Rafa's Chelsea: A Journal

Mr Popular 2012-13

Rafa Benítez takes over at Chelsea. Despite the cacophony of disapproval that he endures during his first game, a 0-0 draw at home to Manchester City, the Spaniard remains optimistic about gaining popular support in the job. “I think if we can win games and show quality, we can win the fans over too, no?” he says.

The next match, a 4-0 win over Fulham, is overshadowed by the Chelsea fans burning an effigy of Benítez outside Stamford Bridge before chanting Roberto Di Matteo’s name for ninety minutes. When asked what his reaction to this reception is, Rafa maintains that he was concentrating on the game and did not notice any commotion.

Rafa begins his first full month in charge by pulling Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar aside at training and presenting them with several hours’ worth of footage of Denis Irwin. “Go home and study this,” he tells them, “Irwin always worked hard and remained organised. If instructed, he would gladly have stripped naked and leaped into a vat of acid for the team. You can learn everything from this man.”

Chelsea win all of their fixtures without conceding a goal, going top of the Premier League, progressing in the Champions League and collecting the Club World Cup trophy in the process. “I think Rafa was very lucky,” harrumphs Sir Alex Ferguson, “Any fool could have kept nine clean sheets in a month with those players.” Rafa does not dignify these remarks with a response. Fernando Torres does not score in any of the matches played in December.

James Milner is signed for £60m from title rivals Manchester City. “James can be our Gerrard, no?” Rafa tells the flabbergasted press, “Except that, unlike Stevie, he will work hard and remain organised. He is maybe like Stevie mixed with Dirk.” On the same day, Rafa signs Mats Hummels to replace David Luiz, who will from now on operate as a striker. Deadline day sees Fábio Aurélio arrive from Grêmio.

Chelsea win all four of their league matches without conceding a goal, breeze through their FA Cup games and reach the League Cup Final. Following Arsenal’s 3-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge, Arsène Wenger declares Benítez “a purveyor of football so miserable that I may retire in protest at his continued employment.” David Luiz ends the month averaging two goals a game but Fernando Torres is still to score.

The Sun runs a poll asking “Is this the most miserable time to be a Chelsea fan EVER?” 100% of votes cast are in the affirmative.

Frank Lampard complains to the press that he hasn’t started a league match since October. Eden Hazard complains to the press that he is being used primarily in a ‘false two’ role at full-back. Ashley Cole is given the opportunity to complain to the press but instead becomes embroiled in controversy of his own as he describes his own fans as “f**king d**kheads, the lot of them.”

When asked whether relationships with his players are becoming strained, Rafa responds “Not at all: Carra and Stevie still text me every day; Reina called me last night; I see Fernando here. There is no problem. We just have to keep working hard and remain organised.”

Chelsea win all of their league matches without conceding a goal, reach the FA Cup quarters and win the League Cup, beating Arsenal 2-0 in the final. Borussia Dortmund are effortlessly beaten in the Champions League round of sixteen. Having assisted a phenomenal seventeen goals, James Milner is named Premier League Player of the Month. David Luiz moves ahead of Robin Van Persie as the league’s top scorer. Fernando Torres, however, is still goalless under Benítez’s management. Fans continue to protest outside Stamford Bridge, demanding Rafa’s immediate removal. “How that incompetent waiter’s hanging on there, I don’t know,” says Sir Alex Ferguson. Rafa holds his tongue.

Juan Mata politely asks Rafa if he may be allowed to do some attacking in Chelsea’s upcoming fixtures. Rafa refuses his request, pointing out that Mata has now won more tackles than any other player in Europe while ranking third and fourth in similar charts for interceptions made and clearances attempted. With Chelsea leading West Ham 3-0 in the FA Cup quarter-final, Mata attempts a through-ball and is immediately replaced by Ryan Bertrand.

Despite the month having begun with comfortable victories away to Newcastle and at home to Wigan, Chelsea are plunged into turmoil as Manchester City become the first side to score against them in six months. “Winning 6-1 is just not good enough,” says an irate Chelsea fan on Sky Sports News, “if I’m honest, it wouldn’t surprise me if that was Rafa gone. We’d all be glad to see the back of him anyway.” Rafa notes that, despite this setback, Chelsea need only one point from their remaining fixtures to win the Premier League.

A 7-0 victory over Sunderland sees Chelsea clinch the title in some style. James Milner assists all seven goals and David Luiz’s four-goal haul takes his tally to thirty for the season. Towards the end of the game, Fernando Torres is presented with the chance to make it 8-0 but loses his footing and, with it, the ball. The striker has now played over 3,000 minutes of football without scoring. Sir Alex Ferguson, magnanimous as ever, declares Rafa’s title triumph “the amateurish work of a meddling halfwit.” Rafa thinks long and hard about a riposte but instead decides to work hard and remain organised.

