SO Xavi Valero has gone and gone to London, taking his merry band of hired coaching guns with him in his wake, with the little matter of one Rafael Benitez Maudes nestling his prodigious footballing cojones in the blue plastic Recaro Chaise Longue of the Chelsea dugout.
It’s left a lot of people tied up in knots really, hasn’t it? Walking around with stress-induced cold sores on their lips, tiny ulcers on the tips of their tongues, breaking out in hives, stones in their shoes, and unsettling itches in their anal canals. Chelsea fans are up in arms, not knowing whether to stage a mass walkout or fashion a stand full of exact banner replicas for The Shed End, rocking “Ra-fa, Ra-fael…” as they gargle down their cold cups of sick. Liverpool fans range from shifting uneasily in their seats to, amazingly, existential angst on the nature of their tribal allegiance. Such is the mental wiring of the modern football fan.
We’ve all done it to death already, of course – the debate as to whether Rafa will succeed in his new role. The media have pulled no punches, unsheathing the bludgeon for his ‘unveiling’ press conference, requesting comments on racism, whether his ample buttocks were simply warming said Chaise Longue for one Pep Guardiola, whether it’s all really about Torres, whether he’s guilty of having insulted his new-found ‘devotees’ in a former life… each jab met with a smile and a graceful parry, as he settled into coaching and training his team.
On the starters blocks, his nemeses of yesteryear, Wenger saying he was perplexed as to why ‘his friend’ had taken on a temporary role of this nature, Mourinho joking with Maicon on the subject at The Etihad (“Ask Materazzi”), and Alex Ferguson straining at the proverbial leash to commence hostilities in front of a salivating media throng.
In the beginning, we saw the seeds of the end. The English football establishment, you see, offers an ‘A La Carte’ selection of Michelin Starred plates for your delectation in these circumstances.
The recipe book is well worn. The hungrily self-righteous and right-thinking followers of our game can look forward to a succulent Spit-Roasted Spaniard, futebol de salon placed artfully in his mouth, turned lovingly above the petrol-doused kindling of his coaching and statistics manuals.
With their appetites whetted following their entree of indignation and hypocrisy, washed down with a nice drop of legal and ethical contortion, the masses now chant ‘Why Are We Waaaiiii-ting’, rattling their silverware on the placemats as they yearn for their tender slice of Foreign Interloper, marinated in sweet revisionist narrative since 2005. (Those unable to make the banquet will be served their own fun-sized Poo Panzerotti – pick up the vouchers on the back page of tomorrow’s Daily Mirror.)
Mmmmmm. It’s a delicious prospect, and the oven’s set to Gas Mark 4, with Rafa already being brushed with the final coat of accusatory marinade, a good even layer being applied from all sides.
He’s an able manager, of course. More than able. There are legitimate questions over whether his professional split from Paco Ayesteran has in any way diminished his powers, but his penultimate season at Liverpool goes some way to putting that argument to bed. As he said himself, he has more than enough experience of dealing with difficult owners and men in suits – of navigating the politics of the corridors and treatment rooms behind the scenes.
But Chelsea doesn’t offer him the comfort of the house of cards – of a political structure to manipulate in his favour. In possession of the keenest of analytical minds, his career to date (save for Inter) has seen him demonstrate his ability to reinforce or undermine whichever aspect of the structure he needs to sustain control – retaining his hold on the reins by his very fingertips while maintaining the outward appearance of authority.
Of course, he left Valencia when it became clear he could progress no further (Pitarch pushing him beyond the point that Roig could talk him back into the fold), and from there did an incredible job of retaining his job at Liverpool, harnessing the support of the fans against flighty minds behind the scenes intent on hiring the likes of Jurgen Klinsmann, gently jabbing in the media to encourage the release of transfer funds, or to entrench his influence in other areas of the club. But that’s not an option at Chelsea. All the politics in the world can’t protect you from a Goethe-style random bullet to the head when Roman’s whim bubbles up from his Type A testicles. Notions of ‘success’ don’t come into it.
Cold analysis against the backdrop of realistic context shows he really did do an incredible job at Valencia and Liverpool in spite of consistent turmoil behind the scenes, reaching European finals, replenishing trophy cabinets, reaching top ranked status in Europe, and delivering unprecedented points tallies in league competitions, the only real blip being his final season at Liverpool, when circumstances eventually took their toll on performance.
This is a manager who, when given proper authority, is capable of delivering steady incremental improvements in a team’s balance, tactical nous, and ability to consistently impose its will on games. But the narrative related to his powers has rarely done anything but contradict this ‘Fact’, and that will only continue. History in this country will not be kind to Rafa Benitez, because it has already been written in a way that contests his account, and neglects his working context.
It goes, and will continue to go, something like this. He is impossible to work with, and politically bellicose. His ‘Rant’ cost his club a league title. He disrespected his fellow managers with ‘game over’ gestures. His ‘tactical genius’ was really just a reliance on Steven Gerrard, and later Fernando Torres. He loses his dressing rooms. He can’t do ‘man management’. His approach was relentlessly negative. He *always* set out with two defensive midfielders. He never let them off the leash. Rotation. Zonal marking. On and on it goes.
In his current context, though, that barely matters a jot. To manage effectively, you must be able to assert effective authority over your group. To do that, you need them to believe that you have genuine backing from your employer, and from your fans. Hell, you need players who are capable of following a leader in the first place. Picking from a squad still perilously stocked with sacred cows, Rafa faces his first game on Sunday for a billionaire with a butterfly mind and a baying horde that’s already queuing up for a slice of his hide, fresh from the spit. Looking on, the media and punditocracy can look forward to English football’s establishment machinery cranking into gear, chewing him up and spitting him out. A veritable crushing machine, you might say.
The rest of the league’s managers will rest easy for a few months as the focus turns to the weekly soap opera at The Bridge. Players, opposing managers, fans – there will be a steady supply of potential powder kegs ripe for ignition, with the media hell bent on setting them off. It’ll take something special to distract them before it plays out to its conclusion.
I may be wrong, but I think it’ll end badly for Rafa. He may even win a trophy or two, but any influence he may have on that will, if it happens, be tipp-exxed out of the narrative. Ferguson’s already set that tone with his comments about the World Club Championships. “He’s had no involvement in building this squad”. That’s the hymn sheet. Stick with it. Get with the programme.
So you lot – it’s up to you whether you want to wring your hands about it for the next however long it takes. Me? I’d rather look on bemused and embrace the horrible reality of our game. Treat it as a learning experience and chow down on the hard crust of your Poo Panzerotti – that’s where we are as a footballing nation.
I can’t lie – I don’t ever want Chelsea to win any kind of trophy – that won’t ever change. That’s just the way things work. But as someone who admires and is fascinated by the man both as a person and a manager, and as someone who sees this as inevitably doomed to failure, I can only hope he achieves what he himself wants from his tenure there: to rehabilitate his standing in the game sufficiently to attract offers of the genuinely ‘big projects’, and to rekindle the respect of his European peers.