Chelsea were blessed to win the Champions League last season, truly blessed. No-one could’ve foreseen that we would’ve overcome the onslaughts of both Barcelona and Bayern Munich to lift the trophy high into the Munich sky. But all it did in truth was paper over some very large cracks since the double winning season in 2010. In both the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, we failed to live up to our potential; a team trying to transition from the old to the new, without the appropriate measures taken.
The purchases of both Fernando Torres, David Luiz and subsequently Romelu Lukaku and Courtois et al were supposed to be part and parcel of the “transition”. But in truth, we haven’t been transitioning until this season, and Roberto Di Matteo wasn’t the one for the transition. He hadn’t installed any mentality in the squad, it was all gung-ho attack, with shallow defences, the pre-season which a lot of fans thought was meaningless, actually foreshadowed a lot of the 2012-13 season, in which we conceded a lot of goals, and when we failed to score as many as we could, we slumped. And then, in came Rafa, and with him a successful transition.
Rafael Benitez came into Stamford Bridge in the middle of November and was tasked with overseeing the pre-emptive stages of the transition which would effectively leave Chelsea primed for the next manager to come in and challenge capably, as expected. And so Rafa came in, to an alien squad who he didn’t understand as best as any other manager, to oversee a transition, with the aim of securing a top four finish at minimum.
The first thing he did which was a necessity in the long run was to integrate a proper system, one which benefited the defence as much as it benefited the attack and he has done this. There was an inherent weakness in our team from the flanks and Rafa saw this and corrected it, two back to back 0-0 draws were good news for the future. Once we could focus on defence more, the Blues were more solid and stopped conceding terrible goals, like the two against United, and then the two against Shaktar at the Bridge.
The squad have also vastly improved under Rafa. Bertrand, Azpi, Mata, Hazard, Moses, Luiz, Mikel, Ramires and even Torres are all much improved. They have come on leaps and bounds under Rafa and again, the team has benefited much more in regards to this. However, there has been a lot of dismay at the fact that we haven’t won a single trophy this season, and are even further away from the Premier League summit since he came, but in all honesty, it’s difficult to expect a side with an aging backbone, with a lot of new blood to come in and challenge for the title, especially in a “transition” season.
Regardless of this transition, Chelsea are still in third spot, with a game in hand against on one of the challengers for the top four, incidentally against Spurs. If we win that game against our London rivals, we can still afford to lose two games in the league and still qualify for the Champions League, so we are still somewhat comfortable. And again, despite this transition, we have still made it to three semi-finals, a lot more than teams like Arsenal, Tottenham, United and City this season, and a lot of it has been masterminded by Rafa. Some of his team selections and substitutions have been extremely baffling, but a lot of selections have come down to players being extremely fatigued, lacking in form or just shoddy performances - Mikel at Wembley springs to mind.
Taking all of this into account, it hasn’t been such a bad job that Rafa has done at Chelsea. The squad has been left in near perfect condition for next season to challenge for the title and knock the poorest title winners I’ve ever seen off their perch, with only two or three signings as Rafa put it. This transition season could’ve seen us performing much worse, especially with the depleted squad that we have, as well the injuries.
To be in third spot, three points behind our total of 64 points at the end of last season, which left us in sixth place, with six games left is a marked improvement in anyone’s book. And despite a lot of fans trying their utmost hardest to slate him, ridicule him, curse him and refuse to hold him responsible for this improvement, the facts are still there, and we are much better off than I believe we would’ve been under Roberto Di Matteo.