Unpicking Rafa's 'rant'

Jamie McDonald

Following his Chelsea side's 2-0 win over Middlesbrough, Rafael Benítez did what no manager can afford to do. He had opinions. Loads of them.

As OUTBURSTs go, Rafael Benítez's post-Middlesbrough RANT feels strangely lacking. There's none of the baffling anger that came with Joe Kinnear's descent into curiously formal profanity: "Which one of you is Simon Bird? You're a c**t." It doesn't have the import or the swivel-eyed rage of Kevin Keegan's white-flag moment: "I would love it, love it, if we beat them". Ultimately, it's probably not even as memorable as Benítez's last English MELTDOWN, the now-notorious listing of facts, or "facts", that presaged his Liverpool side surrendering the 2008/09 title race. It's a bit polite. A bit un-unhinged. A bit ... flat.

Perhaps the vague sense of flatness stems from its sheer predictability. Even the radio coverage -- "Rafa Benítez has finally snapped": note the finally -- presented it not as a shock, or even that much of a surprise, but as the inevitable result of an appointment that was so clearly bound for disaster that it might as well have been rigged by a cabal of sport editors playing the long game. Wind a proud man up for long enough, and he'll twang eventually.

What's interesting is the direction in which he twanged: mostly at the fans, but partly at the hierarchy. Just how far the disappointing results are due to the voluble opposition to his appointment -- one that began in his first game and has persisted more-or-less regardless of results -- is as debatable as it is unquantifiable. However, when he was asked if he was "hurt or surprised" at the protests, he replied by saying "I am surprised, I have won nine titles, all the titles you can win at club level in three different countries so have enough experience and have quality as a manager".

It's an interesting approach. Taken in isolation, it suggests that either he hasn't quite twigged or is wilfully ignoring the fact that these protests are not just based around his competence and his record, but around him and his identity. Later, though, when asked about the title ‘interim manager', his answer was more revealing: "It's just to say to everyone, ‘Because he was in Liverpool and just in case, we will put interim and we will wash our hands'. Was the title a mistake from the start? Yes, 100%".

Think back to that long series of rancorous matches between Benítez's Liverpool and José Mourinho's Chelsea. Remember how the loathing almost crackled in the air, a helpful distraction from the frankly horrible football. Those matches weigh heavy in the history of modern Chelsea, and the idea that the author of their semi-final defeat could turn up, a few years later, and expect to be assessed on nothing but his record is ludicrous. Were Mourinho to somehow find his way to Anfield, Liverpool's fans would be treated to a barrage of PR aimed squarely at their sensitive spots; think Brendan Rodgers' vaguely terrifying promise to "fight for my life for the supporters and the people of this city", but with added Special One charm. But Benítez didn't -- and, indeed, still doesn't -- seem to grasp the need. ‘Interim' may not have been a mistake of his own making, but failing to appreciate how he might be welcomed certainly was.

It might not have worked, of course. Football fans have long memories and broad shoulders, all the better to wear their chips. Even had Benítez abased himself before the Shed End, wrapped in a plastic flag and begging forgiveness, it might not have been enough. He fills a crucial, antagonistic role in the identity of Abramovich's Chelsea, and even without the questions about his style and his ability, despising him was woven into the very character of the club. In some ways it's been quite heartening to see the fans refuse to swallow their opinions in the vague hope of success. An insistence on quiescence turns fans into audiences.

But at the same time Benítez has something of a point. It can't be easy -- indeed, it might well be impossible -- for him to work in such circumstances. And the circumstances were entirely foreseeable, given all of the above and the juxtaposition with the lovable Roberto di Matteo, Chelsea hero twice over. It has been asked, quite reasonably, why the fans' protests don't extend to the hierarchy above Benítez. That's where the buck stops, after all: with Bruce Buck, and Ron Gourlay, with the other members of the privy council that advise Roman Abramovich, and with the owner himself.

And here we run into a problem. Because for all that Chelsea are at the time of writing a hot and hilarious shambles, the suggestion that Abramovich might not know what he's about when it comes to running a football club is a difficult one to stand up. Just shy of ten years in charge has returned three titles, four FA cups, two league cups, and one European cup, which is more proper silverware than any other English club over the same period*.

* Since June 2003. Chelsea: 3 Premier League titles, 4 FA Cups, 2 League Cups, 1 European Cup = 10; Manchester United: 4 PL, 1 FA, 3 LC, 1 EC = 9; Liverpool: 1 FA, 1 LC, 1 EC = 3; Arsenal: 1 PL, 1 FA = 2; Manchester City: 1 PL, 1 FA = 2; Portsmouth: 1 FA; Tottenham, Swansea, Birmingham, Middlesbrough: 1 LC. We're not counting the Charity Shield, because we're not Roberto Mancini.

It looks messy, but it works. It goes against the fundamental principle of English footballing orthodoxy - "A manager needs time," copyright every manager ever - but it works. Abramovich has appointed eight managers (excluding one-match caretaker Ray Wilkins) and four of those have won something. His appointments have been to two Champions League finals, winning one, and seven domestic cup finals, winning six. Incompetence and failure come in many guises, but very few of them demand that much polishing.

Of course, you could argue that spending hilarious amounts of money is the main operating factor here, but if that were enough on its own -- and the travails of Luiz Felipe Scolari, André Villas-Boas and latterly Benítez suggest perhaps it isn't -- then what he does with his managers is of even less relevance and we can stop talking about it altogether. If Abramovich has a problem, it's that he too often appoints the wrong man; but if making a mistake is bad, then sticking with that mistake exacerbates it. Perhaps Chelsea might have won more had Abramovich stayed his axe from time to time, but it's hard to see where. Even cuddly Carlo Ancelotti's dismissal made a certain amount of sense, though Match of the Day is poorer for the absence of his eyebrow. And you could certainly argue that his willingness to dispose with Villas-Boas and Scolari led directly to that season's silverware. Perhaps the mid-season sack might come, in time, to be viewed as a tactical manoeuvre.

So was there perhaps some sense in appointing Benítez? Let's get speculative. Working on the principle that Abramovich and his advisers aren't complete morons, let's assume that they anticipated that their fans might not view Benítez in the friendliest of lights. Are there any advantages in having a manager that the fans don't like?

The obvious one is disposability. Having taken the decision to jettison Di Matteo, the replacement needed to be somebody good enough to secure Champions League football but disposable enough to be jettisoned at the end of the season, when Pep Guardiola would arrive to usher in a new era of glorious possession football. Since then, events have dealt a fatal blow to the latter part of that equation, and the former is looking pretty peaky as well, but at the time of the appointment it would have made some kind of sense.

The Independent have today suggested that Benítez's forthright and sudden HAVING OF OPINIONS may have been triggered not by a tipping point with the supporter abuse, but by the silhouette of Mourinho appearing on the horizon. Machinations, it appears, are machinating. It's more speculation, of course, but again it makes a certain amount of sense. All of a sudden Benítez, who earlier in his term spoke of the "opportunity" the position afforded him, was confronted with the fact that when they said interim, they actually meant, well, interim.

Abused from one side, and now, possibly, used from the other. No wonder he felt like having a chirp. And as for the suggestion that Abramovich has no idea what he's doing? Well, it's possible he's just stumbling from one appointment to another, panicking and guessing and making it up, flinging money around and getting lucky. Maybe the appointment of Benítez was just what it looks like: a bad idea that went badly. But if he is winging it, well, then he's some way off crashing.

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