How Rafa Benitez Proved His Worth at Chelsea

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How Rafa Benitez Proved His Worth at Chelsea
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It was an opportunity that Rafael Benitez could not turn down. The Spanish manager had to put his allegiance to Liverpool, Chelsea's bitter rivals, to one side in order to grasp the chance at furthering his career.

The 53-year-old entered Stamford Bridge to replace the beloved Roberto Di Matteo in a storm, and although that feeling of resentment will never diminish, it was certainly quelled by the end.

It is important to immediately decipher what Benitez did better than Di Matteo and why, then, was Roman Abramovich proved correct in making the change.

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Benitez did not alter the formation too much, it was more or less a 4-2-3-1 formation that was utilised by both managers. There was a key difference in the way that one player was used, though, which was vital.

Juan Mata candidly revealed in Sky Sports' Special Report last week that under Benitez he had been told to position himself closer to the lone striker—either Fernando Torres or Demba Ba—which really helped bring out the best qualities of Mata, even if he has such an array of skills to offer a coach in numerous roles.

Mata was named Chelsea's player of the season, and it is Benitez who should be credited for altering the impact of the Spaniard, rather than the performance.

The 25-year-old played 64 games this season and contributed a staggering 20 goals and 35 assists, but with Mata closer to the holding midfielders, there was an increased pressure on him to carry the ball forward before being able to make those decisive passes in and around the penalty area.

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By starting closer to the striker, it definitely prevented Torres, for example, becoming so isolated as he had done under Di Matteo. And while Torres and Ba were hardly prolific, they were at least much more of a handful for the opposition's centre-backs, preventing them from simply double-teaming them.

Good examples of this would be the Ba goal against Manchester City and the Torres goal against Benfica—both examples of the striker holding his position on the shoulder of the last defender and waiting for a pass to be lifted in behind the opposition's defence.

Benitez, in this regard, added more variety to Chelsea's game, and while he encouraged Mata to position himself closer to the striker, he certainly did not prevent him from dropping deeper and looking to influence things when the opposition opted to press higher up, rather than drop deep.

This is when the Frank Lampard factor came into play. Lampard is another player who vastly improved under Benitez as he was given more freedom to join in with the attack when Mata opted to drop deep. Simply put, Benitez allowed the pair to switch at times, and this is where Lampard's goal streak arrived from.

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In crucial games to deciding Chelsea's destiny in their race for a place in the top four, Lampard's cleverly timed runs proved very fruitful, such as in the game against Aston Villa. The England international only netted once in open play under Di Matteo this season in nine games, while under Benitez, there were 16 goals in 38 games.

Benitez had a similar record in terms of win percentage compared to Di Matteo, roughly 58 percent, but that does not take into account the first few months in charge, when the Spaniard suffered relentless abuse from the fans that had a knock-on effect on the team's performance and created hostile atmosphere that the Blues had to contend with at home games.

Benitez also proved to be more successful in games against other teams inside the top four (Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal), winning three times in seven games and losing just two. While Di Matteo won twice in five top-four clashes, winning twice.

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As the season drew to a close, Benitez also had to compromise his personal ambition to ensure that he delivered Champions League qualification, which was imperative for the future of the club, even if an FA Cup or a Europa League would have been a more attractive goal for Benitez.

Benitez managed to juggle the three competitions well, ultimately finding the perfect balance between satisfying the fans and the owner, while also claiming a trophy to justify his decision to manage a club that was such a fierce rival during his time at Liverpool.

It was a short relationship, but ultimately a good one when you consider the uncertainty behind Di Matteo's ability to deliver relative league success and maintain a push for a trophy in one of the cup competitions.

Di Matteo will always be remembered for delivering the Champions League, but he actually went backwards in the league, falling to sixth place, and this must have been the concern of Abramovich.

Chelsea have a proven track record of delivering trophies, but there was no guarantee that Di Matteo could deliver another. Therefore, Abramovich had to know that the Blues would at least be guaranteed a place in the top four.

Abramovich craves the glory that winning the European Cup brings, it is his ultimate ambition, so while there is great joy in winning other cup competitions, there would be a bad taste at the end of the season if Chelsea knew that they would not be able to play in Europe's premier competition in the next season.

So Benitez found a great balance and ultimately ensures that Chelsea can target the very highest calibre of players and also remain on track to meet the financial targets required in UEFA's Financial Fair Play (FFP).

It may have taken some months for Chelsea fans, but ultimately they had no option but to endure Benitez and the good work that he achieved at Stamford Bridge, and now greater times await thanks to the Spaniard's ground work to set up next season.

 

All statistics from Transfermarkt.

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