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Rafa Benitez, the media and the hazards of confirmation bias

Want coherent, unbiased analysis on Rafa Benitez's tenure? You might not find it on a Chelsea blog -- but you definitely won't see it in the mainstream media.

Christof Koepsel

When Rafa Benitez was hired, I was upset. Not just because I don't like Rafa Benitez, which I happily admit to, but because I don't think he's a particularly able football manager. He contrived to steer Liverpool out of the top four for good and his time with Inter Milan was an unmitigated disaster. After making a genuine breakthrough with his implementation of 4-2-3-1 with Valencia, he transferred his success to Liverpool, did well for a time, and then stalled.

The visionary is not a particularly reliable manager, in the long run. They see something others do not and exploit it for a time, but eventually the rest of the world catches on and the advantage evaporates. This is particularly worrying if the visionary becomes too attached to their his own philosophy. In a competitive environment, dogma is death. This trait is what makes Sir Alex Ferguson such a remarkable manager -- his willingness to continually rebuild not just his team but his way of thinking is what allowed him to remain so successful, for so long.

Benitez is dogmatic. His obsession with the 4-2-3-1 served him well when it was a genuinely disruptive shape, and nobody doubts his professionalism or training methods. He's a very clever man, and would be a far more effective manager if he wasn't so stubbornly sticking to ideas that were revolutionary a decade ago.

Coupled with a genuine dislike of the man* -- I don't think much of attacking another teams' fans, nor do I have any fondness for those who seek to duck responsibility whenever anything goes wrong -- it's not difficult to see why I might have been annoyed when he was announced as Roberto di Matteo's replacement back in November.

*For which I'll be told, not doubt, that any analysis I could provide on the subject is utterly biased and therefore without merit.

But not liking Benitez is and was essentially irrelevant. There were targets to hit and obvious problems to be solved. Although Chelsea were in a tailspin -- they were effectively out of the Champions League and had slumped to third place in the Premier League despite a strong start -- there was still much to play for. The road to the League Cup was wide open, the Club World Cup, gimmick though it was, should have been a walkover, and the FA Cup and Europa Leagues had not yet started.

Even in the Premier League, there was hope of something approximating a sustained title challenge. Manchester United were looking much more vulnerable than anyone remembers now that they've coasted to their 20th championship. Their defence was wobbly, their midfield was essentially non-existent, and they were relying on their strikers to win them games. Manchester City, meanwhile, were entirely disinterested, a sad hilarious fact that eventually cost Roberto Mancini his job.

Chelsea won the Europa League, fought pretty bravely in the FA Cup and embarrassed themselves in the League and Club World Cups. Although they're almost certainly qualified for the Champions League places next season, their league campaign was a success only because of the low target set. Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur are nowhere near as talented (or, indeed, as expensive), and the Blues' failure to push City for second in a season which the defending champions consider a catastrophic collapse is an indictment of their overall play.

It wasn't a matter of poor results being coupled with strong performances, either. Chelsea routinely played poorly against inferior opposition, and often collapsed from winning positions. They won their fair share of games, but the broad picture of a side with talented individuals but no real ability to impose control upon a match shines through very clearly. For most of Benitez's reign, despite the presence of some hugely gifted players, Chelsea have been extraordinarily poor.

There are mitigating factors. The team wasn't constructed well, and senior management failed to rectify the most obvious need -- a midfielder who could play effectively in Benitez's system -- in January, trusting instead to a misguided experiment which saw David Luiz find novel ways to be out of position in the most important area of the pitch. The number of games Chelsea were forced to play is unprecedented and took its toll on a tired squad. Roberto di Matteo was the man who oversaw our fall into the Europa League, not Benitez. And yes, the obvious disdain from the supporters cannot have helped either.

There were triumphs too. The most obvious is the Europa League on Wednesday, which saw Chelsea become the first English club to win all three major European trophies thanks to a back post header by Branislav Ivanovic on a routine drawn up by Benitez. The FA Cup quarterfinal against Manchester United was masterful. And coming in third (possibly fourth) place, no matter how limp the performance might have been, allows the club to focus on bigger and better things.

