If Rafa Benitez emerges from the tunnel on the final day of the season to anything less than a cacophony of disapproval, even his harshest critics will have to admit that, in a way, he came, he saw, and if he didn’t quite conquer, he made a decent go of it anyway.
So hostile was the reception to his appointment back in November, when the Spaniard became the ninth manager to serve under Roman Abramovich, that if Benitez garners even a polite round of applause (which could be of varying degrees depending on how the Europa League run pans out) when Chelsea exit the field on May 19 it will be considered a huge leap.
That’s not to say it will put him under consideration for the full-time job; any hopes of that will have been extinguished by yesterday’s FA Cup semifinal defeat to Manchester City. So if there is no chance of him taking the reins for next season, what exactly does Benitez plan on getting out of this, other than a much-improved bank statement?
Judging by his poor relationship with the fans, which stems from some rather crass remarks made by the Spaniard concerning "plastic flags" while he was at Liverpool, and the nonchalant way in which he reacts to the abuse, adulation is not on Benitez’s wanted list.
Rather, his main goal, as stated last month, is to "challenge for trophies" and manage a “top side,” possibly in England (via The Independent).
So let’s look at what Benitez has done since replacing the Champions League-winning Roberto Di Matteo.
The media’s favourite peg in November was debating if he was brought in to save the ailing Fernando Torres, who played the best football of his career while under Benitez at Liverpool. If, and it is unlikely, that was the main reason Abramovich appointed him, then according to the stats the rekindled relationship has been—and we are talking relatively here—something of a success.
Torres, who went 14 games for Chelsea before scoring his first goal, has notched 20 in all competitions this season, compared to 14 for 2011-12 and just one in the second half of 2010-11. Whether a result of Benitez taking the pressure off him by heaping the blame onto his teammates or simply the benefit of having a familiar face in training, while hardly replicating Torres’ career-defining Liverpool brilliance, there is at least some consolation for a Russian who is £50 million out of pocket.
And it is not just El Nino that has found new life under Benitez. While Chelsea may have experienced unprecedented success by taking Europe’s biggest prize under Di Matteo, they were also criticised for playing negative "anti-football."
Despite the summer addition of slight, quick players such as Eden Hazard and Oscar, Chelsea’s style of play early in the season was a hallmark of Italian tactical thinking—not exactly riveting.
Of course, some would say that results take precedence over flair, as seen in Manchester United’s campaign this season, but others would argue that the very best teams are those that combine the two.
A simple comparison is the United team of today versus the Treble-winners. United have coasted to an almost inevitable 20th league title while hardly breaking sweat in most of their games, while the Treble-winners snatched victory from the jaws of defeat time after time. Even when you take away the European Cup and FA Cup from the 1999 season, which team is more beloved of United fans—the swashbuckling comeback kings or the churning 1-0 victory machine?
Unlike Di Matteo, Benitez takes full advantage of the speed he has in attack, allowing Hazard, Mata and Oscar to show what a devastating force they are when fully unleashed. Di Matteo’s philosophy was unmistakeably Italian; shore up the defence and attack on the break.
However, this method is reliant on the opposition pushing up the field and leaving themselves open at the back; when you have players with the quality of Chelsea’s, you won’t find many teams who are willing to do that, especially at Stamford Bridge.
Benitez has introduced rapid, free-flowing football which moves the ball from defence through midfield at a much higher pace. This in turn affords Mata and Co. what they love to feast upon—a back-tracking defence at sixes and sevens. Watch Chelsea now and you will see that when attacking, they don’t like to hang around the edge of the box for too long. When breaking, they aim to get to the 18-yard box as quickly as possible and get behind the defence; if there is no opening then the ball gets recycled back into midfield and the move starts again.
Basically, Benitez doesn’t want the opposition to get settled defensively; the focus is on fluidity and constant movement, which, when exhibited by players the calibre of the three Chelsea forwards, can be a nightmare for any team.
Another component of this is the disciplining of David Luiz.
Luiz, who in his first season at Chelsea was widely criticised for his positioning, for a time appeared to be developing into a midfielder due to his poor defensive work and tendency to get forward. Benitez seems to have tamed the Brazilian by having him drive the team forward from the heart of defence, while somehow improving him as a centre-back in the meantime. So while the Spaniard may not have won the Champions League this year, he at least has a recipe for future success.
Results and progress in competitions are also indicative of the Benitez effect.
Under Di Matteo, Chelsea’s domestic record last season was poor. So poor in fact, that had they not won the Champions League—in what has to be said was a rather fortuitous manner—they would not have even qualified for this year’s campaign. Under Benitez they have not been out of the top four, and despite a recent purple patch for Arsenal, their fate is in their hands, with either third of fourth looking like a distinct possibility.
So now we come to the heartbeat of the club—the fans.
There was always going to be a backlash of some sort, though few expected it to sustain itself for this long. What Benitez said about the “plastic flags” was irresponsible and probably, in that Benitez way, meant to deliberately rile the fans. After all, he is no stranger to bad-mouthing other clubs to the media; this is how he came to be on such good terms with Sir Alex Ferguson. But considering that the La Liga-winner hadn’t been in management for nearly two years, who could blame him for accepting when he received the phone call from Abramovich’s office, regardless of the money?
Perhaps he thought that any furore upon his arrival would soon die down, particularly with a good run of results. While there has not been a 15-game winning streak, Benitez has instilled consistency and rhythm within the squad, and the results show this; it is for this reason that I would tip Chelsea to win the Europa League this year.
He knows that his time will be probably be done come May, so why lay the table for his successor by focusing on the top four, when he can feast upon a career-second UEFA Cup, adding another trophy to his CV in process?
What Chelsea fans (and I’m talking about the boo-boys in particular) should have realised long ago is that their owner doesn’t have the slightest modicum of care for their desires. He will do what he thinks will bring success to the club—that and nothing more. Some Chelsea supporters I’ve spoken to say that the manager isn’t doing it for the club; he’s doing it for himself. I usually reply that they’ll be hard-pressed to find a manager who doesn’t have that agenda.
In Benitez they have someone who at least shares their vision of bringing in trophies, and unlike the Russian owner, appears to have a thought-out plan of action—does it matter what the personal motives are?