Following victory in the FA Cup semi-final, Real Madrid are swatted aside in the Champions League semi-final. The aggregate score finishes 9-0 to Chelsea. José Mourinho refuses to acknowledge Rafa at any point, preferring instead to speak cordially with Benítez’s assistant, Bolo Zenden. Chelsea’s fans unveil a banner at Stamford Bridge that reads ‘JOSÉ 4EVA’. A separate banner depicts Rafa’s face with a vulgar euphemism for the female genitalia stamped on his forehead.

“When I grow up, I want to be David Luiz,” says Lionel Messi.

James Milner and David Luiz split the goals as Chelsea win 4-0 at Old Trafford. “I thought they were very fortunate,” says Sir Alex Ferguson, “When you consider that Rafa didn’t actually score any of the goals, I don’t think he deserves any credit whatsoever.” Presented with this appraisal by Geoff Shreeves, Rafa finally snaps. “I did not want to speak about these things. I have tried not to respond to Ferguson’s provocations but the fact is that he wouldn’t recognise a real tactician if one punched him in the face.” As if to prove this point, he strides over to the purple-nosed Scot and punches him in the face. John Terry and Ashley Cole, recognising a premeditated act of immorality when they see one, discover a new and profound respect for Benítez and lobby to have him hired on a permanent basis.

Rafa adds the FA Cup to his ever-growing list of trophies won at Stamford Bridge, but the 5-0 win over Swansea in the final is greeted with boos and jeers from the Chelsea support. Having derided Rafa’s tactics as “so defensive they made my spleen ache”, Alan Shearer bills the Champions League final as make or break.

In the final, David Luiz’s breathtaking hat-trick is matched by another from Lionel Messi and Chelsea lose to Barcelona on penalties. Fernando Torres, having to score to keep his team in it, shanks his spot-kick four yards wide of the post. Roman Abramovich sends Bruce Buck down to sack Rafa in the Wembley tunnel.

West London rejoices like never before, with the sound of popping champagne corks clearly audible as far away as Basingstoke. After a frenetic period of speculation and jingoistic media promotion of Harry Redknapp, Fabio Capello is named as the new Chelsea manager. Fleet Street goes into mourning.


By Rob Brown. Follow him on Twitter: @robbro7

Netherlands 0-0 Germany - Tactical Review

Not a match for fans of highlight reels, this was characterised by tactical discipline and defensive diligence. Louis van Gaal, conscious of the threat posed by Germany’s fluid front four, set up with a deep 4-1-4-1 formation aimed at closing off space and kept this shape throughout. Van Gaal also elected to have his full-backs and central midfielders man-mark their direct opponents – an interesting policy, given that the latter positions were filled by Ibrahim Afellay and Rafael van der Vaart, men hardly renowned for their ability to put in a defensive shift. The plan, however, was a success, with the two remaining organised and tight to their men as well as displaying their obvious quality on the ball.

The key tactical point for Germany was the selection of a front four containing no number nine. Mario Götze and Marco Reus spent most of the match interchanging as the notional number nine, making darting runs between the full-backs and centre-backs and creating space for the ever astute Thomas Müller to exploit. Lewis Holtby played a slightly more conservative role, taking possession in advanced positions and recycling. The system of interchange worked well in periods and could have created a goal for Reus after twenty-seven minutes, but van Gaal’s plan was more than its equal. Germany could perhaps have done with involving Lahm more in attacking play, but given the threat posed on the counter his conservative display was understandable.

Both teams were keen to attack at set pieces, moving more men forward on those occasions than at any time in open play, but there was still no clear chance created from them either directly or on the counterattack. The most notable set-piece in the match was the corner which Marco Reus comically shanked almost directly upwards.

Van Gaal’s reactive setup resulted in the lion’s share of early possession being taken by Germany’s centre-backs, Per Mertesacker and Mats Hummels. This largely played into Dutch hands: twice during the first eleven minutes Hummels was sufficiently tempted to try long killer passes and lost possession on both occasions. Between the tenth and thirtieth minutes Bruno Martins struggled somewhat due to a lack of cover from Arjen Robben, but eventually he settled into the game and Robben began to help the Feyenoord youngster.

