Though much maligned, Rafael Benitez understands football. While his demeanor may portray arrogance, football managers don’t exist to shake hands and kiss babies; they exist to manage football teams. And if they do that well, no matter what their personality, they are deserving of credit from the fans.
Maybe innovator isn’t the best way to describe Benitez, but there has always been something outside the box with him. Long before the 4-2-3-1 became the “new thing to do” in football, Benitez was employing this system at the turn of the Millennium to win UEFA Cup’s and La Liga titles with Valencia. His follow up act was a dramatic six-years at Liverpool. In his first two seasons, he masterminded one of the greatest comebacks in football history in 2005 to win the Champions League with Liverpool, and followed that up with an FA Cup victory the following year over West Ham. But towards the end of his time at Liverpool, even as his stature grew as a tactician, he became embroiled in controversy. Notable confrontations with Jose Mourinho and Sam Allardyce were complimented with the infamous “facts” rant directed at Manchester United.
And so it was with Liverpool that notable cup successes were followed by years of underachievement. And it was during this time that fans developed the feeling that this was a man too self-concerned. At Inter, the politics of following Jose Mourinho were too much pressure for him to handle. And his subsequent sacking all but solidified the public’s perception that this was a mercenary manager that didn’t care for the club he was managing, just as long as he got his paycheck. Following a two year hiatus from football, he returned, to Stamford Bridge of all places, to take over a very expensive sinking ship. Mired with internal strife, despite a squad full of quality, Benitez took a job that no one envied. And yet despite his failure at Inter and acrimonious end at Liverpool mixed in with the hatred directed at him from Chelsea fans, he guided the club to a highly respectable third-place finish, delivering Champions League football and the Europa League title in the process.
The take-away from all of this is that Rafa Benitez manages football squads, not professional clubs, and there’s a difference. We hear a lot about loyalty, and how managers care about the history and culture of their club. But actions speak louder than words, and rarely do managers remember their clubs history/culture when the money for transfers dries up, or when senior players start voicing their displeasure. Benitez is one of the few who can look at a football club dispassionately and deliver specific goals. Barring the blip at Inter, Benitez has been successful almost everywhere he has managed, even when inheriting a below par squad with the promise of little funds to invest in the team.
At Napoli, Benitez will once again be faced with a situation similar to that of Liverpool and Chelsea. The last two years have seen a wave of change sweep through San Paolo, with influential players like Lavezzi and Gargano leaving for pastures new. And with Edinson Cavani heading out the exit door this summer while Gonzalo Higuain has arrived, Napoli are a club in transition. The decisions that will be made in the next month and a half will determine whether Napoli remains among Serie A’s elite, or whether their fate will mimic that of clubs like Palermo and Sampdoria.
Benitez will have to get the best out of the players that are already with the club. Most importantly, he will have to decide the best positions for Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne. Fortunately for Napoli fans, Benitez has experience in this department. Steven Gerrard’s highest scoring season coincided with Benitez converting him to a right sided winger. And at Chelsea, his decision to play David Luiz as a holding midfielder gave Chelsea a bit more creativity and balance from deep in the midfield. Napoli needs organization and discipline to compensate for the loss of Cavani. Benitez has a proven track record of getting the best out of his squads, and Napoli would do well to support Benitez because he might just be the conductor to keep Napoli on the upward track.