Rafa – Losing His Balance?
As we were drinking tea behind corner of the away terrace at Brentford about 15 minutes before kick off, a friend noticed Rafa being interviewed live by ESPN about 20 yards away, the other side of a fence and near to the Dressing Room area. Within seconds, a small band of Chelsea fans was chanting “You’re not wanted here” and “Resign”. He very briefly looked up at us with a resigned expression. Although not loud, the chanting must have been audible on air as a Chelsea media official climbed the stairs to politely remonstrate with the supporters, who wandered off. The whole thing probably lasted 30 seconds or so and was nothing compared with what happened during the game, in volume or ferocity, but is indicative of supporter frustration.
In some ways I’m glad supporters views were clearly put across but I later got to thinking whether our abuse was entirely fair (I felt a bit uncomfortable as he looked directly at us), and also whether sustained hostility aimed at the manager might in time impact on the team. He may look impervious, but it’s hard to believe it isn’t having some impact.
I’ve drawn up a ‘ Balance Sheet’ considering the pros and cons of his appointment and performance. Every supporter will have a different view, some far more critical than mine, others more emollient.
Not Rafa’s Fault
- Roberto Di Matteo’s popularity with the Chelsea support and the brutal manner of his sacking, making the job of any new manager (interim or not) that much trickier (unless their name is Jose Mourinho, I suspect)
- The lack of depth in the squad he inherited, the over-reliance on a few key players (Terry, Cole, Mata) and the medium-term need to replace ageing stars
- A loan policy that sees Courtios, Lukaku and De Bruin unavailable
- Mikel and Moses missing for several weeks at the African Nations Cup
- John Terry being out for a few weeks injured
- Elimination from the Champions League
- The ‘will he, won’t he’ circus around a new contract for Frank Lampard, which continues to aggravate a significant part of the fanbase
- The fact he is an ‘interim’ manager without the influence and credibility which goes with holding the position permanently. This also means his influence on transfer activity is likely to be insignificant
- The influence that Michael Emenalo seems to hold with the most senior levels of the club
- The fact that he’s not Jose Mourinho
- His physical appearance.
- Derogatory things said about Chelsea and their supporters in the past, guaranteeing that a large chunk of the support would be hostile to him from day one
- His lack of humbleness and contrition when taking the job. An apology for things said in the past wouldn’t have won over every fan, but would at least have made a few think
- He is at least partly responsible for a series of results that have meant elimination from the League Cup and an ‘aspiration’ of a top four PL place
- Baffling team selections and team set-up’s
- His tactical inflexibility at key moments in matches, which has led to him being out-thought by the likes of Sam Allardyce, let alone astute managers like Michael Laudrup, and has caused unnecessary dropped points and elimination from the League Cup
- His bewildering substitution policy – often too late and often just like-for-like
- His blasé media interviews where he claims the team has played well when it clearly hasn’t and that his tactics, selections and substitutions were spot on. He appears to be in denial on occasions.
How much credence you place on each of these factors may determine your view of Benitez. To me, team performances and results, and also aspirations, seem to have gone backwards since Di Matteo left and that is the critical and fundamental issue that cannot be avoided. Points have been thrown away, it is rare for the team to perform well for 90 minutes and there have been occasions where the team did not seem to know what was expected of them.
For many games Benitez seems to be on the back foot, frozen and unable to make quick, critical decisions. To a fanbase schooled on Mourinho’s lightening analysis and appropriate action this is unacceptable. Chelsea have no chance of winning the Premier League unless both Manchester teams implode spectacularly – in essence we are in a fight to finish no lower than fourth which is hardly aspirational given the last 10 years success. We are out of the eminently winnable League Cup. We nearly went out of the FA Cup at Brentford. Whatever your view, the stark reality is that Benitez is almost certainly in charge until May, although I cannot believe he will be at the club next season, given both supporter hostility and erratic results.
Given this, it is a pertinent question whether the supporters should get off his back for the rest of the season and just accept it. When appointed, I felt the best Benitez could expect was to be ignored over time – even this now probably seems wildly optimistic. Chelsea are lucky to have a group of experienced key players who are clearly mentally very strong (e.g. Terry, Cole, Lampard, Ivanovic, Cech) but I do wonder about the impact on some of the younger players. It can’t be much fun for some of the newer players coming out at Brentford with the manager getting dogs’ abuse from a significant section of the crowd. Hopefully they realise it is aimed at Benitez not them, and that almost all match-going fans are 100% behind the whole team, but it is hard to be sure.
Against that, though, it is not clear to me how fans are supposed to put their opinions across. Write a letter to the club? Debate with Ronnie Irani on Talksport? Ring Chelsea TV? Peaceful, vocal protest is one of the few ways supporters can get their opinions across both to the club and a wider audience. This is magnified in impact when the game is live on television – a double-edged sword, as I’m sure Eden Hazard would agree. Some of the tabloid press would do well to recognise the fact that we are paying customers and are entitled to hold, and express, an opinion.
As it is, Chelsea have an uneasy four months of the season to go. Open dissent, fans arguing with each other, thwarted aspirations, a pervading air of frustration. I don’t enjoy the atmosphere, I’m sure most fans don’t enjoy it and I’m 100% certain the club, and hapless manager, don’t either. Sadly, it seems to be what we’re stuck with, at least until the close season.