Never before has a new manager been so hated by the supporters of a club, but having ousted a highly popular club legend, Rafael Benitez can hardly be surprised that the Stamford Bridge faithful greeted him with a chorus of boos in Sunday’s clash with Manchester City.
But it’s not just Chelsea supporter’s opinion that the 52-year-old usurped the managerial hot seat from the Italian that finds him held in such poor regard, the fact the Spaniard was always quick to speak negatively about the west Londoners plastic flags and lack of history also adds to the disgruntlement amongst Blues supporters.
So can Benitez do anything to win over the Chelsea supporters? The two things that come to mind immediately are organising a Chelsea defence that was leaking goals prior to his arrival and getting the best out of the under performing £50 million striker Fernando Torres, who served his best years under Benitez during their time at Liverpool.
The former Valencia boss went showed some progress on the defensive front in his first outing against Manchester City, with Chelsea keeping a clean sheet against the English champions despite having a misserbale run at the back, conceeding in all of their last eleven games in all competitions.
Benitez can, and likely will, go further. The attacking trio of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata were given lots of attacking freedom under Di Matteo, but Benitez will likely reign in which ever two of the three play in the wider positions of Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 formation, forcing them to often create a line of four in the middle of the park to help cover the too often exposed Blues full-backs.
During his Liverpool days Benitez showed a liking for footballing centre-backs, as shown by his signing of Daniel Agger and his faith in the Dane despite a succession of injuries. But David Luiz may be reigned in by Benitez as his attacking adventures often leave Chelsea looking vulnerable at the back, especially against teams who are quick on the counter.
It may even be the case that Luiz finds his chances at Stamford Bridge scarce under Benitez, who has already stated that John Terry will remain captain under his management, meaning when fit Terry and the more defensive-minded Branislav Ivanovic may well be Benitez’s centre-half pairing of choice for the rest of the campaign.
Rather conveniently, Benitez’s defensive changes may well help get the best out of the struggling Torres. At present Chelsea, with Mata, Oscar and Hazard largely relieved of defensive responsibility, push high up the field and force opposition defenders to play deep, meaning there’s little room behind them for the Spanish striker to utilise.
With the two wider players playing slightly deeper in order to help out the full-backs opposition defenders may push a little further up the field, theoretically allowing Torres to play off the shoulder and breaking into the space behind the defenders, with whoever plays in the more attacking midfield role orchestrating the Blues attacking play as Gerrard once did.
There are problems with the system, the first being Torres himself. Whilst a slightly more conservative formation favoured Torres during his time at Liverpool, allowing him to find space behind the defensive line, there are still doubts over whether, after several injuries, he still has the pace that allowed him to break away from defenders with the ease he did whilst with the Reds.
The other issue with this solution is that it seemingly punishes two of the three key Chelsea attacking players by forcing them to play a more conservative role in order to try and get a game out of Torres when, in reality, Hazard, Oscar and Mata have, by and large, been the standout performers for the Blues this season and the game should really be adapted to them.
Whilst Abramovich is desperate to see his £50 million signing come to form, it has to be question whether it’s worth risking the influence of his three best players, worth around £80 million, just to facilitate the misfiring Spanish striker, especially when the club could cut their losses on Torres and move for another forward who better fits, such as Atletico’s Radamel Falcao.