x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Deep thoughts from Benitez may show the way at Chelsea

Clean sheets at last but the pressure to deliver results is still on.

Oriol Romeu, centre, played his fourth game of the season when he took the field against Fulham.
Oriol Romeu, centre, played his fourth game of the season when he took the field against Fulham.

It is not a crisis yet, far from it, but equally Rafa Benitez's arrival at Chelsea has not brought the spurt of form that Roman Abramovich might have been hoping for.

Two games have brought two goalless draws and the gap to the top of the table is now seven points.

As Benitez has said, that is not insurmountable but with fans already hostile to his reign, he needs results quickly if the season is not to disappear in a bog of booing and mutual recrimination.

Benitez's policy has always been to build from the back, and successive clean sheets after 10 games without one suggests some success in the regard. Although he, like Roberto Di Matteo, favours a 4-2-3-1, his way of playing it is a little different.

His reluctance to field all three of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata has drawn most of the attention, understandably, given how exposed the full-backs have looked when all three have played.

But the introduction of Oriol Romeu against Fulham was also striking.

The 21-year-old Spaniard featured in just three Premier League games this season under Di Matteo, who seemed to favour the combination of John Obi Mikel and Ramires at the back of midfield. Having brought him off the bench in his first game, though, Benitez played Romeu from the start against Fulham.

That may indicate that Benitez has little faith in Mikel, but it seems more likely to be a positive step, that he wants to include a passer in a deep position.

Louis van Gaal always argued that in the modern game the true playmaker, the man who sets the tempo, is not the number 10, as was traditional, but the centre-back or deep-lying midfielder.

Benitez's use of David Albelda at Valencia or Xabi Alonso at Liverpool perhaps hint at his ideal, as opposed to Di Matteo's preference for the solidity of Mikel and the pace of Ramires.

Ramires is versatile and disciplined enough to play alongside Romeu, either as a tackler breaking up play or as a shuttler, darting forward to add his presence to the attacking line. He could also be used on the right of the three - where Di Matteo deployed him against Juventus at home - in which case Mikel could sit alongside Romeu.

That role, that of industrious wide man, was the one fulfilled by Ryan Bertrand against Fulham and replicated that of Dirk Kuyt at Liverpool. It might not be glamorous but it does seem essential to the way Benitez plays.

With a less overtly offensive player in the line of three, it may be that Chelsea can play deeper and that in turn might open the way for the more vertical football on which Torres once thrived at Liverpool - if he can rediscover his turn of pace.

However he does it, though, Benitez needs to start winning soon, ideally at West Ham today.

Given the itchiness of Abramovich's trigger finger you wonder how long Chelsea would have to go without a win before he felt the need to appoint an interim-interim manager.


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