Swansea City v SSC Napoli - UEFA Europa League Second Round First Leg

Last Thursday, Napoli travelled to Swansea City and played out a 0-0 draw in the Europa League.

It is difficult to judge a first leg goalless draw in European competition: traditionally a draw is a good result for the away side, but a 0-0 leaves them exposed to a score draw in the return match, which would result in their elimination.

As such, the reaction to the result varied significantly across the British press. The Sky Sports website, for example, led with “Swansea earned a hugely creditable 0-0 home draw with Napoli”. The Guardian, in stark contrast, headlined their match report “Rafael Benítez masterminds first-leg stalemate.” One suggests Swansea deserve credit, the other insists Napoli and Benitez achieved something particularly impressive. The truth is somewhere in between.

The latter headline is particularly interesting – in any normal sense of the word, Benitez’s wasn’t really ‘masterminding’ anything. Think about the situation: the Serie A runners-up, packed with an array of multimillion pound players and a European specialist as coach, travelling to meet an off-form side who qualified for this competition by beating Bradford City, with a complete unknown as coach. Napoli are a powerhouse of European football, Swansea still an underdog.

Besides, if you saw the match, Napoli were extraordinarily lucky to collect a draw. They were under significant pressure for long spells, recorded one shot on target, and were reliant upon not one, but two, excellent goalkeeping displays to keep them in the tie, with Pepe Reina replacing Rafael at half-time. Napoli unquestionably arrived in Wales with a reactive, counter-attacking mindset, and Swansea’s possession dominance was unsurprising – but Napoli conceded far too many chances and barely created anything themselves.

Yet a fortunate 0-0 draw against a significantly weaker side was termed a masterclass. Now, this isn’t a criticism of the headline itself (not least as I’m a contributor to that particular newspaper) because headline writing is an extraordinarily difficult task, as much about SEO as providing an accurate summary or witty pun. However, it sums up how Benitez’s managerial style has grown into something of a caricature – any acceptable result, especially in Europe, is attributed to his genius as a strategist.

There is, very basically, a linear scale ranging from ‘tactical genius’ at one end, to ‘man manager and motivator’ at the other, which summarizes how various managers are depicted. Some managers are both. Others are neither. But ask 10 football fans to place the likes of Benitez, Harry Redknapp, Andre Villas-Boas, Brian Clough and Martin O’Neill on the scale, and you’d get very similar answers.

Benitez would probably be at the wrong end, however, because it sometimes it feels like everyone has completely forgotten the nature of his greatest achievements. His European Cup with Liverpool in 2005, for example, was clinched in extraordinary circumstances – an unthinkable comeback against a vastly superior Milan side (both on paper, and on that evening in Istanbul). English teams never win the European Cup in style, they triumph in a manner that feels like a self-parody of the ‘grit and determination’ they’re supposedly meant to embody.

Benitez’s FA Cup triumph a year later was similarly astonishing. With Liverpool 3-2 down going into injury time, having stuttered against an average, midtable West Ham side featuring the likes of Carl Fletcher and (look away, Liverpool fans) Paul Konchesky, they kept going and going and going, until Steven Gerrard produced one of the all-time FA Cup final goals. For the second time under Benitez, Liverpool won a major trophy on penalties, a test of nerve and composure.

Benitez’s Europa League triumph with Chelsea last season was similarly dramatic, with defeated Benfica manager Jorge Jesus almost speechless at the injustice of the result. “For most of the 90 minutes Benfica were better – better organized, technically and tactically superior to a very strong Chelsea side,” he complained. However, Chelsea had belief and faith in themselves (something lacking at Benfica after they’d blown the league title against Porto a few days before, and because of their infamously poor record in European finals). Branislav Ivanovic headed the winner in stoppage time.

It’s better to be lucky than good, as someone once remarked. However, these victories weren’t purely lucky: they’ve happened too frequently to subscribe Benitez’s career to fortune. The victories had a similar quality – they showed fighting spirit, never-say-die attitude and incredible self-belief. This is what Benitez instils in his sides.

If Benitez was as tactically skilled as the caricature suggests, he wouldn’t have needed to completely restructure his side in 2005. Playing without a holding midfielder against Milan—the most creative side in Europe—was bizarre, although his Plan B was unquestionably brilliant. Similarly, it wasn’t strategic brilliance to rely upon Steven Gerrard’s astonishing long-range effort a year later against West Ham, and his tactical approach against Benfica last season was only a minor part of Chelsea’s triumph.

On the evidence of the last ten years, the major quality Benitez brings to his club, not dissimilar to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, is self-confidence, even when the chips are down. He makes his squad disciplined, focused and together.

This means, incidentally, that the Spaniard is perfectly suited to Napoli – who were often tactically brilliant under his predecessor Walter Mazzarri, but desperately lacked a winning mentality.  They had a dressing room celebration, for example, when they clinched second place last year, despite the fact they were vaguely in a two-horse race with Juventus for the title, rather than a plucky outsider gunning for European Cup qualification. Some mocked Arsenal when they partied after clinching fourth place, but having spent the majority of the campaign in lower positions fighting their way up through the league, it was a more understandable reaction. Napoli were never going to finish lower than second, but acted like heroes when it happened anyway. That has to change, and under Benitez, it gradually will.

In football, the consensus about an individual doesn’t changes once an individual is typecast, because it’s simply easier to play along. Take Toronto’s signing of Jermain Defoe, whose departure from English football prompted glowing appraisals of his role as a natural-born finisher. The common wisdom is that Defoe is superb in front of goal, but never developed his all-round game.

Yet often, the complete opposite has been true – Defoe’s all-round game has improved, but his finishing has been poor. Under Harry Redknapp, Defoe unselfishly dropped off Peter Crouch and made up the numbers in midfield to shift Spurs from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1, precisely the sort of thing a ‘pure finisher’ doesn’t do. In a recent game against Sunderland, Defoe recorded a 97% pass completion rate and created two chances – yet failed to test the goalkeeper from any of his six attempts.

Is this a natural born finisher? Not really. Besides, his finishing is erratic: he often blasts the ball as hard as possible, rather than taking chances coolly. Only once has he scored more than 13 goals in a league campaign. Yet he’s still categorized as a pure finisher, because that’s what he was over a decade ago at West Ham.

It’s similar with Benitez. His tactical ability is less crucial to his managerial style than his skill in managing the mood of the group: an attribute arguably more important, and almost certainly more difficult to teach. Yet he’s still depicted as he chess player, the thinker, the methodologist.

Maybe this a complete façade, and Benitez is deliberately projecting an entirely false image to trick opposition coaches. Perhaps this is the mind game to end all mind games.

Whatever the truth, it’s undeniable that Benitez’s ability to win trophies at various clubs, in various situations, demonstrates that he’s a very fine manager – just in a completely different way than we’ve been led to believe.