in some memorable performances including a 4-0 win over Real Madrid in the Champions League knockout stages and a famous 4-1 victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford in the league.

So Benitez can be adept at both styles, which is what makes him such an interesting and successful manager.

Of course, things could go the other way like it did at Inter Milan where Benitez was unable to shake Jose Mourinho’s considerable shadow and where he didn’t have a great relationship with the players.

Again at Chelsea he will to some extent have comparisons with Mourinho and he will have to deal with a team of stars. Throughout his career Benitez has succeeded with relatively low-key players whom he had bought and elevated to a world-class level. Examples are Mista at Valencia, and Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano at Liverpool, all of whom were highly-regarded prospects when Benitez signed them but not the dressing room giants he found at Inter and will encounter now at Chelsea.

It will also be interesting to see how he will deal with the Chelsea hierarchy. Benitez ended up at loggerheads with the bosses at Valencia and Liverpool, eventually leading to his departure on both occasions. It’s no secret Benitez likes authority and full control; but this isn’t necessarily how things work at Chelsea for the manager.

Ultimately, though, the Chelsea job gives Benitez the ultimate opportunity to build something special. It is the ‘project’ he has been waiting for since leaving Inter. He has a club with funds to buy players.
Benitez, the Thinker
The Champions League, Chelsea's eternal obsession
The job is on an interim basis, but that’s not how Benitez will be thinking for sure. Guardiola is Roman Ambramovich’s dream choice but it remains a long shot that he’ll end up Chelsea. Benitez could be the new Chelsea.

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