Evolution, revolution, Rafalution. Change is the only constant in football and this week there’s been another significant disturbance in the force: Rafael Benitez’s return to football, conversely, represents The New. Benitez has got back into the loop after a prolonged, entirely deserved absence, and he’s brought with him the idea of the specialist manager, a take on the role never before seen. Although I will admit that I may simply not have been watching. That, in fact, is almost definitely what’s happened. Nevertheless, please stay with me for the next few hundred words.
I’ll explain. Benitez is a specialist because for all intents and purposes (or at least for all my intents and purposes) he’s been brought in to manage Chelsea purely as a method of coaxing some part of the old Fernando Torres out of the newer, older, frailer, sense-of-entitlement-owning Fernando Torres. Benitez is a manager with, it seems, one very specific task, which makes him the sterile, modern antidote to the managers who in the olden days dealt with every single aspect of their football clubs. Does that make him worse than those managers? It isn’t my place to say. But yes, it does.
Now, this innovation obviously has far-reaching consequences, some good, some bad, and, ostensibly as a word-filling exercise, I’d like to look into them. First the good. The best thing about the inevitable rise of the Specialist Manager is that measuring their progress is going to get a lot easier. In the past, deciding how a manager had performed was a difficult, nuanced process: not everyone can win trophies, so there were questions like: Where did their club finish in the league? Did they play nice football? Were they found guilty of tax evasion? Was there a suspicion, though not any proof, of tax evasion? Did they ever equate a strong tackle to rape on public television? Those go out of the window now—bye bye, nuance! Imagine the time we’ll save.
Instead, from here on in, it will come down to just one question per manager. In Benitez’s case: can he make Fernando Torres score goals again? If he can, he stays; if he can’t, he goes. That kind of raw accountability is something we can all enjoy, isn’t it? It gets rid of all that tedious discussion which people seem to enjoy so much, all the ‘fun’ debate, you might say. The sooner we can get football down to a set of statistics open to empirical analysis the better. Another one in the plus column, then.
But, like I say, the Specialist Manager isn’t all good news. Has anyone at Chelsea, for instance, considered that bringing in a manager with only one task required of him leaves various other tasks still to be completed but largely required of no-one? Who will decide on the formation? Who’s doing the team talk? Who’s going to speak to the media, other than to defend Torres’ half-hearted impersonation of a penguin? It’s not that I don’t believe any of these questions came up in the Chelsea boardroom this week, but it is that I wonder if they were ultimately forgotten after someone brought the lattes in. We all forget things sometimes.
And once you start to doubt the Benitez role a little bit, the whole thing begins to crumble. What if, even if a manager does have only one area to focus on, they still can’t do it? Benitez’s job sounds simple, but how exactly he goes about rehabilitating Torres’ limp corpse is anyone’s guess. Despite all that talk, not many people have offered an explanation alongside the assumption that he can do it. Does anyone really believe that Torres’ goal-scoring peak did anything more than coincide with Rafa’s time in charge of Liverpool? That it wasn’t just the part of his career before he was injured and after he had developed into a physically-mature player? In other words, Chelsea have got themselves a manager for one task only, and it happens to be a task he’s unlikely to do very well at. Oops.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Specialist Manager has to go. I want that said. A slight adaptation of the new role is probably all that’s required. All of the problems with the idea might be solved by having multiple specialists collaborating with each other, like so: one man is in charge of the team in an overall sense (say: Rafa Benitez), then he has maybe a ‘number two’ figure (say: Bolo Zenden) who deals more directly with the players, then maybe a physio (?), and so on and so forth. I’ll call it ‘hiring a manager and his backroom staff’. Chelsea should try that. Unless Pep Guardiola wants a job, in which case they can all sling it.
Arsenal agree new shirt deal
Finally, a hearty congratulations on Arsenal’s new shirt sponsorship deal. In the words of former League Cup winner Kenny Dalglish and in the recurring sentiment of Arsene Wenger, financial success is the new winning trophies and in those terms the £150 million Arsenal have just pocketed is more or less a Champions League win, minus the glory, drama or entertainment value. Or, to put it another way, minus the faffing around before the year end bonuses.
In the years to come, today’s young Arsenal fans will recount the first shirt sponsorship deal that they can remember with a mixture of quiet awe and extreme gratitude to the people in charge of the club. This, they will say, was one of the most exciting times in football, a time when board members replaced number nines as the real footballing heroes. A time when a young and rather handsome Ethan Dean-Richards wrote an hilarious deconstruction of the whole thing.
I remember the day Stan Kroenke walked into the Emirates stadium for the first time. I think it was June. Yeah think it was June. Laying back, head on the grass, children grown, having some laughs. Yeah having some laughs. No, wait, that was the Stereophonics song, not my memory—still, good times though. Anyway, with Kroenke, you knew you were in the presence of genius. Not a footballing genius; a financial one. But it was just as exciting. Do you know, he once negotiated an extra £5 million onto a TV deal? It was like watching Bergkamp sink the ball into the bottom corner with a delicate, sensual sidefoot. Except clearly better. Actually, fuck off, Bergkamp.