There has been a big reaction over the last two or three days to the appointment of Rafa Benitez at Chelsea. While many Chelsea fans are unhappy with the appointment for a variety of reasons, it is important to actually look at the appointment from an objective point of view and study the reasons why Benitez has been so successful, what he wants from his teams and finally what problems he faces at Chelsea.
Benitez: Obssessed with detail
A lot of the way a manager is viewed is due to the media narrative. Mourinho is often called meticulous, Benitez is often called obsessed. The standard view of Benitez is that he is cold and calculated, not treating players as people but instead like robots. This is very much an overreaction but unlike the traditional idea of what a British manager should be like, Benitez is certainly rather different.
Take this quote from Steven Gerrard in 2009:
“I can have a good game – tell you what, I’ll be big-headed, say I’ve had a fantastic game – we’ve won 2-1 in the last minute and I’ve scored both.
‘I come back into the dressing-room and I’m buzzing, bouncing off the walls, thinking “I feel good today”, that is when Rafa comes up and starts talking about a throw-in when they changed the play and I pressed far too late. He’ll say: “If you want, we’ll go out there and I’ll show you”.
‘Or you’ll have a run of 10 games when you’re in form and flying and he’ll pop you a DVD of your recent play and it’s broken up into sections good and bad. And you’re thinking, “Hang on, bad? I didn’t do anything wrong”. But you’ll watch it and you’re out of position in one match, or you pressed late or you let a man go at a set-piece. You wonder when the guy sleeps.”
How do Rafa Benitez’s teams play?
The first thing to look at when determining this is to look at his influences as a coach. It’s well known the major team he looks at is Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan of the late 80s and early 90s, widely described as one of the best sides ever and one that showed a template for modern football – a changing in ideas on how teams marked in open play, how they pressed, how they moved together. This is something that is a big influence on Benitez.
Benitez’s main ideas are to stay compact, playing a fairly high line, moving together as a unit, pressing aggressively, particularly against teams who build up from the back (more on this later), and then in possession, make the pitch big, move the ball quickly along the ground and maintain good width and depth to take advantage of space between the lines.
The main thing to note about his teams is their intensity. In the past Benitez has, rightly or wrongly, been accused of being a defensive manager with no care for flair, instead concentrating on a machine-like approach. While this is true up to a point (I wouldn’t call him a defensive manager personally), it has to be said that there is a certain aesthetic appeal in his teams, because of the intensity of their play. To see a team work together relentlessly in both the defensive and attacking phases can be one of the most appealing things to watch in a side. To call him defensive would also be harsh – he wants to be well organised but he doesn’t go into games without attacking strategies. In the 2008/09 season, Liverpool finished as top goalscorers in the league with 77 goals, despite having limited back up in attack, while Man United had the likes of Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez and Berbatov to draw on.
His main formation at Liverpool and Valencia has been the 4-2-3-1. However it’s very easy to define a coach by his formation. Instead it’s best to look at the movements. Benitez’s 4-2-3-1, particularly at Liverpool has been defined by a number of things. First the idea of having two holding players. These holding players are very much in charge of helping to control the team and act as reference points. Defensively, they have to stop space opening up between the lines, be good at winning the second balls and then in possession, entice the opposition midfielders to pressure. From there, the front four try and maintain depth to push the opposition back-line deeper and thereby open up space between the lines for one of them to receive the ball.
Again this is an example of how pragmatic Benitez can be. He’s doesn’t stick rigidly to two holding players who keep their position. At Valencia he used David Albelda and Ruben Baraja in those positions, an extremely effective partnership in midfield yet with one player, Albelda, more defensive while the other, Baraja, more able to push forward and get goals. At Liverpool he was also known to use Gerrard there and also, for a couple of seasons, the underrated and extremely athletic, Momo Sissoko.
One thing he demands from the players in midfield and in fact all his players is a very good work rate. This was one of the great strengths shown at Valencia and Liverpool. The idea is that if you match your compact organisation with a great work rate, it is very difficult for your opponent to get into the game. This also refers back to the earlier point about collective intensity.
Another thing to note in Benitez’s sides is the player between the lines. Benitez has used a number of different players in this position. However the two main ones he has used to good effect were Aimar at Valencia and Gerrard at Liverpool. Both had different qualities. Aimar was much more of a classic between the lines player – small, mobile, quick on the turn. Gerrard was used for different reasons. Part of it was to free him up from more disciplined responsibilities in midfield, a position which required a different, more composed mentality to his more intense one. The other side of it was that he and Torres worked really well together. Both were direct, they could both make runs behind centre backs and their combinations were very quick and decisive – if Torres made a run behind, Gerrard was good enough to release him on his first touch and vice versa. This made it very difficult to stop them, particularly if they had isolated the centre backs 2 v 2.