Those factors are important, but they're not the entirety of the story; regardless, any thorough and unbiased evaluation of Benitez's time at the reins will weigh up his successes and his failures rather than focusing on one area or another. Nobody's expecting me to be unbiased here, but I hope that even though my interpretation of the evidence might lean in one direction, my reporting of the evidence remains neutral.

That's the standard we expect from writers and journalists, after all. Sadly, it's not one that's often met.

Those Chelsea fans who, due to some imagined slight, made life so hard for Rafael Benítez have a chance to say sorry when the Europa League-winning manager presides over the last Premier League game of his interim reign. Hats off to Benítez for his "rant" – actually, it was a pretty measured statement of the obvious – against militant Chelsea fans after an FA Cup win at Middlesbrough at the end of February. He had the guts to stand up to them and stick to his guns. A few might even thank the "fat Spanish waiter" for moving David Luiz into a holding central midfield role and beginning the reawakening of Fernando Torres. Will José Mourinho – if he arrives – really do any better? Might the odd Chelsea fan even be a little sad to see Benítez go?

-Louise Taylor, Guardian.

Perhaps I'm cherrypicking here -- that's a quote from the least talented member of the Guardian's staff, after all -- but the above paragraph, awful though it is, is not atypical of the media's response to Benitez's tenure with Chelsea. The story being we're being stold is of a man who succeeded despite long odds, accomplishing great things for woefully ungrateful supporters, who ought now to be begging for forgiveness with their collective tails between their legs.

That's not an indefensible position, given the evidence. If you weigh the value of a top four finish very highly and believe that Chelsea would never have achieved it under di Matteo, then perhaps it's fair to say that we should be heaping praise on Benitez for his accomplishments with the team. It would be an odd line to take, but as long as Benitez's failures are acknowledged, it's not utterly insane.

What would be insane is ignoring evidence that doesn't suit one's argument and misrepresenting the rest to better suit one's point. This is what Taylor has done here -- she's praising Benitez for his successes without even mentioning the failures; the line about the 'reawakening' of a £50 million striker who has yet to score a league goal in 2013 is particularly demented -- and it's exactly what happens when you choose your conclusions before examining the evidence. The I-want-to-sound-clever name for this phenomenon is confirmation bias*.

*It would be remiss of me not to point out that I've been accused by some commenters of confirmation bias over my low opinion of David Luiz's performances in midfield. That may very well be true; either way it's a subtle and insidious effect that must be battled at every turn.

But is there a motive for Taylor and her merry band of incompetents to perform tricks of intellectual dishonesty on this sort of scale? After all, the journalistic corps is ostensibly neutral. Why would they hold an opinion that strong on a subject they shouldn't really care about?

The answer, when given some thought, is pretty clear. Britain's press considers itself a grand arbiter of morality -- see, well, basically everything they produce. Football's no different. Sustained indignation towards anything out of the ordinary (such as smiling, or possessing money, or being foreign) is the signature of the field. And one of the fundamental tenets of the football media's moral code is that supporters should be passive. Uppityness from the little people is inherently evil.

And so, when Chelsea supporters rejected the appointment of Rafa Benitez, they had to be punished. A combination of supposed moral superiority and schadenfreude have combined to fuel pieces like Taylor's, which aren't written to illuminate the situation but to punish those who've acted out. Once that decision to take sides has been made, Taylor and company simply do not possess the analytical ability* to recognise and correct the biases in their position.

*Or they're happy to be intellectually dishonest, which is worse.

The rest of the footballing community is only too happy to join the party. Chelsea supporters are not well liked (nor is there a reason for them to be), and so, unthinking everyone else goes where the media leads. One suspects that they don't mind being led astray so long as they can attack the opposition, but from my perspective the fundamental point of journalist is to inform rather than pursue enjoyable ignorance.

Is there an argument that Rafa Benitez has done a good job of Chelsea manager, one that invalidates the initial stance that he shouldn't have been hired? Probably. But such an argument should be made from the evidence at hand, not a twisted version of said evidence forged into a stick with which to beat dissenters.

Rhetorical tricks may convince the masses, but they're no substitute for thoughtful analysis. We deserve better.

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