Sunday afternoon, Chelsea welcome the visit of Manchester City to Stamford Bridge. If it wasn’t enough that a City victory would see them take a 7-point lead in the title race with a third of the season gone, the challenge is made extra difficult after an extraordinary week in the club’s history. The man that led Chelsea to their first Champions League/European Cup, Roberto Di Matteo, was sacked after defeat to Juventus on Tuesday. In comes Rafa Benitez as manager until the end of the season, much to the chagrin of the Chelsea faithful.
While Benitez may not be the popular appointment, he is the manager, so I will be looking at a couple things that you might expect out of Chelsea under Benitez. Also, City are coming off of their elimination from the Champions League, and their demotion to having to play for a Europa League place. City should be out to make a statement of title intent, mostly because the gap would be difficult for the Blues to overcome, but also because it may be their new focus since they are out of the Champions League.
First thing I would like to mention is that I’m looking at this objectively. While I am writing for a Chelsea site, I would like to say that there are other writers better qualified than I to speak about what’s wrong with this appointment. What I’m going to do is look at the facts of how the manager has generally played and how they might apply to us. That doesn’t mean that I’m 100% happy with the appointment. It just means that tactics are rather emotionless when you analyse them. That being said, let’s look at the match.
First question that has to be asked: What can we expect from the Benitez-led Chelsea?
Benitez is and always has been a successful manager when managing the resources given. His two league titles with Valencia and his Champions League title with Liverpool were largely achieved using players that weren’t purchased by him. Where he’s failed in the past is a perception of arrogance and not being the greatest man manager. That’s partially what failed him at Inter, given that the Inter squad had just been managed to the Treble by one of the greatest man managers of this generation in Jose Mourinho.
What Benitez also happens to be is an unapologetic admirer of the ways of Arrigo Sacchi, whose Milan machine introduced a brand of pressing, disruption, and counterattacking play that saw a dominance in Serie A in the late ‘80s. It’s no secret that at both Liverpool and Valencia he employed a system that was well-organized defensively and was lightning-quick on the counter. However, Benitez may also be one of the finest tacticians in the game, managing what some would call average squads and getting the absolute best from them.
What I think the immediate effect of Benitez will be is a commitment to an organised defence. If there was one thing that Di Matteo was weak in tactically, it was defending, as he was sacked at West Brom because of having similar problems in not being able to stop goals from flying in. In that case, in came Roy Hodgson, a more pragmatic manager, and history is repeating itself. The real question will be how Benitez deals with the creativity that he does have in Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, and Oscar and who plays. There’s not really much precedent because you could argue that he’s never had that level of creative talent. For that, I’m not sure what to expect.
Second question for Benitez: Will he get the best out of Fernando Torres?
It’s funny because it almost seems like Benitez is able to give him a sort of tough love that no other manager can. It’s not as if at Liverpool that he coddled his star striker. In truth, he did a lot of the opposite, subbing him when he was poor, dropping him, etc… However, Torres also claims that Benitez is the first manager that taught him to expect more from himself and how to accept being a professional.
The thing will be that he’s not getting the Torres that he bought from Atletico so many years ago. From his criticisms as a pundit, it’s clear that Benitez knows that somewhere Torres has lost that yard of pace that he once had. Benitez should also quickly figure out that the best way for Chelsea to play is not via long raking balls like he got from Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard. The creative players of Chelsea are closer to the typical Spanish style players and will want to play short passes through the defence. My guess is that Benitez already knows that and with Torres, it will be his job to find a way to get him on the right track. Heavens knows that no other manager since Benitez has been able to do it.
Now,we’ll head over to Manchester City. The first question is what team do we see?
First thing I’ll say about City is that it’s very hard to analyse them because Roberto Mancini plays too many different combinations of players that it’s almost impossible to predict his starting 11. Does Yaya Toure play deeper in midfield? Do they start with 3 at the back or do they switch later? Do you start Balotelli in the wider areas to disrupt down the right, or do you opt for Samir Nasri? Who are the strikers that he decides to play? It makes things quite difficult to watch, and I’m sure equally difficult on the players.
However, that unpredictability makes them very hard to plan for because there seems to be no real discernable pattern. There’s not really one tendency besides “give the ball to Yaya and let him burst forward.” Aside from that, they’re very unpredictable.
That being said, I do believe that we will see some form of 3 at the back from Mancini.
If there’s one weakness that I think City will try to exploit, it’s the three at the back conundrum. Juventus had great success against us over two matches using that formation and while Liverpool had issues playing it, they did possess the ball for large portions of the first half, despite not really going anywhere.
City have the personnel to do it and have played it many times in the past. Our biggest problem with 3 at the back is that Hazard and Mata in the wide areas don’t always track back to follow the wing backs and sometimes don’t play with enough natural width to pull the 3 center backs apart. In addition, Torres seems to have trouble because you can’t slip balls through as easily without leaving yourself open to the counter. It’s something that City used quite effectively in the Community Shield, and I’m sure it will be something that will be looked at.
While City are very good, I don’t think they are quite as strong as they were last season.
It might not be the greatest tactical revelation, but something about the way that Mancini continues to tinker with his side’s tactics has seemed to unsettle them a bit. They aren’t playing the cavalier attacking football that got them the title last year, and their defence is noticeably not as good as last year. The question mark for them will be if they can raise their game back to the standards of last season. It could very well be that they’re suffering a slight hangover from the title last year.
Regardless, their collective sharpness hasn’t quite been there, and I think they’ve largely suffered from that in Europe. It will be interesting to see if that draw to Madrid motivates them or sucks a bit more life out of them. It also can’t help when the manager chops and changes his tactics on a whim.