With Rafa Benitez’ 15th game in charge of Chelsea a day away, I’m taking a look at his performance so far. Despite the anger still boiling over since Wednesday night’s defeat, I’m going to try and stay as impartial as possible. Of course, very few Chelsea fans were pleased with his appointment. The footballing world told us that we were getting a great manager who will sure up the defence and will improve us tactically. It’s about time we tested that theory.
Benitez has, so far, managed 14 Chelsea matches. Of those, he has won eight which leaves him with a win percentage of 57%. That record leaves him with the third worst win percentage of the managers under Abramovich – just Scolari and Villas-Boas had worse records. During that time 34 goals have been scored with just 13 conceded.
What Rafa can be praised for is his immediate impact on our defence. In the 14 games prior to his arrival, Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea conceded 21 goals. It was an area that seriously needed attention, much like Andre Villas-Boas’ woeful defence this around this time last season. For him, the 0-0 draws with Manchester City and Fulham were about not conceding and not losing. He could not afford to go all out to please the fans and risking losing either of his opening two matches. The first half of the West Ham match gave fans hope – solid in defence, but dominant and creative in attack. But, the fans misery and dismay was compounded as the defence fell apart in the second half.
Benitez has been praised for maintaining the attacking flair that is so desired by Abramovich. With and 8-0, two 5-1’s and a 6-1, under Benitez, Chelsea are seemingly a dominant attacking force. But there is severe inconsistency. Chelsea have failed to score in five of Benitez’ matches, three of which are in the league. I don’t about you, but when I read that, all I can think about Ancelotti’s first season when only Birmingham kept us out in a 0-0 draw at St. Andrew’s.
There are also some decisions that Benitez has received praise for, which are undeserved. Moving David Luiz into midfield and playing Ivanovic and Cahill in defence has resulted in widespread media praise for Benitez. Although the decision to play Ivanovic and Cahill in defence during John Terry’s absence is a correct one, it is Roberto Di Matteo that deserves the credit. The two were first partnered in defence away at Swansea when, despite a late equaliser, we looked the most solid we had for some time. In the case of Luiz, it is not Benitez’ tactical awareness that pushed the Brazilian into midfield. With Mikel injured and now at the African Cup of Nations, Romeu out for the season, and Benitez’ apparent insistence that Lampard is unable to play more than two matches in a row, he had no choice than to move Luiz up. Although it has been praised, Luiz has been sloppy in possession and much like in defence, doesn’t maintain his position.
Despite his immediate impact in solidifying the defence and occasional management of a wash of goals, Benitez’ persistence to use squad rotation is costing the team dearly. It’s a tactic I criticised for many years while he was Liverpool boss. Players in Spain recall when his Valencia team won the league, describing his players as “machines” because they were rotated and were more fresh every game. But, to leave out two of your most influential players (Mata and Hazard) in a local derby is utter suicide, no matter what position in the league the opposition sit. Also, failure to understand that Frank Lampard is the absolute solid foundation of the Chelsea midfield, and that he is able to play more than once a week (he’s done so for 12 years) has left our midfield being overrun on a regular basis. Before Lampard entered the fray against Southampton, their midfield dominated ours. It is simply not enough to argue that players need a rest. To be fair, they do need rest. But not after two games. And not numerous players at a time.
It can be said, and fairly so, that Benitez has strengthened the defence. In the lead up to his appointment, we were leaking goals which needed attention. But it’s worth noting that under Di Matteo, we were sitting just four points behind the league leaders – that was a manager who had a win percentage of 64.4% which is only bettered by one other permanent manager in the Abramovich era, Jose Mourinho (70.8%) (Avram Grant, 68.8%, and Guus Hiddink, 84.6% were Interim Managers). Now we see ourselves fourteen points behind the leaders, sitting in fourth (albeit with a game in hand)
We were told by the footballing world that we were getting a great manager who would sort out our defence. Well footballing world, our defence is better, but we’re not seeing this great manager.