Rafa Benitez: This week’s guest host on Have I Got Blues For You
There are legitimate reasons why you might be sacked within six months of achieving for your employer its greatest ever success. Stealing from the company, perhaps, or punching your boss in the face and calling him a knob. As far as we know, Roberto Di Matteo didn’t do any of these things, and he has every right to feel a little aggrieved. (You might also get sacked for using a racial slur at work, but of course that sort of thing would never happen at Chelsea.)
But when your boss is Roman Abramovich, it can’t come as a great surprise. This is a club owner who gets through managers at roughly the same rate as hoover bags. Like replacing hoover bags, it’s an annoyingly expensive habit: when you give an elite football manager the sack, the sack has to be filled with wads of cash. According to The Times, Abramovich has spent almost £60 million paying off dismissed bosses.
This isn’t too much of a worry for a man whose pockets are deep enough to drown in. Clearly he doesn’t believe managing a football club requires any kind of long-term planning. Given his acute fear of commitment, why not adopt the successful formula used by “Have I Got News For You” since Angus Deayton’s ignominious departure, and put someone different at the helm each week? They could even use some of the same personalities – I for one would love to see any of Miranda Hart, Alastair Campbell or John Torode and Gregg Wallace take charge of Chelsea.
For now, the title of Britain’s best-paid temp falls on our old friend, Rafa Benitez. As a Liverpool fan, my feelings towards him are, shall we say, mixed. I’m definitely not looking forward to his post-match interviews and the endlessly dull debates about zonal marking and squad rotation. “I am only theenkeen about the next game” is not a catchphrase anyone has missed.
But in the context of what has followed, it’s impossible not to judge his time in charge at Anfield favourably. He inherited a squad containing Djimi Traore, Igor Biscan and Vladimir Smicer, and guided them to a Champions League title. In the league, Liverpool averaged 1.90 points per game under Benitez, compared with 1.42 since he left.
Parting company with Benitez seemed like the right decision at the time: an abysmal performance in the league saw Liverpool finish seventh in 2010, having been second the year before. The reversal of fortunes owed no small part to Benitez’s disastrous decision to sell Xabi Alonso. It was a devastating loss, which the choices of Alberto Aquilani and Lucas Leiva as replacements did almost nothing to mitigate. Benitez might claim things would have been different had the owners backed his efforts to sign Gareth Barry, but even Gareth Barry’s mum would find the notion risible.
Critics say Benitez didn’t do enough to develop young talent, and it’s true he brought few players through from the youth team. The current crop of youngsters breaking into the first team suggest however that he left the Academy in reasonable health, and arguably the lack of opportunities for them under Benitez’s reign resulted from the club’s relative success.
The Champions League triumph, and a generous donation to the Hillsborough Family Support Group after his dismissal, might have earned him a measure of fondness from the Kop. He’s the uncle with the dodgy beard who used to take us on fun days out, but told us all kinds of rubbish in the car on the way there.
I suspect any warmth towards him will dissipate quickly once we see him scribbling notes and gesturing incomprehensibly in the Chelsea dugout. Still, I wish him the best – he’ll need it to stay in the job for more than a few months. I don’t like to make predictions, but since the editor has insisted, I think he’ll do alright. Chelsea’s form will improve – thanks more to regression to the mean than Benitez’s managerial skills. He’ll alienate one or two of his players as he did Alonso. He’ll wind up a few opposition managers, and probably his employer. Crucially, Chelsea won’t win anything this season – and consequently, Rafa will walk away with another sackful of cash from Roman’s attic.
Written by Sam Wong (@SamWong1)