Rafael Benítez: tactical genius, public relations disaster
Despite trying his best over seven years to talk himself out of the Chelsea job, Rafael Benitez can now claim a perverse sort of failure. He has the Chelsea job – and all the physical and emotional hassle that comes with it. But Benitez will have more hassle than his predecessors, simply because he has already made a career out of alienating the Chelsea supporters.
Be careful what you wish for . . .
Nevertheless, if he can control his public relations – something he rarely achieved as manager of Liverpool – he can make history by becoming the first man to reach the end of a contract as manager under Roman Abramovich.
The road will be hard. Rare is the Chelsea supporter who thinks highly of Benitez. Rare is the Chelsea supporter who thinks that sacking Roberto Di Matteo so early in the season contained the hallmarks of wisdom.
Benitez - to his detractors, a roly-poly figure of fun; to his advocates, a bastion of intelligence - turned himself into a polarising figure by linking himself inextricably to Liverpool. When he spoke of other clubs, it was from the vantage point of a Liverpool supporter. Only a year or so ago, when linked to the Chelsea job, he said, “Chelsea is a big club with fantastic players; every manager wants to coach such a big team. But I would never take that job, in respect for my former team at Liverpool, no matter what. For me there is only club in England, and that’s Liverpool.”
Nobody was surprised with these words, for Benitez seemed keen at the time to return to Anfield. Ruling himself out of every available job was good politics. When the media linked him to other jobs, Benitez could take delight in saying he was not interested, because it reaffirmed, in public, his love for Liverpool. Just as Mitt Romney had spent years campaigning for the American presidency, so Benitez campaigned for months to reclaim his job as manager of Liverpool. But as Freddie Mercury once sang, "if you're searching out for something, don't try so hard".
When Benitez was manager of Liverpool, it never crossed his mind that he might one day be available for Chelsea to approach him. That was why he saw no problem in mocking the club managed by his great nemesis, Jose Mourinho. Just before the Uefa Champions League semi-final second leg between Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield in May 2007, Benitez took exception to what he perceived was the artificial atmosphere at the first leg in London.
“We don’t need to give away stupid plastic flags to our fans to wave, our supporters are always there with their hearts and that is all we need. The passion of the fans helps us to win matches, not flags. Chelsea fans lack passion.”
Benitez was right about the flags but wrong about the Chelsea supporters, but the details mattered less than the fact that he was prepared to criticise a rival club. He designed his words to endear himself to the Liverpool supporters, so on that score, he won emphatically. And it helped that, for the second time in three seasons, Benitez outmanoeuvred Mourinho tactically to send Liverpool into another Uefa Champions League final. The Chelsea supporters brooded darkly.
Now those Chelsea supporters, even the ones who are frothing at the mouth, must accept that Benitez is in charge at Stamford Bridge. He will win them over if he wins matches, but he does not have the luxury of time or of goodwill. He has signed a contract that will take him to the end of the season, but, then, contracts have rarely meant much for Chelsea managers.
The pressure for Benitez is two-fold: first, to make Chelsea look stable again; second, to rehabilitate his own reputation, which took a hit after his wretched final season at Anfield in 2009-10 and his ill-fated spell in charge of Internazionale the season after. He will also need to change his nom de guerre from "ex-Liverpool manager" to "Chelsea manager". In that regard, he will need the media's help like never before.
Benitez is brilliant tactically but dreadful when it comes to man-management. He will have to deal with the big egos, and he may struggle; but he will at least make the necessary changes in defence, where David Luiz is as vulnerable to quick strikers as his hairstyle is to a gush of wind. Benitez might also bring out the best in Fernando Torres, as he did when they worked together at Liverpool.
For all the variables and potentialities, auguries are not good. I feel that Chelsea’s decision to appoint Benitez is as misconceived as Liverpool’s was to let him go. He was the best Liverpool manager in a generation and, whatever he says now that he is at Stamford Bridge, his heart will remain at Anfield.
He risks losing what love he has among Liverpool supporters without being able to replace it with the love of the Chelsea supporters. And, for all his tactical acumen, which is not in question, he remains capable of articulating himself in just about the worst possible way.
This could end in tears.