Rafael Benitez has replaced Roberto Di Matteo and will take the reigns at Chelsea until the end of the season. So now I will pose the inevitable question: Is Benitez a good appointment for Chelsea?
It’s debatable The stock of a man who won Valencia’s first La Liga title for over 30 years and brought Liverpool their first European Cup for 21 years has certainly fallen over recent years. Being a relative new-comer to the sport (I only started attending matches towards the end of the 2005-06 season, and only got a real understanding of the game towards the end of the following season) I often wondered why Benitez was regarded as some sort of God by Liverpool fans. Of course, a quick glance on Wikipedia will show you what a fantastic record he had initially at Liverpool, and his record at Valencia also speaks for itself. But I remember, even as a Newcastle fan, always finding Liverpool a frustrating team to watch under Benitez, particularly during their almost title winning season of 2008-09, as Benitez always seemed to have his players on the leash, never allowing them to go out and attack teams. I felt that he had a group of incredibly talented players but his negative tactics meant they never quite met their full potential as a team.
The 08-09 season was a perfect example of Benitez holding back his players. In my opinion that Liverpool side was comfortably the best team in the division. They had Gerrard at the peak of his powers, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano screening the back four, Jamie Carragher was yet to complete his journey from accomplished centre-half to useless, wheezing lump, Reina seemed to be highly rated by most people (though I’ve never found him terribly convincing). They also, of course, had Fernando Torres when he still resembled a professional footballer. In fact he was more than that, he was one of the most ‘feared’ (to use a hackneyed phrase) strikers in the division, scoring 14 goals in 24 league games, which is a respectable total. Liverpool lost two games that season. They beat champions Manchester United and former champions Chelsea home and away, ending Chelsea’s 86-game unbeaten run at home in the league. How did they not win the Premier League title?
The obvious answer is they didn’t get enough points, as they drew too many games. 10 to be precise. A season that included a 4-1 win at Old Trafford and a 4-0 demolition of Real Madrid in the European Cup (I may be young but to me that’s its ‘proper’ name) also included draws at home to Hull, Fulham, West Ham and Everton, as well as draws at Aston Villa and Wigan and home and away to Stoke. These are all teams who, let’s be honest, Liverpool could and probably should have beaten, easily. But they didn’t, and I think it was partly down to the aforementioned defensive style, which didn’t work against weaker teams who would go to Anfield to sit and defend for 90 minutes. It’s no good trying to play defensively at home against a team who doesn’t want to attack. The two sets of players end up sitting like coiled springs, waiting for the other to twitch first. It did work much more effectively away from home, where teams traditionally are more prone to attack, as well as at home to teams like Manchester United and Chelsea who, no matter who the opposition, would play games to win them. This suggests to me a lack of tactical flexibility, or even awareness, from Benitez, as he only had one way of playing football and there was no plan B when he found himself faced with teams who would ‘park the bus’, so to speak. With lots of skilful ‘lock-pickers’ in their midfield Chelsea have enough attacking talent to beat most defences. The problem Benitez may face is that they don’t have a strong defensive midfielder or big, strong centrehalfs. This can go one of two ways for me. Either a spectacular failure for Benitez as he will fail to implement his style as he won’t have players suited to it. Or he may be forced to change his style and play a more attacking style, a style he arguably should have played at Liverpool, a style that may well have won them the league.
On the theme of Liverpool having ‘no plan B’, Rafa also had very little in terms of squad players. He had an exceptionally talented first 11, but beyond that there was largely dross. Dross that he’d signed. For millions. Dross that he’d signed and replaced better players with. Some people may argue (as they did at the time) that he wasn’t given the money to spend and that would explain his lack of strength in depth. But I don’t think that’s entirely true. I would seriously question a man who sells Peter Crouch and Craig Bellamy and then replaces them with Ryan Babel, while persisting with Andriy Voronin and the brilliant but also incredibly injury-prone Torres. He managed to manufacture a situation where if Torres was unavailable he had practically no one to call on. He faces a similar lack of options at Chelsea, with Daniel Sturridge playing the Voronin role in this scenario. This time it is not of his own doing obviously, but once again he will be relying on old ‘Nando to stick the ball in the net. The problem is that this is not the Torres of old. This is post-World Cup 2010 Torres; barely a shadow of the player Benitez could call upon four years ago.
On that theme, Roman may need to be wary about how much he gives Benitez to spend in January, as his track record is mixed, especially in recent seasons. Benitez spent £14million on Babel, a promising and exciting looking striker while at Ajax, and decided to stick him out on the wing, and no one’s really heard from him since. Similarly with Dirk Kuyt, a free-scoring centreforward for Feyenoord, Rafa thinks he would be best served playing a James Milner-style, hustling bustling wide midfield role. Benitez was given £20million to spend on Torres (money well spent, it has to be said) but also £17million to spend on Alberto Aquilani, a player who went on to make 28 first team appearances for Liverpool in four years. He spent £8million on Albert Riera and £20million on Robbie Keane, who was often played up front on his own, another masterstroke from Benitez, and then sold six months later. His turn over of strikers was ridiculous as well; at my count Liverpool went through 11 strikers during Benitez’s six years at the club (Baros, Cissé, Owen, Fowler, Torres, Voronin, Crouch, Bellamy, Babel, Kuyt, Keane), two of which were still at the club when he left. There may be more I’ve forgotten. My point is that he was given money to spend at Liverpool, a lot of money, and didn’t always spend it wisely (something his successors have failed to learn from).
So where did it go wrong for Rafa? Perhaps this is an overly simplistic view, and there are undoubtedly other factors in play, but I would suggest it was losing his long-serving assistant Pako Ayestarán in 2007. The moment he left Rafa’s side was the moment the trophies dried up. With Ayestarán, Benitez won two La Liga titles, a UEFA Cup, the Champions League and the FA Cup, all of which while playing exciting attacking football. Since Ayestarán was ‘put on gardening leave’ in 2007 before eventually leaving Liverpool in 2008 Benitez has won nothing, and has played defensive football while doing so. Over a spectacular 12 month spell he got Liverpool knocked out of the group stage of the Champions League and took Inter to 7th in Serie A, a side that had won the treble six months earlier. Actually, to say he won nothing is unfair. He won the Italian Supercoppa and the Club World Cup while at Inter. Prestigious. But this suggests to me that Ayestarán was the brains behind the operation, and that Benitez on his own has proven to be both reckless with transfer funds and ultimately unsuccessful. Of course it’s worth pointing out that since Ayestarán left, Benitez has also been in a Champions League final and took his Liverpool team to 2nd in the Premiership. So if he’d won those two trophies then I probably wouldn’t really have much of case. But it’s hard to argue that Rafa’s career has not seen a fall from grace since his number two abandoned him.
As a short term appointment Benitez could be a success at Chelsea, as he galvanised an underperforming Liverpool side to Champions League glory in 2005. But the players he has at his disposal, along with his record post FA Cup penalty shootout against West Ham does not suggest to me that Mr Abramovich has made a wise appointment. But we shall see.