There are very few Chelsea fans that will be sorry to see the back of Rafa Benitez at the end of this season, but his tenure here has not been a complete disaster. Rafa has brought the club to the final of the Europa League – navigated a truly horrendous fixture schedule that has seen a staggering number of games played, and looks well on course to securing Champion’s League football for the 13/14 season. For many, this in itself is not enough. That being said, and for all that the criticism that you can throw his way, Rafa does seem to have managed to do one thing that so many previous Chelsea managers could not. He has destroyed the player-power mentality.
Frank Lampard, John Terry, Didier Drogba and Ashley Cole are all Chelsea legends. There is no doubting this fact. However, the level of influence that they have previously wielded in the dressing room goes some way beyond natural leadership. Too often, player power has trumped the manager at Chelsea, and that is simply not the right way to run a club. There are many, many things you can say about Alex Ferguson as a manager, but you can never question the ruthless nature by which he controls his dressing room. Never mind selling or dropping popular players because it was the right thing to do – Fergie sold his own son because he wasn’t performing. When you put a manager in place, he has to have the respect of the dressing room, and he can never have that with senior dissenting voices disagreeing with him.
Jose Mourinho has the management skills and the strength of character to deal with such egos. He is, however, one of very few. The problem that our managers have always faced is one of time. If you take on the senior players, you are eventually going to lose your job. That was never an issue for Rafa – he was always only here to see out the season.
Rafa has no great fondness for the club, and he certainly had not fear of the sack. This freedom has allowed him to play the teams he really wanted to play. This meant giving Ryan Bertrand some games to develop. It has resulted in Ivanovic and Luiz forming a formidable and exciting partnership at CB over John Terry, which has allowed Azpilicueta to firmly establish his credentials at right back. Most notably, Rafa has used Frank Lampard correctly. Lampard is turning 35, and if he isn’t offered a new contract, the team needs to get used to live without him. That involves trusting Ramires, Oscar, Mata and Hazard in those roving midfield roles.
Rafa Benitez will not be missed. However, his actions have seen the spine of the next generation of Chelsea develop and grow. Intentional or not, it’s one hell of a silver lining.
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