Forgive us Liverpool fans a nasty cackle: schadenfreude may be all we have left, these days, as we resign ourselves to a protracted exile from English football’s Champion’s League elite as a result of financial austerity and catastrophic decisions in the boardroom over the past five years. And right now, Chelsea is serving us up schadenfreude by the bucket. First, there’s been the protracted goal drought of Fernando Torres, the once-but-no-longer brilliant Spanish striker we sold to Chelsea for $75 million two years ago — he’s scored just 11 goals in 60 appearances since moving to Stamford Bridge, none in his last 11 hours of game time. (At Liverpool, he scored 65 in 102 appearances.) We sold them a lemon, and they paid through the nose! Hey, I know, schadenfreude is not pretty.
But now Chelsea’s billionaire-oligarch owner Roman Abramovich has gone one better, displaying spectacular contempt for the sensibilities of his club’s fans by summarily sacking the beloved former player turned coach Roberto Di Matteo two weeks ago, despite his winning the Champion’s League and FA Cup. To add insult to injury, Di Matteo was replaced by Rafael Benítez, who steered Liverpool to an improbable Champion’s League title in 2005 (collecting Chelsea’s scalp along the way) and who has been the most reviled rival coach at Stamford Bridge since Abramovich’s cash infusions first turned Chelsea into an elite club in 2004.
Chelsea fans greeted the appointment of our Rafa — yes, he still lives on Merseyside and clearly has a deep love for Liverpool FC and will, forever, be part of its family, other professional commitments notwithstanding — with predictable noisy outrage. His first game in charge, at home to Manchester City last Sunday, became a massive protest rally in support of Di Matteo. The fact that the game, at home to Manchester City, ended in a 0-0 draw compounded their sense of injury, which was considerably exacerbated on Wednesday when they returned the same score line against lowly London neighbors Fulham. Then, Saturday brought further suffering as Benítez took his team to the capital’s East End to face West Ham, coached by Sam Allardyce, with whom Benítez had engaged in a nasty running feud while in charge at Liverpool over playing styles. (Allardyce champions the more traditionally English form of the game, physically combative and relying on long balls hoofed up to big strikers. Some joked that he’d more likely get the job coaching England’s rugby team than its football team.) As West Ham slammed home their third goal in a 3-1 drubbing of Rafa’s men, Allardyce was dancing a jig on the touchline. The Chelsea players looked demoralized; the fans’ mutiny against Rafa shows no sign of ending any time soon.
Chelsea certainly had looked more defensively solid in Rafa’s first two games in charge — Man City was their first clean sheet in 11 games — but the failure of a front four assembled at a cost of $200 million to score could become embarrassing. Part of how Benítez is shoring up the defense is by ensuring his wider attackers are defensively tracking the opposing fullback when Chelsea loses possession, inevitably restricting its offensive freedom. (All of that came unstuck as they shipped three goals at Upton Park.)
Inevitably, that results in a less expansive style of play — Di Matteo’s side got goals, but shipped ’em too — leaving Torres that much more isolated up front. And Torres is the focal point of Benítez’s job. Indeed, some speculated that it was his ability to play to the striker’s strengths that had convinced Abramovich to hire him
Extracting a return on Abramovich’s $75 million investment in Torres won’t be easy — indeed, Benítez has already made clear his belief that the striker peaked at Liverpool and is unlikely to reach the same heights again.
Notes football historian and tactical analyst Jonathan Wilson:
The decline of Torres is one of the great sadnesses and mysteries of the modern game. In his last five seasons at Atlético Madrid he went from being a player of outstanding promise to one of proven ability. His first three seasons at Liverpool, although hamstring injuries hampered him in the second and third, were exceptional. He was quick, explosive, finished well and had a capacity to generate chances almost from nothing.
