The Spaniard will want to address Chelsea's defensive shortcomings and help return the £50m forward back to his peak
Rafael Benítez was one of the first coaches to have consistent success with the 4-2-3-1 formation during his Valencia days and is fortunate that he succeeds Roberto Di Matteo, a fellow advocate of the system, rather than Carlo Ancelotti or André Villas-Boas, who generally favoured 4-3-3.
The key difference from Di Matteo's system will be on the flanks and the positioning of the wide players. So far this season Chelsea have been alarmingly prone to overloads in wide positions – they conceded two early goals at home to Manchester United from their left-back zone, a similar goal away at Arsenal and Di Matteo's final league game at West Brom ended in defeat because of two concessions from crosses. In midweek the Juventus wing-back Stephan Lichtsteiner enjoyed acres of space in the first half of Chelsea's 3-0 defeat, and the positional freedom given to Juan Mata and Eden Hazard has clear repercussions defensively.
When the opposition has possession, Benítez will instruct his wide players to form a second bank of four. He traditionally favours cautious, functional players on the flanks – John Arne Riise and Dirk Kuyt were among his most reliable men at Liverpool – which may mean Ramires moves back to the right.
Notwithstanding the demands of Roman Abramovich, Benítez will want to focus on addressing Chelsea's defensive shortcomings before seeking to entertain. His building from the back was particularly obvious at Valencia: his 2001-02 title winners scored just 51 goals in 38 games and were widely regarded as a negative, reactive side. But when Benítez repeated the success two years later, Valencia's goal tally had risen to 71, with their defensive record identical, at 27 goals conceded. The two championships were won with a similar first XI – it was simply a change in mentality and the positioning of the side as a whole. Broadly the same thing happened in his time at Liverpool, with their goals tally gradually improving throughout his six years in charge, with the exception of his final, disappointing 2009-10 campaign.
Benítez places a strong emphasis upon his side playing compact from back to front, preventing the opposition from getting space between the lines. The shift is likely to be obvious in the way Chelsea move higher up the pitch during his time in charge – with deep, cautious defending gradually giving way to increased pressing as he trusts his players more within the system. Whether he'll be given three years to complete the transformation, as at Valencia, is doubtful.
At Liverpool Benítez received most criticism for his strategy of defending zonally at corner-kicks, when the majority of other Premier League sides defended man-for-man. While frequently forced to justify the system at press conferences, and therefore being painted as a rigid ideologue, the Spaniard generally took a pragmatic view. He believed Pepe Reina was good in the air and the zonal system made it easier for his goalkeeper to claim the ball. Later Benítez shifted from having two players defending posts to leaving the goalline bare because of Reina's preference – this allowed Liverpool to clear the six-yard box and play offside from the first header, and also allowed an extra player to stay up the pitch, ready to counterattack from one of Reina's excellent long throws.
At Chelsea the situation is different. Petr Cech's aerial abilities have been in doubt since his fractured skull five years ago and Benítez may not have such confidence in his goalkeeper. Besides, Chelsea have not encountered significant problems defending set pieces this season; Benítez has little time to work with his players before the visit of Manchester City on Sunday and, with set piece defending not an immediate problem area, he may be wise to leave things as they are.
Benítez got the best from Fernando Torres at Liverpool by taking advantage of his movement into the channels and his lightning acceleration in behind the defence – but it remains to be seen whether Chelsea's £50m record signing has the raw pace to reprise that role. When the striker first arrived at Chelsea, they lacked creative players to feed him with incisive passes and the signings of Juan Mata and Oscar have had little impact upon his goalscoring record – the problem is clearly more complex.
Maybe a more cautious side overall will benefit Torres – with Chelsea's wingers likely to be stationed in deeper positions, this may draw opposition full-backs up the pitch and give him more space to work in. Although his performances have been nowhere near his peak at Liverpool, Torres's movement has certainly become more varied, as a result of being unable to depend upon pure speed.
Realistically, Benítez's main impact on Torres will be psychological rather than tactical – Chelsea have already spent two years trying to incorporate him in the team. As the only player to have worked under Benítez previously, maybe Torres will finally feel a key part of the Chelsea side.
Michael Cox is the editor of tactics website zonalmarking.net