Friday, 23 November 2012

Why Rafa Benitez is better than some British fans remember

There is something afoot in the Premier League and it all feels a little uncomfortable. 

As many people with 21 years of life experience would choose to, I am going to explain the issue using an analogy about girls.

A little over two years ago you split up with one of the best partners you have ever had. She gave you some of the greatest times of your life and made you feel fantastic when you thought those days were long gone. You were the envy of your mates and everything felt right.

Unfortunately, circumstances changed and the partnership lost the spark. She was the same person, but something was having a negative effect on your relationship. For arguments sake, we'll say that her new bosses were blithering idiots and she could no longer give you the care or attention required.

You agreed to go your separate ways and although it hurt, it was probably for the best.

As we all know, you spent the next two years telling everybody that you were over her and the façade was a convincing one.

Naturally, that all came tumbling down the moment she got a new partner. She's not meant to be his partner. She's your partner and you love her more. Regardless of the fact that you have moved on with a new partner, this is all horribly wrong.

For many, that will be a painfully familiar scenario, but it's the next bit that doesn't play out as it should.

The new man has got the girl, but nobody he knows shares the same excitement. His friends aren't impressed with the way she looks and the family have concerns about the lack of stability in her recent history. The relationship has only just begun, but it feels awkward and the foundations are not solid.

No man would fraternise with the new enemy, but a part of you wants to tell him how great she is. You want to tell him to give things time and it will be OK.

He's got himself a great catch; he just doesn't know it yet.

As Rafa Benitez heads into his first game as the Chelsea 'interim' manager, this is how Liverpool and Chelsea fans are feeling.

I apologise for using you as a poorly veiled character in a tale of romantic woe, Rafa, but you're better than many give you credit for. Chelsea fans should take the little time you may have together to form their own conclusions. Hopefully, then they'll understand why Liverpool still love you.

I'm not going to try to convince fans that Benitez is perfect. He isn't. He makes mistakes, occasionally does strange things and has had a difficult time since the end of the 2008/9 season. 

However, I'm going to have a nibble at the bait. Sky Sports News and BBC Radio have interviewed the socially awkward bunch who stand outside the club shop on a weekday morning and they have riled me. I always say I'll rise above them, but nobody calls Rafa “a joke of a manager” on my watch.

It is clear that Chelsea fans did not want Rafa Benitez to be their new manager. His spell at Inter Milan clearly does inspire confidence and the history between Benitez's Liverpool and Mourinho's Chelsea makes the arrival less welcoming than most. But some say Benitez is a 'joke'? No chance. You don't achieve what Benitez has if you don't know what you are doing.

There are a number of misconceptions about Benitez's previous spell in English football. The sort of statements that have been said so frequently that you find yourself agreeing with it, until you do the necessary research.

Let the sermon begin...


The greatest myth about Benitez is that he is a defensive manager. In some quarters, they said the same about Mourinho while he was Chelsea manager. 

This is the thing with British football. We consider organisation to be defensive, rather than the foundation of a very good football team. We say that Ian Holloway's Blackpool played 'good attacking football'. They attacked, of course. They chucked men into attacks with little consideration for the possibility that they might lose possession. They took their pat on the back from the admiring man in the pub at the time, but he's now forgotten about them as they attempt to climb out of the Championship once more.

Benitez and Mourinho's teams weren't overwhelmingly defensive, but balanced all over the pitch. They considered defending to be a rather important aspect of the game and set about not letting goals in. It was an intelligent theory and one that served both well.

Benitez's achievements at Liverpool are clear and one European venture sticks in the memory. He transformed a Liverpool side containing Messrs Traore, Riise and Smicer (among more obscure players whose presence will only be remembered as part of a trivia question) into a tactically astute European team. The accusations that Liverpool's 2005 victory was a fluke is one of the less perceptive myths that does the rounds from time to time.

Here's one example of why it wasn't a fluke. Benitez used Igor Biscan as a midfield destroyer in Turin and it worked.

This is what Benitez is all about. He studies opponents in obsessive details and creates plans to get the result his team requires. Those plans aren't always conventional, but he ensures his players know what is required of them. The teams Liverpool faced in that campaign were better than them on a player to player basis, but none were more effective as a team.

The fact that Mourinho's excellent Chelsea side were denied potential European domination early in the Roman era by Benitez's team is probably another factor that doesn't help him today. That he thwarted the 'Special One' twice only makes it worse.

Chelsea's current European campaign hangs by a thread but if Benitez's new team were to be fortunate in the final round of group games, they will have the ideal manager to take them forward.

Benitez will bring organisation to Chelsea (David Luiz is currently staring at a tactics board marked with a line labelled 'DO NOT CROSS' in an underground bunker at Cobham with a short Spaniard denying him an exit until it sinks in), but the manner in which he utilises Oscar, Hazard and Mata will be interesting. The link between Torres and Gerrard was wonderfully potent during his time at Liverpool and although the Spanish striker is not the same player he was back then, the trio behind him provide Benitez with plenty of invention. Benitez has played the 4-2-3-1 Chelsea are familiar with for years, but he knows it better than most.

Benitez's 'defensive' Liverpool side of 2008/9 played some excellent football and scored nine goals more than anybody else in the Premier League. If Benitez can reinvigorate Torres even slightly (nobody has ever had him playing better) and maintain the attacking flair of Chelsea's recent acquisitions, maybe this time people may take notice of the reality rather than the old perception.

