Earlier in the season I did an article on Rafa Benitez and how he deserved at least a little bit of respect from the Chelsea fans and if it’s not too extreme, maybe a bit of praise.
Come the end of the season and I think looking back you have to say he has now justified that – a comfortable top four finish guaranteed before the last day of the season and finally a trophy in the cabinet, hopefully this will allow some insight into just how important this season has been for Chelsea Football Club despite being a painful one at times for the fans.
Champions League Football
Without a doubt the most important thing for the Football club as soon as Rafa took the helm was ensuring that the European Champions don’t end up playing Europa League football next season and bravo to him – he made some bold changes to the squad such as his experimentation with David Luiz (so important in my eyes that it has it’s own section later on) his careful use of the attacking midfielders (in particular Oscar) to avoid burnout and injuries and his complete reshuffling of the teams core.
When he first took over there was lots of scepticism about the actual football, his first two games ended 0-0 and after the high scoring attacking football that Robbie had implemented it came as a huge shock to Chelsea fans, ‘back to grinding out 0-0s and 1-0s rather than 5-4s and 4-2s!? Not at our club!’ Seemed the general consensus amongst quite a lot of the fans but some crucial results later it was clear to see that despite it taking some time to drill his tactical approach into the players that it was worth the wait and after some poor results (3-1 loss to West Ham was a particularly unsettling one) Chelsea started playing some genuinely exciting football and really impressing in the league.
The way that he handled the striker situation, Rotating Torres and Ba game by game was very effective and the fact that Ba was cup tied for the Europa League appears to have been a blessing in disguise as the Torres actually seems to be clawing back some of his killer instinct as a result of a consistent string of starts in the tournament.
In the end Chelsea finished comfortably in the top four following some fantastic results, the pick of the bunch probably sealing Sir Alex Fergusons final defeat at Old Trafford and now barring a slip up tomorrow against Everton they won’t even need to qualify for the group stages which seemed an almost impossible task when Benitez first took the reigns.
The Europa League
The Europa League run has been crucial in both the recovery of the enigma that is Fernando Torres and the development of the young players, the point of Torres consistently starting and putting in solid performances has already been mentioned but away from the very consistent flow of goals in the competition its the way he ran himself into the ground for the team in some matches that was particularly eye catching – in the first half against Benfica he seemed to be the only player on a par with his opposite number as Chelsea were outclassed everywhere on the pitch – his goal was all his own work and he seems physically in much better condition than before.
For the new players like Oscar, Hazard, Azpilicueta and Moses the Europa League meant the world, the entire team were clearly very pleased to win the competition but even in the celebrations after the match you could see it meant that little bit more to the new players – winning a hard fought final and getting a medal round your neck in your first season at the club is absolutely crucial in developing the ‘winners mentality’ than characterised the Chelsea of Drogba, Lampard and Terry.
Out with the old in with the new
Another huge point of progress from Benitez’s time at Chelsea is the way he managed to do what many other managers (see AVBs time at Chelsea) have failed to do by loosening the seemingly unbreakable grasp that John Terry and Frank Lampard had on the starting XI.
It is clear from his team selections from the offset to the end of the season that John Terry is no longer viewed as a first team player, sure you’ll struggle to find a captain as brave and committed as JT and he epitomises and encourages the never say die attitude that every manager wants their squad to have but when it comes down to it he is not the best centre half the football club has, in fact I wouldn’t even say he’s in the top 3 – Ivanovic, Luiz and Cahill are all superb defenders and Benitez rightly focussed upon getting the right balance between these three to find his absolute strongest starting XI throughout the season and when he finally did it – all three were in the team but David was now a midfielder.
Has JT’s style of playing rubbed off on the other players? See Gary Cahills tackle in stoppage time against Benfica that secured the win for us – absolutely incredible piece of committed defending.
I’d even go as far as saying that Branislav Ivanovic is quite possibly the only defender in the world better in the air than JT.
Lampards influence has been managed perfectly, he’s broken the record now so the big concern that Benitez’s rotation would rob him of that opportunity has been proved unnecessary. The way that he was rotated in and out of the squad dependant on the opposition was perfect – his ability to pop up and score a goal when you need one is still unparalleled for a central midfielder but if you put him up against a strong powerful midfielder like a Yaya Toure or a Momo Diame he doesn’t have the legs or the defensive ability that Rami and David offer to the line up and for that reason he just isn’t a guaranteed starter anymore – this transition between old Chelsea and new Chelsea brings me onto my final point – John Terry and Frank Lampard have both been given the tag of ‘Mr Chelsea’ in the past, signs this season point to Benitez’s changes preparing Chelsea for the future by really focussing on the players with the potential to be the ‘Mr Chelsea’s’ of the next 5 or so years.
David Luiz has been without a doubt the player to change the most since Benitez took over, his transition from an inconsistent but exciting rotation player to a outstandingly consistent starter, and if the rumours flying around prove to be true (which all signs seem to point to) a future Chelsea captain.
He clearly really bought into Rafa’s ideas and a combination between his clear natural ability, his commitment to the cause and his tendency to score a phenomenal goal every now and then has endeared him to the fans as more than just a comical flair player trapped in a centre backs body. His performances have been consistent throughout Rafas reign and you’ve got to put at last part of the credit for this down to the manager himself – When Chelsea won the Europa League as the final whistle went and players all celebrated in their different ways as they do, David Luiz ran straight to the man who has changed his career and gave him a massive hug – that man was of course ‘the interim one’ Rafa Benitez.
If Luiz continues to progress at the rate he has this season he will soon be one of the best players in the world in his position, whether he stays as a defensive midfielder or reverts to being a centre back again he certainly has the potential to be the best and his leadership qualities were becoming more and more prominent towards the seasons close – As John Terry’s involvement in the squad continues to deteriorate with his age it seems only a matter of time until the ‘Mr Chelsea’ tag is passed down to the man who seems to be writing the headlines on Chelsea’s behalf lately.
Regardless of opinions on playing styles, squad rotation and the comments on flags you can’t avoid the fact that Rafael Benitez has left Chelsea Football Club in a far better state than he picked it up in.
Now over to you Mr Mourinho?