Outside of the red half of Liverpool, there’s not much warmth for Rafael Benitez. The attitude toward him was encapsulated after his first match in charge of Chelsea during an interview with the awful Geoff Shreeves. The interviewer was downright rude to Benitez, repeatedly pushing him about the home fans’ reaction to his appointment in the hope of eliciting an angry reaction.
There is a tendency for people to want to see Benitez irritated. He kept it cool with Shreeves but there have been times when he has lashed out. Sometimes the former Valencia boss is his own worst enemy. Benitez has unshakable belief in his own ability and is a remarkably stubborn man. He also has a long memory and still harbours plenty of grievances.
It was those character traits that drove him to take over at Inter Milan. Whichever way one looks at it, Benitez’s decision to take over a club that had won everything under his archnemesis was a breathtakingly stupid one. For a man of such precision and consideration, he erred with Napoleonic rashness. Only another Serie A title and European Cup would have justified the move. Benitez thought he could do it, and do it with more style than his predecessor.
It was never going to work out. José Mourinho wasn’t at Inter to build a lasting club legacy; he was there to add to his own. The squad was built for short-term success and it was creaking when he left. Benitez couldn’t motivate a bunch of players who had won it all, but he is still furiously challenges those who criticise his time in Italy and on Merseyside.
Perceptions of Benitez have often been skewed. It irritates him that people bring up his zonal marking system. After some inevitable teething problems, Liverpool conceded the fewest number of league goals from set pieces in his second-to-last season in charge. He is called cautious, yet Liverpool scored more league goals than any other team when they finished second in 2008/2009. He is thought of as cold and prickly yet, in person, he is witty and engaging.
It’s curious he has been out of the game for so long when one considers his achievements. He was the last manager to guide a club other than Barcelona or Real Madrid to the Primera Liga title. He won the European Cup with a squad that had no right to even be in the final.
Now he has to contend with an erratic owner, a crowd on his back and lingering doubts about his ability.
The fans at Stamford Bridge pine for Roberto Di Matteo but, in reality, he is nothing more than a convenient figure on which to hang their resentment of Benitez. That resentment is curious in itself. Sure, he irked them after two European Cup semifinals but Chelsea always had the upper hand in the league—winning two titles—and defeated Liverpool in the 2005 League Cup final.
It has been written that Benitez will not be able to “win” them over but he doesn’t necessarily need to get them on his side. He just has to ride out the storm.
George Graham’s appointment as Tottenham Hotspur boss in 1998 arguably trumps Benitez’s in the bitterness stakes. Having managed Arsenal for nearly a decade, most observers predicted a short and brutal stay.
Graham never won over the Spurs fans but he did quiet the discord with a pragmatic approach. He added the discipline that wasn’t there under Christian Gross and, contrary to predictions, he indulged David Ginola as a kind of ode to the club's traditions. Within months he had broken an eight-year run without a trophy.
Something similar confronts Benitez. In terms of the team structure, he faces an awkward task. Chelsea’s squad is the equivalent of what one ends up with if one leaves a child to organise the party. They have an array of attacking stars but only one out-and-out striker. With Frank Lampard certain to leave, they have been relying on two central midfielders. Two of their best midfielders, Josh McEachran and Michael Essien, play for different clubs.
What was essentially a 4-2-4 worked at the start of the season when teams were overwhelmed by the brilliance of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata. Soon, though, teams discovered that if Chelsea were put under pressure, their nerves were brittle and they didn’t have the system or the players to regain control.
Benitez likes to deploy hard-working, functional players out wide. At Valencia he had Francisco Rufete and Kily Gonzalez. At Liverpool he turned Dirk Kuyt from a striker into a wide man who worked tirelessly up and down the flank. Chelsea have been overreliant on their full-backs to the extent that even Ashley Cole has looked fallible this season.
As results in the first two games demonstrated, Benitez is aware of the need to knit a tighter unit. His other main, obvious task is to rejuvenate Fernando Torres. The Spanish striker showed some form and a scoring touch against Nordsjaelland. The opposition were modest but at least Torres showed he is not a full hollow shell of his previous self.
Benitez will ignore the boos and set about his work as diligently as he has always done. He has the character to see it through, even if perceptions of him might never change.
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