The overall versatility of the Liverpool team meant that different ideas could be used. Sometimes they would push a team back, use the wingers moving inside to receive passes from the centre backs while the full backs moved up the pitch to provide width. Sometimes it was done differently with the full backs staying deeper and instead using the front four to gain width and depth, before finding the forward pass from the back and having 4v4 at the back.
It would be unfair to say Benitez is solely a 4-2-3-1 man. After all, he demands that his teams are versatile enough that they can adapt during a game and be able to change tactics, including the formation. However what can be said is that in the long term, Benitez prefers to play 4-2-3-1.
Rafa Benitez’s: Defence
While this shape is generally said to be a 4-2-3-1, what Benitez has generally preferred off the ball is to defend in two lines of four with two in front. The main idea is to stay compact, both vertically and horizontally, and press together as a team when there are triggers. Again the key here is the intensity. Every player has to join in, move together and control space. This is something that has been lost in the Premier League over recent years, arguably since Benitez and Mourinho left.
At Liverpool their press started off as a 4-4-2 when the opponent’s centre backs had the ball. If they were facing a team who played it longer, they generally concentrated more on the back-line and midfielders moving slightly deeper to make sure they were organised to win the second ball. However what often happened against more possession based sides was an attempt to break up the passing in the middle of the field by pressing aggressively in the middle third of the pitch.
If the opponent were in the position where they had broken past the front duo and that first line of pressure, the team kept themselves in two lines of four moving back to a certain point, where the player on the ball would then be pressed individually while the team stayed together and maintained cover and coordination.
Overall, the idea is to maintain shape, keep compact and control the space for the opposition to play in. At Liverpool and Valencia he got close to perfection in this regard and it was well recognised that it was extremely difficult for the opposition to settle into games.
See this quote from Dietmar Hamann’s autobiography about facing Benitez’s Valencia:
[quote]“They were the best team I have ever played against…the Valencia team of 2002 were superbly organised and possessed an amazing player in Pablo Aimar. When we played them at the Mestalla we were completely outclassed.”[/quote]
What are the problems facing him at Chelsea?
There is no doubt that Chelsea have a very talented squad. This season, their attacking trio of Hazard, Mata and Oscar have particularly caught the eye of many and the squad still contains players like Cech, Cole, and Ramires. However there will be problems that Benitez has to deal with.
First of all, there is Fernando Torres. At Liverpool, the defensive and attacking structure suited Torres. Liverpool were not a long ball team in the way that term can stereotype teams but they were more direct and this allowed Torres more space to play in and to use his movement to hurt centre backs, along with his partnership with Gerrard. At Chelsea the team is not built for him. They are not as direct as Liverpool were and the band of three behind Torres when Chelsea have possession take a more precise approach, leaving less space for Torres. This was even evident last season on the occasions Mata played behind Torres. Mata is not as quick to release the ball as Gerrard was when Torres was at Liverpool and is certainly more horizontal in his play. It remains to be seen how Benitez deals with this.
However the main problem is the team as a whole. If their Champions League win was a result of staying deep and narrow to make themselves difficult to open up, Chelsea this season have been a team in tactical conflict. Chelsea’s centre backs are not very mobile and do not have the intensity or mentality to push high up and compact the space. They instead prefer to drop deeper and make themselves less likely to have to defend 1v1 situations with space around them.
However with the signings of Oscar and Hazard in the summer, Chelsea now have an attacking trio, with the inclusion of Mata, that’s strength lies in their technical precision and because of this need to play higher up the pitch. What this means is that the team cannot stay as compact as they should do and taking into account the mobility of the front four in possession, also means they are vulnerable on transitions when they lose the ball. This was particularly evident in Di Matteo’s last game in charge, where Chelsea for parts of the game were effectively defending with six players and with a backline who couldn’t compact the space behind Chelsea’s front four to compensate for it. The result was that Mikel and Ramires had to cover too much and Juventus were able to run away comfortable winners.
How could Rafa Benitez’s Chelsea line up?
In my opinion this is how I’d expect Rafa’s Chelsea to line up with a 4-2-3-1.
Can Rafa Benitez succeed at Chelsea? Well he definitely can and they still have a number of players who suit his style right down to the ground, notably Oscar and Ramires whose work rate and ability will impress the new coach. However he will have work to do to try and make Chelsea better as a unit and will have to find a compromise to try and get the best out of his defence and his attack.