Torres once revealed that Benitez made him work harder than anybody he had ever worked with, Steven Gerrard said that the manager's advice vastly outweighed his compliments and Didi Hamann called him 'a genius'. His methods may come as a shock to some of the Chelsea players, but they tend to work.


Another major criticism of Benitez was that he was poor in the transfer market. On low value transfers, he had more misses than hits. However, the transformation he oversaw at Liverpool after the 2005 victory was hugely impressive. They may have won the Champions League, but Benitez knew they were not good enough.

Benitez's wanted a lot of players during his Liverpool reign, only to told he couldn't have them. Dani Alves and Stevan Jovetic are two examples of players who were available, but not within the budget Benitez was given. However, this doesn't mean that his eye for a transfer was always suppressed. Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Alonso, Mascherano, Kuyt and Torres were all Benitez's signings, not to mention the long-term plans implemented by signing Suso and Sterling. Keane and Aquilani were expensive misses, but his success ratio when shopping in a slightly more luxurious market is better than people remember.

The gross mismanagement by the club's American owners denied Benitez the opportunity to build on the title-challenge of 2009, but his spell up until that point was hugely impressive. At all levels of the club, Liverpool improved. The academy was overhauled (and is now seeing the rewards), the team improved and Liverpool reached two Champions League finals in three years.

His intelligence in the market was also crucial in overtaking Real Madrid and Barcelona to win Valencia's first league title in 31 years. Benitez signed Mista from former club Tenerife to lead his attack. 19 goals later, Valencia won La Liga by 7 points.

He may only have one transfer window at Chelsea, but he shouldn't have similar boardroom opposition. Abramovich has his faults, but a tight control of his pocket money isn't one of them. A lack of funding (and the politics it resulted in) played a large role in his departure from Valencia, Liverpool and Inter Milan. The only thing Benitez won't be able to buy at Chelsea is time. Everything else should be provided.

'Rafa's Rant'

If his style and transfer dealings have been falsely recollected, the greatest misconception must be the effect of 'Rafa's Rant'. Do you remember the press conference that apparently caused Liverpool's season to collapse and Manchester United to claim the title? Have you ever looked at the results after that conference?

There is little doubt that Liverpool should have won the league in the 2008/9 season. Benitez's side did the double over both Chelsea and Manchester United, but points thrown away in home draws to teams such as Hull, Stoke, West Ham and Fulham proved crucial.

Liverpool actually only lost once in the 18 league games after Benitez's press conference, but three draws in the period in which Manchester United played their two games in hand have warped the recollection of that season.

One week shows you what that Liverpool team were capable. In the space of four days, Liverpool beat Real Madrid 4-0 at Anfield, before dismantling Manchester United in a 4-1 at Old Trafford.

Liverpool should have kicked on from that season to mount an even stronger challenge a year later. Chaos in the boardroom dragged the club down and the final season of Benitez's tenure is the one that people tend to remember.

Who else could Chelsea have had? 

There are a host of brilliantly progressive managers who Chelsea fans may have cast glances towards, such as Jürgen Klopp (Dortmund) and Frank de Boer (Ajax), but why would they leave their current clubs? Dortmund sit on top of the toughest group in this year's Champions League, while de Boer is developing his management skills with a fine home-grown crop of Ajax youngsters. These are managers with the greatest of stability in their jobs and they are thriving off it. Having seen Andre Villas-Boas vacate a similarly exciting position, only to be sacked by Chelsea nine months into his first season in England, why would they want to do the same?

Roman Abramovich has brought success to Chelsea, but he has also single-handedly caused significant damage to the club's reputation among other managers.

Having fired a European Cup winning manager, it would be a little strange for Chelsea to opt for a manager without similar pedigree.

The ideal among many would be a man named José, but that isn't going to happen just yet. The other stand-out candidate was Pep Guardiola, currently enjoying his sabbatical in New York. Money can buy a lot of people, but the former Barcelona manager doesn't seem to be one of them.

Another name mentioned by fans is Guus Hiddink. While he is earning unimaginable sums of money at Anzhi, his return was also off the cards.

So which European Cup winning managers could Chelsea have gone for? The list is not very long.

There have been ten European Cup finals since AC Milan defeated Juventus at Old Trafford in 2003. One was Roberto di Matteo, who has just been booted out of the Bridge. Four finals, two each, were won by José Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti. Neither of them are coming back because they have equally lucrative jobs elsewhere in Europe. There are plenty of bridges to be repaired there too. Add in Pep's two victories and seven of the recent winners don't want to know.

Another is Sir Alex Ferguson. He seems rather settled. Two Champions League winning managers left.

A ninth final was won by Frank Rijkaard with Barcelona in 2006. If Benitez's recent moves have been considered poor, Rijkaard is in a different league. After the gradual decline of his reign at Barcelona, the Dutchman headed for a troublesome spell at Galatasaray. He is now managing Saudi Arabia.

So, that brings us to the winner of the tenth Champions League final. His name is Rafael Benitez and he is now the Chelsea manager.

When you have hired and fired some of the most successful managers in European football, you will find that your options are significantly reduced. There may well be a day when Guardiola is Chelsea manager, although Manchester City are making shrewd moves to ensure they are a more suitable fit, but that won't happen just yet.

Until then, the Real Madrid educated, two-time UEFA manager of the year will have to do. Chelsea fans may not like him, but he's a good football manager with proven credentials at the highest level. There aren't many of those left who Chelsea can attract.

Incidentally, Benitez has managed in the same number of European Cup finals as Chelsea FC and has the same number of victories. If Abramovich is prepared to give the Spaniard time, I suspect both totals might just grow.

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