He hit a slump in his final season at Anfield following a protracted absence through injury. Wilson continues:
The move to Chelsea offered the chance for a fresh start but 33 league starts in 18 months have yielded just 10 goals. There is petulance alongside the industry and, while Torres’ movement remains intelligent, there is often a sense that he doesn’t really want the ball. When teed up by an Eden Hazard flick in Sunday’s draw against Manchester City, there was an inevitability about him snatching at the shot and firing over the bar … But if Torres can’t cope with the reasonably direct approach used by Roberto Di Matteo last season or the quick-angled passes of the Eden Hazard–Oscar–Juan Mata trio employed this [and he never looks entirely at home amid Spain's Tiki-Taka], then it’s hard to see how he will ever fit in at Chelsea.
Torres did provide a great assist for Juan Mata’s goal at West Ham, but he also missed two gilt-edged chances he’d have nonchalantly buried at his peak with Liverpool.
Where most coaches sign four-year contracts, Rafa was hired for just two seasons — well, at least, that’s according to the joke on Merseyside, those seasons being winter and spring. He’s expected to deliver success in a season that is already near its halfway mark, with Chelsea seven points behind the leaders but suddenly struggling to keep pace with the two Manchester clubs. (Give the squad with which he won the Champion’s League for us in 2005, anything’s possible, of course.)
By the Fulham game, of course, Rafa had been in charge through only five training sessions and has hardly had time to shape a winning formula. But the manic rate at which Abramovich burns through coaches (nine in as many years, with only two lasting more than a single season — and more than $120 million spent simply on paying out the remainder of the contracts of managers he’s fired) and the level of success the fans have been cultivated to expect wouldn’t give him much of a honeymoon, even if he hadn’t been a long-loathed rival replacing a beloved manager sacked for no apparent reason. As if to demonstrate his immunity from the fans’ slings and arrows, Rafa even turned up to that second game in a red tie — the same color he’d worn at Liverpool. (In his first game in charge, his gray shirt and metallic blue tie appeared to have come straight out of the wardrobe of his old nemesis and Chelsea’s most beloved recent coach, José Mourinho.)
Chelsea is Abramovich’s plaything — and a toy’s not much fun to a billionaire if he can’t do anything with it but watch. So, the oligarch has a habit of buying superstar forwards and imposing on coaches a requirement to play them, even when they fail spectacularly — first the legendary Ukrainian striker Andriy Shevchenko, now Torres. And also of replacing the coaches on a whim.
The oligarch wants it all, of course: silverware and style. He wants his team to win, but also to play aesthetically pleasing football — you know, like Barcelona. Thus the open secret that the Russian wants Pep Guardiola, the legendary Barcelona player and coach currently on a year’s sabbatical from the game with his young family in New York City, to take the reins at Chelsea next season. Fat chance. Pep is a serious coach, a product of a decades-old academy system that has deeply ingrained its football values into its players, and Chelsea with its impatient, capricious owner with a weakness for “galactic” stars, represents the antithesis of what Guardiola is all about. Benítez acknowledges, for example, that as coach he has little say over whom Chelsea will buy and sell. So, unless Guardiola has some deep debt to pay off, it’s hard to imagine him not preferring a more stable position where he can build another center of protracted excellence.
Abramovich isn’t likely to get too many thrills from Benítez, whose preference for a compact counterattacking style isn’t always a crowd-pleaser. Real Madrid sporting director and former Argentina striker Jorge Valdano famously likened the epic Chelsea-Liverpool Champion’s League semifinal showdown of 2005 to “watching s— on a stick.” Benítez has a track record, of course, having twice broken the Real-Barca duopoly to win Spain’s La Liga at the helm of Valencia, as well as taking that club to a UEFA Cup title and an under-resourced Liverpool to two Champion’s League finals (winning one), an FA Cup and narrowly finishing second in the league. But it’s not always pleasing to watch and sometimes produces too many draws. Any Liverpool fan will tell you we’d have won the title in 2009 were it not for Benítez’s caution that produced too many home draws against lowly opponents.
Still, while Rafa may be having a hard time winning over the Chelsea fans, his performance in the job so far has brought plenty of smiles — among the Liverpool faithful.