Chelsea Football Club. It sounds weird even saying it out loud, dirty almost. As marriages of convenience go, this one looks destined for the divorce courts, but the sheer volume of vitriol that has been sent his way, some woefully ill-judged, just simply goes to show that tribalism is rife in the game, even when an underrated and accomplished manager such as him is appointed to the club only on an interim basis and he deserves an opportunity to present his case.
Firstly, may I just say that the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo was patently ridiculous, even by Roman Abramovich’s standards. It’s clear that he was never particularly wanted and that the Champions League success backed the Russian oligarch into a corner and that he was almost forced to appoint him. Also, you have to question the wisdom, particularly given that Di Matteo was only really ever a caretaker manager in all but name, of sacking a hugely popular manager with the fans and replacing him with one that they despise.
Of course, the large majority of Chelsea fans simply don’t want Benitez, but to pretend it has anything else other than because he used to manage Liverpool, back when the two were fierce rivals, and due to some of the less than complimentary things he had to say about the club, atmosphere at Stamford Bridge and fans is folly of the highest order.
Trizia Fiorellino, chair of the Chelsea Supporters Group, said: “I don’t think Benitez is a good manager.” Honestly, where do they find these people? A more accurate assessment came from David Johnstone, spokesman for fanzine cfcuk, who added: “Benitez is not a Chelsea manager. He isn’t what we want.” That’s perfectly fair enough, if he’s not your cup of tea, then fine, if you don’t want him to manage your club, that’s a personal opinion, but let’s not try and pretend that Benitez isn’t an extremely qualified coach and definitely the best that the club could have got at such short notice and given the circumstances.
Make no bones about it, Chelsea are a laughing stock within the game, but they still offer huge wages, an almost guaranteed lump sum pay-out once you’re eventually sacked, plus the opportunity to work with some truly exceptional players, all while seriously competing for silverware. Getting sacked by the club doesn’t seem to do that much harm to a managers CV either, so from their point of view, it’s all reward and the risk if lumped straight back onto the club instead, it’s just that this is then compounded by rash and irrational decision-making from above, the sort that makes you question how Abramovich ever managed to manoeuvre himself into a position to become a billionaire in the first place, because the man lacks even a modicum of patience.
Given that he’s been out of work since a short spell as Inter Milan boss since December 2010, it’s hardly no surprise that Benitez jumped at the opportunity to manage the current European champions, if not only to put himself back on the map. His spell in Italy was far from successful, despite the two trophies won, but a combination of a terrible injury list and lack of investment only made the situation worse and the fact that the club went through three managers in just over a year after his departure shows you that the problems were far more deep-rooted than previously thought.
Only in England would a manager that has won the Champions League, two La Liga titles and an FA Cup be derided as a clown. The tactics and principles he was widely mocked for using during his time at Anfield – namely the ‘defensive’ 4-2-3-1 formation, zonal marking and a rotation policy – are now all commonly used by nearly all the best teams not only in this country, but across the continent. He’s a meticulous planner with a real understanding of the game and any critiques of him very rarely have any basis in his actual coaching ability, which at the end of the day is what he’s being paid for. He’s an innovative, forward-thinking manager who is seriously underrated by a media seeking a concise narrative to try and pigeonhole and attack him with when it suits them.
He led Liverpool to two Champions League finals in three years and was sacked off the back of finishing 7th in the league, a position that has been out of reach for the club ever since he left and a place which new boss Brendan Rodgers labelled would be a ‘fantastic achievement’ if they managed to finish that high this term. The club’s decline was only hastened by his exit.
People forget quite how intolerable the conditions and constraints he worked under at Anfield were for a time with quite possibly the two most awful owners ever to grace the Premier League – Tom Hicks and George Gillett – and the bitter in-fighting with the clown that was Christian Purslow constantly trying to undermine Benitez at every turn. It has since been revealed that the club were just two days away from administration prior to being bought by FSG, which meant that the owners were unable to provide the investment sorely needed after they narrowly finish 2nd in the title race to Manchester United in 2008-9; the strongest title challenge that the club has ever put together in the Premier League era, which will go down as a huge missed opportunity, one from which the club is still yet to fully recover.
The academy structure at Liverpool is also directly down to Benitez, with Pep Segura and Rodolfo Borrell brought in having both previously worked at Barcelona, to radically overhaul a failing system under club legend Steve Heighway that had failed to produce a player of note since Steven Gerrard. The signs of the success of this are only now truly being felt, with the likes of Suso, Andre Wisdom, Jonjo Shelvey, Raheem Sterling making their way into Rodgers’ first-team, all of which were brought to the club by the Spaniard.
Cast your eyes around the spine of the Anfield dressing room – Lucas, Agger, Skrtel, Reina, Johnson – were all brought to the club by Benitez and the last two managers, Dalglish and Hodgson, have barely made a dent in terms of first-team regulars. His history also includes the likes of Torres, Alonso (caveat, which he forced out in pursuit of Gareth Barry, a gross error of judgement it has to be said), Kuyt, Arbeloa and Mascherano, all of whom served the club extremely well during their time there, even if there were plenty of ones he did get wrong along the way.
The sense of loss that the club’s fans feel about the Di Matteo dismissal is completely understandable, as he was a direct link back to simpler times, when the club was less successful but probably more revered by the neutral. Being a Chelsea fan now must feel like a daily grind against the hate and Di Matteo represented a tangible semblance of heart; he understood the club and the fans loved him all the more for it and only the sackings of Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti can compare.
Nevertheless, I’ve heard countless arguments that Benitez is not the man for Chelsea – a tactical, long-term thinker with a proven pedigree in youth development – three things that the club are absolutely crying out for in the need for stability as they lurch from one interim boss to another on the wishful thinking that Pep Guardiola will just take them seriously and become their next permanent manager. Benitez has been appointed as an interim boss hot on the heels of a deeply unpopular and quite unfathomable sacking given the context of the team’s development in recent times, but the two are separate issues and should be judged as such.
The temptation with the 52-year-old is to treat it as a personal issue, which as I have argued above, if it is solely your problem with him, then that seems fairly reasonable, but it’s when his record and coaching ability is questioned quite so fiercely, with a mixture of baseless opinions, skewed facts and a complete re-writing of history devoid of any sort of context that it really gets my goat. Benitez is an excellent manager and he deserves a chance to prove his doubters wrong, of which there are many, before being consigned to the scrapheap of English football.
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