Germany were comfortable being the proactive side and despite the lack of clear chances fashioned, one sensed in their young attackers a belief that their system would win out against the obstinate Dutch defence. Thomas Müller and Lewis Holtby, in particular, never shied from receiving the ball and trying to make something happen. İlkay Gündoğan caught the eye, his replication of Bastian Schweinsteiger’s national team performances more than passable. Indeed, on thirty minutes it was a little too good: he, along with his midfield partner Lars Bender, were too high up the pitch and were slow to close down the advancing Rafa van der Vaart. The Hamburg man skipped between them and his pass sent Arjen Robben through on goal. The Bayern winger rounded Manuel Neuer but found Benedikt Höwedes on hand to block his goal-bound shot.

This was an atypical moment in terms of first-half tactics: the Dutch approach then was to sit deep and wide and get narrow once the ball was inside their own half, the thinking presumably being that their best chance of success lay on the counter with the pace of Robben and Ruben Schaken.

Löw’s men were happy to keep the ball at the back, relying on the movement of their front four tying knots in the Dutch man-marking before working the ball forward, mostly down the right, in fast transitions. This produced a couple of half-chances, but like their opponents’, their best scoring opportunity came from a moment out of keeping with the general tactical trend. At the end of the first half, Gündoğan made a skilful foray into the Dutch area and, despite losing the ball, remained forward to slam the ball goalward when it broke in the ensuing scramble. Unfortunately for the Dortmund man, Johnny Heitinga had read the danger and blocked the shot on the line.

The second half began with several substitutions from van Gaal and a change in tact from Jogi Löw. His side sat much deeper and invited the Dutch onto them. Given the trouble the Germans had finding space to attack in the first half, this made sense. At the beginning and end of the half, it also allowed the Dutch to take possession closer to Manuel Neuer’s goal, but there was little significant danger. For the most part, Germany enjoyed the majority of the ball. Despite looking potent in periods, their domination was mostly sterile.

As is typical of the twenty-first century international friendly, the myriad of substitutions in the second half prevented any flow developing. Most of the clearest shooting chances fell to the Netherlands. On seventy-six minutes Gündoğan and Bender were again caught too high up the field, causing Hummels to charge out of the defensive line. This in turn allowed the Netherlands to break down the right, and Schaken’s cutback was met by the substitute Daryl Janmaat, whose twenty-yard drive was saved by Neuer. Germany looked vulnerable again a minute later, but Eljero Elia’s shot from the left channel was wildly inaccurate. In the last minute, Marco Reus had the chance to win it following a poor headed clearance, but like Elia minutes before, he ballooned the ball high and wide. The final whistle followed shortly thereafter.

Whether van Gaal or Löw won the tactical battle is open to dispute and arguably irrelevant. The information that both camps gleaned from the ninety minutes will be largely positive. Van Gaal’s side looked organised and tough but in a different manner to the sides of his predecessor. Löw gave valuable game time to youngsters like Gündoğan, Holtby and Götze and will be pleased at their respective performances which, despite the occasional youthful error, were mature and encouraging. This was a match of little spectacle but it contained more than enough evidence of progress being made by both sides.

Rob Brown

Four million people watch England game they don’t care about

The following is all lies. But, in the end, isn't that the real truth?

An average of 4.08 million fans who don’t care about international football tuned in to England’s friendly in Sweden last night, according to figures from the Broadcaster’s Audience Research Board.

ITV1’s coverage of the 1-1 draw in Stockholm, a game that also marked a 100th England appearance for popular dickhead Steven Gerrard, drew a peak audience of 4.32m fans who hate the international break, many of whom took to Twitter to express their lack of interest in the match.

“Why are we watching this again? #pointless #dontcare” tweeted one fan who probably wears a replica shirt with his name on the back.

Another shitmuncher, whose avatar bore the legend ‘Keep Calm and Sack Wenger’, wrote: “Fuck sake there was a #England game like two weeks ago. #Wilshire looking world class tho #Arsenal”.

The average of 4.08 million uninterested viewers represents a substantial increase on the previous friendly, a win over Italy seen by only 3.42 million people, all of whom had better things to do with their evening.

International friendlies, which take place on three evenings a year, are widely regarded as an intolerable distraction from the club game. Supporters’ rights groups have reported a record number of complaints from fans frustrated at the gap of almost a week between televised Premier League games. A hastily released leaflet from the FA lists ways in which fans can avoid international football. These include changing the channel, making a sandwich and doing literally anything other than watching football on three specified evenings each year.

Charlie Anderson

Reasons to be Cheerful

Freiburg vs Dortmund: great fun. Photo: AFP/Getty
Here in the UK, it has apparently been a pretty miserable week to be a football fan. Four of the five British sides were defeated in the Champions League – the worst set of results in the competition for a decade. There was the Arsenal AGM, widely portrayed as a depressingly familiar farce in which a group of disconnected rich white men flaunted their disregard for popular opinion. The weekend brought yet another racism scandal which threatens to dominate mainstream coverage for the foreseeable future. Yesterday, there came the final insult and possibly the most horrendous of all: news that Lee Cattermole will remain a highly-paid pseudo-footballer instead of maximising his potential as a mixed martial artist.

