While his predecessors experienced varied levels of success and failure, quantifying Rafa Benitez' tenure becomes a difficult task without context. Winning the Champions League didn't validate Roberto Di Matteo as a top-class manager. If anything it gave his resume a bit of strength but by no means has him in the realm of tactical guru. AVB is heralded as a brilliant tactician, but was unceremoniously shown the exit when he lost the plot last year. How we evaluate these men involves a mix of subjective reasoning coupled with viewing their tangible results. In the case of Mourinho, Ancelotti, Hiddink, and Di Matteo, we feel a fondness courtesy of their triumph. With Scolari, Grant, and AVB, we reserve scorn and derision. Where then, would Rafa fall on this horizon?
It's difficult to claim Rafa's time in charge was a categorical success or failure. There were the unfortunate losses in cup competitions, the litany of goals conceded from winning positions, the late-game meltdowns, and the occasional drubbing at the hand of inferior opponents. However, there also came the late season resurgence, the improved defensive balance, the individual growth of key players (Luiz, Torres, Hazard), qualification for next seasons' Champions League, and of course, last nights Europa League triumph. In short, it's been a bit of a mixed bag of results for a man who was brought into the fold to guide the club safely toward next years Champions League. On paper, Rafa achieved the bare minimum objective the club set out. That he was able to win the Europa League to add another trophy to the cabinet was simply icing on the proverbial cake for both the club and him. It was never an imperative this year for him to win anything (except for perhaps the FA Cup). But as the season progressed and opportunities continued to fall by the wayside, Rafa prioritized his team selections and ultimately got it right (in general).
So how do we evaluate the merits of his reign? By arguing that we never wanted him there in the first place, naturally. It can come as a surprise to no one that he was the most polarizing figure to take the touchline at Stamford Bridge since Jose left. Rafa was never going to be the manager to bring about the brand of beautiful football Roman craves- nor has he ever been that type of manager. By his nature, Rafa is a pragmatic tinker-man with a penchant for rotating ad nausem. His style can be defined as cautious optimism. Despite the wealth of attacking options at his disposal, this Chelsea squad failed to replicate the free-flowing style that Abramovich envisioned when he signed the likes of Hazard, Oscar, Marin, Mata, Torres, et all. Rafa's focus, rather, was on revitalizing Fernando Torres and getting us over the hurdle of fourth place.
Rafa's role was to ensure the plane didn't crash and explode- and he managed to not only keep it in the air, but he succeeded in bringing it safely to the runway with all passengers accounted for. That was his task, and if you look at it purely from that standpoint, he has to be given the nod as a success. But, there's obviously more that merits consideration and if you take the entire body of work and evaluate it note for note, there are plenty of instances which draw the ire of Chelsea fans and pundits alike. He won't be revered, or cherished in the vein that Guus Hiddink or Robbie Di Matteo are. Those 'Interim' managers were gregarious, effusive, and had never worked on Merseyside. Rafa's Liverpool history was undoubtedly going to haunt him and until the end it continued to fester in the stands with supporters making their true feelings known. They never wanted him, they never needed him, and they're certainly not misty-eyed at his impending departure. But, they'll gladly take the trophy he's helped steer them toward for what it's worth. For his part, Rafa claims that he's left the club in better shape than he inherited it. That it was always going to be an impossible task to win a trophy with a squad as young as ours, without a handful of players who were instrumental in guiding us to FA Cup and CL success last term.
You'll read this and naturally assume that I'm somewhat of a Rafa apologist. I can assure you I'm not in the slightest. But I'd argue that if we divorce the irrational coefficient of hatred that stems from decade old rivalries, and you look at his performances in a role (or job), he has to be given an inkling of credit. When it was wrong, we gave it to him and rightfully so. But it should be noted that when he got it right, those outcries for his head were muted. As he leaves with his another success on his CV, Chelsea will welcome yet another manager into the mix, although you and I know just who that man will be. Rafa's legacy will never be revered or considered as brilliant as Di Matteo or Hiddink, but he should be credited as the guy who put David Luiz in the midfield, got Fernando Torres firing at long last, and rotated the squad to the brink of chaos. He'll land on his feet somewhere, perhaps in Spain or maybe even in England once more. There's certainly a job on Merseyside that's looking for a new tenant, but I doubt Rafa can wear that shade of Blue. Then again, if someone who once bled the Red of Liverpool could take up our mantle, what does that truly say about where his proverbial loyalties lie?
There I go making an argument for why we should give Rafa credit, and then I stick the knife in. Such has been life with Rafa. Even when I try to appreciate the man, my senses are flooded and the hatred creeps over me like an invisibility cloak. Perhaps it truly will be for the best for our paths to separate for good. He came, he did what he had to, got paid a King's Ransom, and we'll try and move past this chapter as quickly as possible. We hated him for months because we couldn't bring ourselves to admit that our players were underachieving across the board. We deflected criticism of our squad and of our supposed depth and instead turned our ire on Benitez. Whether right or wrong is not for one man to decide, but one fact remains universal: he's gone in two weeks. And I will certainly remember these past six months as both bittersweet and maddening. I can appreciate the results he's derived, but could have done without the months of sympathy he drummed up from all corners of the continent. Please, don't misinterpret my words: I'm appreciating the results that Rafa's earned, not buying into the 'pity-me for my life has been awful' story-line so many in the press would have us believe.
He never made it easy, he could have done a lot worse, and in the end most of us are thrilled to see him go. Rafa, thanks for the memories I guess. You're a part of our history, and in two weeks time you will be history. That, is your true legacy to so many.