Rafa Benitez’s return to coaching after almost two years out—a period in which he was linked with jobs as diverse as Paris Saint-Germain, Tottenham Hotspur and, er, Aston Villa—is one of the surprise stories of the season, if there can be such a thing at Chelsea.
His arrival at Stamford Bridge was confirmed after a dramatic Wednesday that saw Roberto di Matteo sacked despite Chelsea still having a chance of Champions League qualification. Benitez is a coach who polarises opinion, and there are plenty of talking-points around his appointment, so here are just a few worthy of mention.
The ghost of Mourinho at Stamford Bridge:
Jose Mourinho may have left Chelsea over five years ago, but his spectre still hovers over Stamford Bridge. His repeated reminders to the press that he fancies a return to England don’t help, and it will be fascinating to see how Benitez responds to any wind-ups from the Real Madrid boss.
Over the course of their sixteen matches on opposite sides from another as Chelsea and Liverpool managers, their rivalry became the most notorious in English football: Benitez bettered Mourinho in two Champions League semi-finals, one with a ‘ghost goal’, the other on penalties. It was an enmity that began with Mourinho’s first trophy in English football, the 2004 Carling Cup, during which his ‘shush’ gesture after a Chelsea goal riled Liverpool fans.
There wasn’t even a semblance of mutual respect between the men when Benitez replaced Mourinho after the latter led Inter Milan to unlikely success in the 2010 Champions League final. If that was an impossible act to follow, the Portuguese made Benitez’s task even harder. During pre-season Mourinho claimed that any trophy Benitez won, specifically the European Super Cup (which Inter did not win), would be with “[his] team”. He also remarked that Liverpool had gone backwards under Benitez—“The Liverpool of 2004 was better than the Liverpool of 2005, 2005 was better than 2006 and 2006 better than 2007”—a claim that league points totals prove incorrect. Finally, Mourinho mocked Benitez’s early decision to remove all photos of him and Inter’s Champions League success from Inter’s Appiano Gentile training-ground.
Benitez responded to Mourinho’s comments by telling AS newspaper that he put the credit for Inter’s success down to Hector Cuper, who was in charge before Roberto Mancini from 2001-2003. Benitez moaned that Mourinho had signed five players worth a combined £80m last summer, while he himself was not given any money to spend. Benitez also drew flak for preferring Samuel Eto’o to Diego Milito, the hero of Mourinho’s treble-winning season, at centre-forward. Just after Inter won the Club World Cup, which Benitez will contest again with Chelsea next month, the Spanish manager was out of a job.
In a way, Benitez could blame his demise at Liverpool in part on Mourinho. It was only when Mourinho left Chelsea in September 2007 that the English press switched their attention to Benitez and cranked up the pressure that led, 15 months later, to his infamous ‘facts’ press conference that for many marked the beginning of the end of his Anfield reign.
Myths about defensive tactics and man-management flaws:
The English media narrative holds that foreign coaches are obsessed with tactics and often alienate their squad (the alternative is the coach as players’ mate, in the manner of Mourinho or Martin Jol). Here’s an example: is your reaction to seeing Andre Villas-Boas furiously scribble notes during a match the same as when you see Brendan Rodgers doing the same thing?
It must really annoy Benitez, but he was often labeled a defensive-minded coach while at Liverpool. But understanding tactics is not the same as obsessing with defense. In arguably his best season at the club, 2008-09, when Liverpool finished second, they scored 114 goals in all competitions, more than any other English club. Their total of 77 league goals was also more than champions Manchester United and third- and fourth-placed Chelsea and Arsenal (who, weirdly, each scored 68 goals). That was the season Liverpool beat Real Madrid 4-0 and Manchester United, away, 4-1, in successive matches (its next game was a 5-0 win over Villa); they also drew 4-4 with Chelsea and Arsenal in successive games.
“People often talk about Arsenal’s beautiful game. Well, we scored more than them that year,” he told Canal Plus TV in 2010. “In very important matches against big teams, we scored a lot of goals. I like attacking play, I like my teams to attack; sometimes doing the same things, you win 1-0 or 4-0, that’s one of football’s mysteries.”
At Liverpool, Benitez definitely slotted into the ‘tactically-obsessed’ pigeon-hole. When he left the club in 2010, the Sunday Times put a microscope over his reign and described Benitez as an obsessed autocrat. “When Liverpool score, he probably won’t even smile or pump a fist, he’ll just write down a note,” Jermaine Pennant, the former Liverpool winger, was quoted as saying. “We won 6-0 against Derby County and played amazingly. All we got from the boss was a quiet, ‘Well done.’ It’s like in any job, if you’ve done something the manager appreciates, it puts you in a better frame of mind if he says, ‘Fantastic, you were really good today’.”
Steven Gerrard once said that he would retire from football the day he heard Benitez say, “Well done” to him. Another player remembered how Fernando Torres was treated when he came into training just after his girlfriend gave birth to their first son. His team-mates were cheering him, throwing nappies at him, and Benitez came in and wanted to talk to him about a run he made to the near post in Liverpool’s last game. “He likes to dominate,” Felipe Minambres, once Benitez’s assistant at Tenerife, told the paper. “He wants total control of fitness, tactics, strategy, food and the dressing room. He’s meticulous.”
Benitez is unlikely to suffer from the same problems that Villas-Boas had with the Chelsea dressing-room (unlike AVB, Benitez has won more as a coach than most of the Chelsea players), and this group of players is far less experienced than last season’s. Still, if the narrative is true to life, and those close to the Spaniard say that it is not, Benitez would do well to have softened any hard edges during his time out of the game.
Learning lessons from the past:
Benitez told AS newspaper six months after his dismissal at Inter that he was wary of working under a sports director again. “The manager model is better because coaches always pay for their mistakes and those of the sports directors,” he said. “As a manager you just pay for your own mistakes because you are the one deciding. It’s fairer.” At Chelsea, though, where he has been named only as interim-coach, he will have no say on transfers; the lack of transparency at the club is such that no-one really knows who does what (apart from the obvious: the man writing the cheques).
Yet this time, Benitez will have to suck it up and rely, as surprisingly few of his peers seem to want to, on his own coaching abilities to succeed. It will be his job to take this group of players and improve them, regardless of what, if any, personnel changes there may be in January.
Benitez gave a wonderful speech when he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Miguel Hernandez University in Elche in May 4, 2008, an event covered by Spanish reporter Guillem Balagué. In it he quoted a poem from Miguel Hernandez, The Olive Harvesters—“Not money, not the man/he did not sweat or toil/to raise them he did nothing/on the closed soil”—and spoke of his work ethic.
“Hard work, dedication to the job and adequate training are all fundamental to success… perseverance, determination, motivation, hope, curiosity and support are also vital,” Benitez said. “And don’t forget that experience is not what happens to us, but what we learn from what has happened to us. We must apply what we have learned in order to keep learning.”
Chelsea fans may not be won over yet, but if Benitez keeps that mantra in mind, it could yet be a successful season at the Bridge.