Chelsea signed young attacking stars during the summer and started to become an entertaining side. Now their manager is Rafa Benitez. R.I.P. fun.
Rafael Benitez has returned to the Premier League, to manage a big club with entertaining young players. He will turn them into joyless drones who are nothing more than a body that fits into a robotic system, designed by a man who does not care that most people buy tickets to football matches so that they can be entertained.
Chelsea didn't play an entertaining brand of football while they were picking up trophies during the spring, but at least they had a good reason for it.
During their run to the Champions League title, Chelsea and Roberto di Matteo were widely criticized by fans of other teams for taking a defensive approach to the competition. Against Barcelona, they obviously put defending first, packing ten men behind the ball to deny the Blaugrana space in the areas where they like to play with the ball.
This is a strategy that many teams employ against Barcelona -- even Real Madrid have done it -- and a lot of fans understood, but outrage and the anti-football label came when they played similarly against Bayern Munich, a side fairly similar to Chelsea in talent and (usually) style. When di Matteo played to keep a clean sheet in the Champions League final, his team was branded as a defensive and negative side, and they carried that label until di Matteo trotted out Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard in the same team.
Even though di Matteo didn't achieve the results that were expected of him early in this season, his team's play made it obvious that Chelsea is not an inherently defensive side and that di Matteo is not a negative manager. He was simply setting up his team to deal with the circumstances that they were in: a knockout competition under a new manager with no time to implement anything complex. He needed results immediately, late in a season, with a team that he took over in-season. It's easier to set up a team to play conservatively, attempt to keep a clean sheet and counter quickly on short notice than it is to get a team to play entertaining, attacking, free-flowing football under the same circumstances.
He tried to do something different this season, and why not? He got an influx of young attacking players and had an entire summer to work with his team. Chelsea's back line and goalkeeper are good enough that they don't need to pack their entire midfield behind the ball to avoid conceding. Unfortunately, thanks to some combination of a bad center forward, a mediocre midfield and some questionable management decisions, his side failed to get results and he was sent packing.
Roman Abramovich could have hired someone whose preferred style of play and management philosophy would make the most of what Chelsea had in midfield and find a way to create scoring opportunities without a real center forward. Instead, he's opted to hire a man who will rely on Chelsea's bad center forward, and who thinks that Gareth Barry is a better player than Xabi Alonso.
Benitez's first match as Chelsea manager came against Manchester City this weekend, and the game turned out to be a snoozer. It was as dull and unwatchable, much like the majority of Benitez-managed big games during his tenure at Liverpool.
His first season featured the miracle in Istanbul, but also two 1-0 league losses to Chelsea, a 1-0 league loss to Manchester United, and another 2-1 loss to United in which Liveepool's goal was an own goal scored by John O'Shea. His second year? A 0-0 draw and 1-0 loss to United, as well as two losses to Chelsea. His third year featured one league win against Chelsea, but Liverpool failed to score in the other three matches against Chelsea and United. In Benitez's fourth year, his team took two points from those four matches and scored once.
In a stunning turnaround, Benitez's side took all 12 points from those four fixtures in his fifth season. His final season did not go as well, and he took three points from those four matches. Liverpool failed to score in either of their matches against Chelsea in the 2009-10 season.
Save for that stunning fifth year, when Liverpool finished second in the Premier League, Benitez's side was a disaster against their main title contenders for his entire tenure at Liverpool, and not only were they poor, but they were also incredibly dull and had no intention of taking the initiative to attack. During the Benitez era at Liverpool, big-game goals that came from anything but a terrible error by the opposing defense or some piece of brilliance by Steven Gerrard that had little to nothing to do with tactics were an incredible rarity.
"Roman says he wants to see the team playing well but not with the Barcelona style. He knows we don't have Messi, Xavi or Iniesta - who have been working together for years. We have different players and we can play attacking and defensive football together. We have to find the balance."
'But we don't have Xavi or Messi!' is the worst excuse in the world for playing awful football.
You don't have Xavi or Messi? Well, no shit. Neither do West Brom, or Swansea, or Ajax, or Porto, or Shakhtar Donetsk. They all manage to do something that resembles attacking and scoring goals, because you don't need Xavi and Messi to not play a repugnant style of football.
Benitez has Oscar, Mata and Hazard at his disposal, along with some really great attacking fullbacks who can run a marathon without getting tired, but he opts for dull and conservative. Unlike di Matteo, who did it out of pure circumstance and altered his tactics when his circumstances were altered, Benitez will continue to set his team up to play conservative and rigid football, over and over, regardless of opponent. He'll give Hazard a little bit of a longer leash against Fulham, but don't expect to see the same player that dazzled under di Matteo. And expect that leash to get shortened the instant Chelsea go up 1-0.
Thankfully for neutrals who don't have an opinion on Chelsea as an institution, but enjoy watching guys like Mata, Hazard and Mata play football, Benitez is only a band-aid. He's supposed to get Torres playing well again and keep Chelsea in the top three so that a real coach can come in next season and turn the team into something that's both successful at picking up results and actually worth watching.
For now, this version of Chelsea is a simple place-holder for what Chelsea should be. Thanks, Rafa. It would have been nice if you never showed up. No one missed you.