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Beyond the emotion: What would Rafael Benitez bring to Chelsea?

Laurence Griffiths

To say Rafael Benitez is not well-liked by Chelsea supporters would be something of an understatement. Hating the man is something of a tradition at Stamford Bridge, and the reaction if it turns out the board had sacked a genuine Chelsea hero in Roberto di Matteo only to replace him with a 'fat Spanish waiter*' would be somewhere between mutiny and all-out thermonuclear warfare.

*He'd join the blond Spanish w**ker at Cobham.


That said, the vitriol directed at Benitez shouldn't prevent us from trying to objectively analyse the man on his own merits. He's seen success at both Liverpool and Valencia before crashing and burning at Inter Milan (much to our collective amusement), so there's presumably some managerial talent in there, and if he does end up as interim Chelsea manager we should try to have some idea of what we're in for. Apart from the streets running red with blood, etc.

So I put on my 'I'm trying not to hate everything' hat and talked shop with some Liverpool fans to try to get a feel for what he's is all about. First up was one of my favourite tactical experts and a must-follow on Twitter, Jonny of lankyguyblog fame. He's been watching Benitez for years, and has been hugely impressed by his tactical acumen:

Benitez idolises Sacchi and his legendary Milan side of the late 80s, early 90s. His main ideas are to have control of the space, to stay compact, both vertically and horizontally, to press aggressively as a unit and to try and pass the ball on the ground yet move it quickly. If you were looking at a team at the moment that plays like he wants to play, it would be Borussia Dortmund - the movements both defensively and in possession are very similar to what he used at Liverpool.

Benitez does not want robots on the pitch but he wants a tactically aware group who know what to do in every given situation and who keep up their intensity regardless of the situation during the game. It's well known that he likes the 4-2-3-1 shape because of the balance it brings and how it can switch to 4-4-2 or 4-2-4 in attacking positions. His Valencia side dominated La Liga because they moved the ball quickly along the ground but also had great intensity and consistency to their play and were too well organised to break down.

At Liverpool he didn't have the tactical balance in the squad at the start but he built it up while being consistently successful in Europe. The season they came second (2008/09) despite having poor depth in the squad was again a great example of how he wants to play - a high line, full backs going forward, two holding players to act as reference points, to shut off space between the lines and also to entice the opposition's midfield to press, leaving space for the front four to provide width and depth and take advantage with quick movements, especially between the lines.

And for another view, I had a chat with Noel of Liverpool Offside, mostly focusing on his management skills and general fit with Chelsea.

Graham: Soooo. Tell me about Rafael Benitez.

Noel: Benitez would be a poor fit at Chelsea, but then any manager who isn't Jose Mourinho is going to be a poor fit who's destined to be sacked after six months no matter what he might achieve in the interim. Still, Benitez does have one thing in common with the former Chelsea manager, at least-they're both control freaks who would be in charge of every aspect of the club down demanding the cleaners wipe the bathroom mirrors in a counter-clockwise motion.

In fact, about the only possible explanation for why he'd end up in the Chelsea job would be if Abramovich is unwilling to take a £50M hit on Fernando Torres-and let's face it, Chelsea would be lucky to make back his wages to date if they sold him on-but the reality is that there's very little of the old Torres left to salvage at this point.

He also seems to have that in common with Abramovich, which is part of why it would seem destined to end in another sacking should he actually end up being hired, especially given there's reason to think he would receive less support than any post-Mourinho manager to date has from the Chelsea fans.

Graham: How's his man-management? I haven't heard good things.

Noel: Torres will obviously love him, as will many of the younger, more technical players. He can be a very standoffish manager, though, and one of the biggest criticisms of him at Liverpool was always that he wouldn't put his hand 'round the shoulder and be a man manager. At times he can manage the players almost as though he expects them to be emotionless robots, and as was the case with him alienating some of the English players at Liverpool over his tenure, I expect the Chelsea old guard would quickly find a way to make themselves relevant again.

And by relevant again I mean start leaking stories to their friends in the press about what a zonal marking foreign monster Benitez is.

Graham: So in that aspect he's like an Andre Villas-Boas that Chelsea fans already hate.

Noel: Yes. But he does have a far better résumé, and he worked miracles at Liverpool given the limitations he was working under. Still, if he were to be hired it rather seems inevitable it wouldn't end well.

In essence -- a very good (if rather dour) tactician who struggles to motivate players who need coddling. While Benitez might sort out Chelsea's on-field problems for a while, it seems unlikely that, if appointed, he'd be around for the long term. And that's even without taking the very real dislike that most associated with the club have for him. Change his name to, I don't know, Unai Emery or something, and he might very well be an appropriate interim (but probably not long-term) manager for this club.

But even without the emotion*, it doesn't look like much good would come out of Benitez's appointment. Chelsea's main goal this season must be to reestablish themselves in the top three of the Premier League, but that status currently looks fairly nailed-on, despite the recent form. And advancement in the Champions League is more up to Shakhtar Donetsk than the Blues at the moment. Firing di Matteo only to throw an interim manager onto the scene doesn't actually solve any problems.

*Or the Torres question, because I don't want to think about it.

And when you add the emotion back into the equation and remember that said interim manager might be Rafael Benitez, whose tenure at Inter Milan was a catastrophe of epic proportions... it's very difficult to understand why the board would go down this path.

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