Comment: Why Rafa Benitez, the former Chelsea and Liverpool manager who is vilified and shunned in England, would return in a flash
The current Napoli manager, who takes his side to Arsenal tonight, is not always best at disguising the fact that he knows better
In so many ways it’s been a crazy place to start again. The many challenges of Napoli for Rafael Benitez include the lousy mobile phone reception in parts of the golf complex opposite the Castel Volturno training ground, which is home for him now. He’ll often find himself trekking back to his office, to use the landline: the kind of thing which is not supposed to happen to a Champions League-winning manager.
He’s taking all the madness, though – the subliminal presence of the Neapolitan Camorra mafia and a rather less select choice of houses for his six new signings than Chelsea could offer – because he has now found a club who will invest in him and for him. Benitez was less emotionally insulated against the Chelsea fans’ vitriol last season than you might think and (though he’ll never admit so) it also hurt his wife to know this was how it had become for him. But it was the unanticipated word “interim” on the contract put before him there which cut him most. It’s impossible to overstate the contrast with Napoli and their president, Aurelio De Laurentiis, telling Gonzalo Higuain so emphatically about how Benitez would make him a superstar that the striker had signed before a prevaricating Arsène Wenger could even blink.
The man who brings his new side to Arsenal on Tuesday night is quietly repaying that faith. Napoli’s win at Genoa on Saturday kept them second in Serie A – unbeaten with five wins from six – and while an anaemic Chelsea were drifting to defeat at home to Basel two weeks ago, Benitez was beating last season’s finalists, Borussia Dortmund, in the Champions League.
Privately, he is preoccupied by Napoli learning to grow and modernise both as a city and a club, and he is in his tactical element. “Systems, systems! We’ve faced five of them in seven games!” he said in his fortnightly Independent column last Friday. There has also been the fascination of seeing Lorenzo Insigne, a Neapolitan street kid viewed on the Bay of Naples in the way Wayne Rooney was on the banks of the Mersey, defying potentially destabilising outside influences in his life, who all want a piece. Benitez sees all his promise but you won’t hear him talking the boy up. He knows danger lurks down that road.
None of this success will surprise the quotient of Messianic Liverpudlians who still track Benitez’s progress. There was a table full of them waiting for him in London’s Melia White House Hotel when Napoli arrived there for this summer’s Emirates Cup. The Spaniard’s scheduled five minutes with them had stretched to 20 when one of his players was deputed to call him to dinner. And yet... there is still that sense that some on these shores care to sneer at this man. There was one inference at the weekend that Benitez thought Chelsea didn’t deserve him, a continuation of that unflattering characterisation which accompanied him so remorselessly through those months at Chelsea. Why?
Perhaps because of the anti-intellectual response which football reaches for so quickly. This is the man who, when asked for an Independent column last year to recommend a football coaching book, suggested the works of the Hungarian tactician Arpad Csanadi. And who imported to our shores the 4-2-3-1 system, having watched the tactical innovator Juan Manuel Lillo develop it at Salamanca. We don’t always like these foreigners telling us how to play our game and Benitez – not entirely the soul of tact – is not always the best at disguising the fact that he knows better than others. Neither was he one of that British managerial establishment who laid garlands at the throne of Sir Alex Ferguson, whose friends subsequently took the Scot’s part against him – Sam Allardyce ridiculously so. Benitez can be political. He was no wallflower when it came to facing down that British establishment.
Maybe those tactical obsessions have not helped him, either. While Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola are busy expounding philosophies and being characterised as modernisers because of it, Benitez – with his almost Cartesian belief in the rational – is assessing only which system he will prepare to face next. “I leave philosophy to Socrates and Plato,” he wrote in these pages last Friday. He does have a philosophy – pressing and counter-attack are integral to it – but football to him is ultimately like a game of chess. That is unfashionable. And, thus, he polarises opinion.
“There’s no space to think he is a quite good manager, any more,” says the writer and journalist Rory Smith, with whom Benitez collaborated on the book Champions League Dreams, which charts, game plan by game plan, how he made Liverpool such a fearful team in Europe once again. The arrival of Benitez at Liverpool and Jose Mourinho at Chelsea in 2004 coincided with the explosion in football forums, intensifying the debate in a realm where there are few shades of grey.
The man deserves better. In his final two months at Chelsea, a squad minus six of the players Mourinho possesses now – Willian, André Schürrle, Marco van Ginkel, Samuel Eto’o, Kevin De Bruyne and Michael Essien – beat Manchester United twice, won the Europa League and took 26 points from 30 in the Premier League. Then he vanished without fanfare.
There are compensations about life in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, like an audience which puts the football pitch above his personality. “I think I’ve talked more about tactics in nine weeks than I did in nine years in England,” he told me last week. But the sense that he would savour another chance to demonstrate his ability to the British public is unmistakeable. His wife and daughters still live on their beloved Merseyside. He can answer his phone there, too. Yes, he’d take the slings and arrows again in a flash.
It is not the coaches that Moyes needs the most
The way an interview given by the former Manchester United goalkeeping coach Eric Steele to the respected fanzine United We Stand – in which he claims that David Moyes went against Sir Alex Ferguson’s advice by not retaining the old man’s back-room staff – has been picked up makes it sound like a mildly bitter “I-told-you-so” from the previous regime, towards a faltering new manager who now keeps telling us he doesn’t know much about his squad. But the timings are significant. The full 6,000-word interview with Steele was undertaken by UWS’s Andy Mitten on 8 August – three days before the season even started. A different string of results would have given Steele’s words far less resonance now. It should also be said that Steele also turned down financial offers for his story, knowing that the highly respected Mitten would tell it fully and without sensation.
But even when the juicier components of a generally very positive interview are picked off there are grounds to defend the new manager against the accusation that he failed to adhere to Ferguson’s suggestion that he should “keep what you’ve got,” as Steele tells it.
United did offer first-team coach Rene Meulensteen the chance to stay at Carrington. He passed it up – because he felt the new manager’s hands-on approach to training would eclipse him. The value of Moyes retaining Ferguson’s goalkeeping coach is surely marginal.
Mike Phelan, Ferguson’s assistant and the member of that back-room triumvirate for whom the 71-year-old had highest regard, might have been of most value to United now – though by keeping Ferguson’s staff Moyes would have faced the allegation that he is not his own man. United’s single biggest folly was allowing their manager and chief executive to leave on the same day.
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