Despite this and the best efforts of many journalists, pundits and tweeters, I remain as deeply in love with football as ever. So we all do. Here are a few reasons why the last week has been undoubtedly brilliant to be a football fan.

Freiburg vs Dortmund
Probably the best weather-influenced match since Switzerland vs Turkey broke new ground in the genre at Euro 2008. Six inches of snow fell in Freiburg over the weekend and the match was played in the middle of the blizzard. Despite the inevitably low level of quality on show – one first-half graphic informed me that pass completion was currently 51% vs 61% – it was impossible to be bored. The snow denied Freiburg two goals in the first half, most brilliantly when Daniel Caligiuri drew Roman Weidenfeller from his goal and rolled the ball across for Karim Guedé to tap into an unguarded net, only to see his would-be assist stop dead in the snow and allow Dortmund to clear. Ninety minutes of slapstick comedy, topped off by a brilliant goal from Mario Götze.

Schalke’s continued emergence
Saturday’s win over Nürnberg , courtesy of Jefferson Farfán’s third goal of a personally productive start to the season, took their tally of consecutive victories to four. However, it is not the number of their wins which is startling, but who it is that they’re beating: defeat of Dieter Hecking’s men came after wins against Dortmund at the Westfalenstadion and Arsenal at the Emirates. The ingredients for success are all in place for Huub Stevens' Königsblauen and if they can sustain their recent form then they will certainly be in with a chance of taking the Bundesliga title for the first time since 1958.

Roma vs Udinese
An absolutely mental game of football. Five goals, each due to tremendous combination play and defending that would’ve shamed Gaël Clichy, and settled by a Panenka from the ageless Totò di Natale. Personally, I prefer a tactical 1-0 in which everyone posts 85% pass completion or higher, but for those “falling out of love with the game”, this was the ideal tonic.

Dimitar Berbatov
A perceived lack of effort from the Bulgarian earned him criticism from the Guardian’s Sachin Nakrani and Match of the Day’s John Roder this weekend. For them, it was simply not enough to complete more passes than all but two players on the pitch, win more free-kicks than any other player on the pitch, have more shots than any other striker on the pitch and cap it all with a goal of genuine beauty. For me, however, that’ll do.

Stoke have won just one of their last fifteen Premier League matches
Fuck Stoke.

Juan Carlos Valerón’s continued brilliance (pt. 2,429,136)
Fresh from filming an underreported role as Ben Affleck’s stunt double in upcoming thriller Argo, Europe’s answer to Juan Roman Riquelme was close to his mesmeric best in Deportivo’s draw with Celta. Depor’s start to the season may have been wretched, but when you’ve got a thirty-seven year-old club hero making assists like his for Juan Domínguez, you can forget that just for an instant and reflect on what the game is really about: fun. And boy, was that assist fun.

Cholo's Atlético go on and on
Falcao’s is the name on everyone’s lips, but it’s arguably the strength of the Colombian’s supporting cast which creates the belief that they’re not another Levante waiting to happen. The weekend’s win included the customary goal for El Tigre, but this time his was the icing on the cake rather than the decider, with goals from Miranda and Raúl García doing for a thoroughly outplayed Osasuna. There are clear issues in defence, with only three clean sheets registered in La Liga so far, but their abundance of attacking riches has combined with a clearly Simeone-influenced midfield to floor opponent after opponent. The elephant in the room is that Atlético will once again have to sell the crown jewels at the end of the season in order to keep going. That is a long time away, though. For now, it is better to sit back and watch Simeone’s men at the peak of their powers.

Sergio Busquets’ nomination for the Ballon d'Or
Given the inevitability of Lionel Messi winning the game’s most coveted individual award for the fourth year running, it seems academic to put twenty-two other names on the ballot paper. Busquets, however, is worthy of his selection. If anything, it is long overdue. In the UK at least, he remains a wilfully misunderstood figure: a pantomime villain whose histrionics serve as the perfect excuse to dislike those foreigners who keep winning everything. However, he is slowly winning over the last of his doubters. His skill set and his importance to Barcelona and Spain have been underlined in 2012, and while there were inclusions on FIFA’s shortlist which could legitimately have been questioned, Busquets’ was one which showed that sometimes football’s governing body isn’t a total embarrassment.

A Friday haiku

For this is the end
Hold your breath, Max, count to ten
And let the sky fall