We came to bury Rafael Benitez, not to praise him, but Chelsea’s interim head coach dodged the bullet again and is perhaps due some credit. He may be ignored by his boss, reviled by his club’s supporters and dismissed by the media, but Benitez, most of the time, does know what he is doing.
This is a man who has kept videos and notes of every match and training session he has taken since his days with the Real Madrid youth team three decades ago. In his office at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground, in the basement of his home on the Wirral, and even in his parents’ attic in Spain, he has perhaps the most extensive tactical library of any man alive. Benitez may be at risk of over-complicating things, but he is not making it up on the hoof.
Saturday’s defeat of Wigan Athletic was a case in point even if the margin was flattering. Wigan like to pass out from the back with a three-man defence. So Chelsea pressed high up the pitch, denying them the chance to build possession. Fernando Torres is a blunt instrument these days, as three bad misses illustrated, but when it comes to the mundane business of closing down defenders he remains as assiduous as Ian Rush.
Having won the ball Chelsea looked to hurt Wigan in wide areas knowing the visitors would have pushed their wing-backs forward. Their first two goals came by attacking that vulnerability.
Then there is the conversion of David Luiz from wayward defender to influential midfielder. The Brazilian’s ability to intercept, honed by his years in defence, is just as valuable when shielding the back four while his penchant for breaking forward with the ball – which led to Chelsea’s opening goal, carries far less risk in this new position. It will be interesting to see who Benitez prefers in the role when John Obi Mikel returns from the African Nations Cup
Benitez’s problem is that he has inherited a squad that understandably appears confused. The management chaos surrounding Chelsea has left everyone looking over their shoulders, a situation which is not conducive to building the collective belief a successful team needs. While their salaries may insulate footballers from economic pressures insecurity still stalks every dressing room, it is the nature of the business. And when the club seem intent of getting shot of Frank Lampard - despite his re-invention of himself as a deep-lying midfielder without any apparent loss of goalscoring potency - team-mates will inevitably wonder about their own place in the grand scheme of things.
That anxiety reared its head when Wigan threatened to equalise but, thanks to Lampard’s 198 goal for the club, Chelsea this time closed the game out.
Wigan’s Roberto Martinez, having lost this Spanish coaching duel, was left to hope his team’s annual spring revival will be repeated again. They are still to play the three strugglers around them with their next league match, at Reading on 23 February, looming ever larger.
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