Rafael Benítez: What He's Got Right and Wrong so Far at Chelsea
The bitterness left in the wake of the sudden firing of Roberto Di Matteo and subsequent hiring of Rafael Benítez will undoubtedly last longer for some Chelsea fans than it will for others.
And whether or not it was the Blues' somewhat sudden drop from first place in the English Premier League to third or just owner Roman Abramovich’s itchy trigger finger that caused this unpopular move is completely another thing.
With Chelsea putting all of its eggs in the Fernando Torres basket at the striker spot, playing so few on its roster and having so many new and young players in the advanced midfield, it certainly didn’t figure to be an easy ride.
Toss in a rugged league schedule since Oct. 20 that saw the Blues play Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Swansea City, Liverpool, West Bromwich Albion, Manchester City, Fulham and West Ham United—seven of those eight teams are in the top 11 in the league table—and it’s easy to see that any manager would have his work cut out for him.
Add in the stress of UEFA Champions League play and a disappointing home draw in the group opener to Juventus and an embarrassing loss at Shakhtar Donetsk, and many Chelsea fans could probably feel the ground shaking over at Stamford Bridge.
Although his body of work is still small, the much-maligned Benítez is making an effort to right the ship, and five months from now we’ll be better able to judge whether King Roman’s move was the right one or not.
One smart thing the 52-year-old Spaniard has done since joining the Blues has been trying to win over the club’s Old Guard—John Terry and Frank Lampard—by smoothing over with them some nasty comments he made about Chelsea before his former club Liverpool’s 2007 Champions League semifinal with the Blues.
With so many new and younger players looking up to Terry and Lampard for leadership, it is very important at this point in time for Benítez to have the 32-year-old captain and 34-year-old vice captain in his corner.
Another good thing Benítez has done is start to use more players frequently. No team in the Premiership has used fewer players on its roster (20) than Chelsea has so far.
Giving more playing time and getting valuable experience for guys like Victor Moses, César Azpilicueta, Ryan Bertrand and Oriol Romeu will only end up helping in the long run.
Benítez has also made an effort to make Chelsea’s training sessions tougher, claiming the team lacked proper game shape.
And anyone who has noticed how well the Blues seem to have played in the first half compared to the second half would surely back this move and public admission of such.
The new interim manager also seems to have stressed the importance of returning to Chelsea’s bread and butter—its defense.
Since taking over, the Blues have allowed just five goals in five games (2-2-1) and have registered two clean sheets after going nine straight matches without one.
One area it seems Benítez has sort of been forced into a corner is in demanding that the offense revolve around Torres and getting him back on the scoring track and confident.
Whether or not this a directive from above, a reality from having to work with a striker-short roster or a combination of the two, this seems to be the thing which will either make or break Chelsea for the time being.
So until something big happens, like a decent signing or two over the coming winter transfer market, it’s just going to have to be “In Fernando We Trust.”
After scoring two goals apiece this week against FC Nordsjælland and Sunderland, many are quick to proclaim that Torres "is back" but when the opposition was the last-place team in Group E and the 18th-place team in the EPL, it's best not to jump to any quick conclusions just yet.
And continuing to demand the entire Chelsea offense revolve around El Niño may end up ultimately being Benítez’s downfall.
Attacking midfielders Juan Mata, Oscar, Moses and Eden Hazard are all very capable of scoring but if the manager has them all thinking “pass first” and “get Torres his goals,” then it’s still a matter of the tail wagging the dog in West London.
But with Daniel Sturridge constantly on the mend and the subject of transfer rumors, Romelu Lukaku on loan at West Brom and Lucas Piazón still too young, Benítez has to work with what he has, and for now it seems all he thinks he has on the attack is Torres.
Are Chelsea fans being too hard on Rafael Benitez?
Whether or not that can work for Chelsea and Benítez all depends on Torres himself, but one positive is the Blues schedule that is pretty favorable from now until mid-February.
No matter what happens in the immediate future—Chelsea are currently in Japan for the FIFA Club World Cup where it will face Mexico’s Monterrey on Thursday in the semifinals (Fox Soccer Channel, 5:30 a.m. ET/2:30 a.m. PT)—Benítez will probably never win over some of the blue-blooded faithful.
So you can probably expect to continue hearing the singing of "One Di Matteo" at the 16-minute mark for quite some time to come.
At least it’s a catchy tune.
Follow me on Twitter: @KevinStott11
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