Rafa Benitez: Challenges ahead at Napoli


Few coaches right now have a resume as impressive as the new Napoli manager Rafael Benitez. 

He has served various clubs with distinction and is generally considered to be among the foremost tacticians on the planet right now. However, his lone stint in Italy – with Inter Milan – was a total disaster, which ended in the Spaniard getting sacked just six months into the job. 

And now, Benitez is back again in an attempt to conquer the as yet unconquered territory of Italy, with an exciting Napoli side. Here’s a look at how the former Liverpool coach is likely to fare at Napoli. 

Benitez started off his coaching career with clubs in the lower divisions of Spanish football. His big break came when, after leading Tenerife to an impressive top-half finish in the league, Valencia appointed him as their manager in 2001. 

What followed was the Golden Era for the Spanish side, with them winning two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup in his three years in charge. This was followed by another impressive stint with Liverpool, where he led them to the 2005 Champions League title and another final appearance in the tournament in 2007. Following this was the ill-fated spell with Inter Milan – and an almost two year sabbatical from football. When he did return, as the interim manager of Chelsea, there were initially doubts about the team’s performance under the Spaniard, but ultimately he led them to third place in the league and a Europa League crown.

Despite his impressive showing, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich decided not to renew his contract and so Benitez finds himself in Italy again, to take on a new challenge.

Except for Inter, it has been seen that Benitez has always managed to bring out the best in the team using minimum resources. This season, even though Chelsea had a delightfully talented squad, the depth among the ranks of the West Londoners was a problem – with them having only 22 full team players to call upon. 

And among these was Florent Malouda, Yossi Benayoun and Paulo Ferreira – players who were seldom used and well past their prime. In Valencia as well he had a pretty slim squad – but still managed to win the league twice ahead of the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona. 

At the Stadio San Paolo he will find himself again in similar circumstances, being in charge of an extremely talented group of youngsters, albeit a very small group at that. This is not where Benitez’s task looks daunting. 

The reason why Benitez will have his task cut out for him is that the style Napoli have now perfected for 4 years under the stewardship of now Inter manager Walter Mazzarri, is completely different from the any of the methods he has employed in his previous clubs. For quite some time now, Napoli have been playing in either the 3-5-2 or the 3-4-3 systems – and Benitez has never played a defence of three men with any success. 

A brief exploration into the three man defence strategy (with Valencia in the 2002-03 season) cost his team dear, with that being the only season in which he failed to win the league with Valencia. However, arguably the players he has at his disposal at Napoli are more suited to play in this system than the ones at Valencia. Cristian Maggio and Walter Zuniga are way more adept at working as a combined midfielder and defender than was Vicente Rodriguez and Miguel Angulo.

But if the Spaniard does stick to his tried and tested mantra of playing a four man defence without any reasonable emphasis on wing play, he could find that the going could get tough. 

What Napoli currently lacks is the kind of midfield schemer that has been a hallmark of all of Benitez’s sides throughout the years. Whether it be Pablo Aimar, Xabi Alonso, or Juan Mata – Benitez always had a player who was capable of pulling the strings of the whole team in the center of the park. 

At Napoli, there is none. The hugely impressive Marek Hamsik has been a standout performer for Napoli over the past few years, but Hamsik is the kind of player who takes defenders on and plays a much more direct brand of football than the midfield maestro of Benitez’s liking. Also, Mazzarri’s system put an extreme importance on the wingers/wingbacks, with Maggio and Zuniga being a constant option in attack for pouring crosses into the penalty box. 

Contrary to this, Benitez has usually programmed his wingers to cut in to the center and provide more options up front in attack – an idea that is alien to the current group of attackers at Stadio San Paolo, with the possible exception of youngster Lorenzo Insigne.

Another problem that will be awaiting Benitez is the future of star striker Edinson Cavani. Cavani has been easily one of the most lethal finishers in recent years, and has been central to everything that Napoli have achieved over the past three years. And now, as the forward’s days at the club seem numbered, Benitez will find himself facing the unpleasant task of trying to replace the Uruguayan.

All-in-all, Benitez will find that managing Napoli is not the easiest job in the world. From a small squad, to a footballing philosophy alien to him – Benitez could find that Italy is nation that is harder to conquer than either England or Spain. But there is no doubting the man’s ability. 

If he can win the league with a Valencia side that lacked any big names and had just lost its best player in Gaizka Mendieta, he is well capable of excelling with a just as talented Napoli side. Will Benitez excel in his second stint in Italy?

Only time can tell.


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