“This is a cut-throat business.”
Real Madrid, the very reason football’s become a cut-throat business. Carlo Ancelloti becomes the latest to face the axe of Florentino Perez, paving the way for “a methodical tactician, tireless worker and footballing scholar” – Rafael Benitez.
Rafa Benitez is no stranger to Real Madrid as his association with Real dates back to 1974. Close to 500 games as player and later as manager of Castilla, Benitez parted ways with Real in 1995. The start to his managerial career was anything but spectacular as he wasn’t even allowed to complete a full season at either Valladolid or Osasuna, getting sacked after poor performances. His claim to fame was promotion to La Liga with CD Tenerife, which triggered interest from Valencia CF. It was around this time, Benitez took his wedding vows which surprisingly included the a promise to one day win the Champions League. So let’s peek into the past of the newly appointed Real Madrid manager.
The Valencia Success Story
Benitez took charge of a burgeoning Valencia side that boasted of back-to-back Champions League runners-up medals in 2000 and 2001 before his appointment. It was a tall order for any manager to realize the potential of this Valencia squad, let alone a manager considered a La Liga novice at the time. The galacticos era at Real Madrid had begun with extravagant purchases of Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane to make life difficult than it already was for Valencia and Rafa Benitez. But against all odds, Valencia won La Liga for the first time in 31 years. He added another La Liga and a UEFA Cup to Valencia’s trophy cabinet before leaving for Liverpool in the summer of 2004.
In the Liga winning campaign of 2001-02, Valencia mastered the art of 1-0 wins as they were anything but prolific in front of goal. It’s difficult to recall any other team that managed to win a 38-game season with a paltry return of 51 goals. The paucity of goals was countered by resolute defending and a dogmatic approach to managing the team ‘The Rafa Way’.
Benitez’ Valencia was probably the first team to master the 4-2-3-1. It’s widely known that the formation was being tried extensively as a variant of the 4-4-2 with a striker dropping off and exploiting the hole for space, but Benitez was the first manager to entrust a recognized attacking midfielder in the hole with a lone striker up front. He achieved the perfect synergy in midfield by playing Albelda and Baraja behind the marvellous Pablo Aimar. In a generation where teams around Europe were perplexed by his playing style, Benitez lined his teams up to outnumber the opposition in midfield and enjoyed great success against weaker and stronger teams alike. He was among the first advocates of pressing the ball like mad men and condense spaces for the opposition, making them uneasy in possession.
The Rafa Way
Benitez takes massive amount of pride in his systems. He’s far from the ideal kind of manager any team owner or director would love to engage with on a daily basis. After all, he has a history of altercations with owners at Valencia, Liverpool, Inter Milan and Napoli. But even though he hasn’t managed to win a league title post 2003-04, Perez places full faith in Benitez to do what Carlo couldn’t manage last season. So after 3 disappointing stints with Inter Milan, Chelsea and Napoli, what is it about Benitez that makes him a worthy Real Madrid manager?
You’re wrong if you think this has anything to do with Sir Alex Ferguson. Benitez is a learned football professional. He’s technologically savvy and understands the importance of scientific facts in how the game of football should be played. He has taken football management very seriously since a very early age. At 16, he was playing and managing his youth team at Real Madrid. He’s learned his trade from Vicente del Bosque and studied physical education from Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. He is an incredibly good team player, and never addresses himself as manager in team interviews. His focus is always on the collective and will be seen using “we” a lot more than “I”. So inexperience, lack of stature and lack of humility should really not be valid arguments against the Spaniard’s appointment.
It is evident to the pedantic Rafa brigade that he prides himself in playing The Rafa Way. It could be summarised as follows:
Rotation: Rafa rotates. Real Madrid fans should brace themselves for multiple changes in playing XI as they compete on 3 different fronts. It’s worthy to note that Guardiola made an average of 5 changes in the starting line-up in every league game of his 2008-09 double winning season. Manchester United also managed to win the Champions League and Premier League in 2007-08 without starting the same team in consecutive matches. Rafa gets singled out and often accused for rotating too much, but the truth of it is that teams that rotate do better in the modern game. The 3 constituent characteristics of the rotation policy are:
- Injury prevention: Players that are fielded without a 3 day recovery period are at a 20% incremental risk in injury. The injury risk due to fatigue is most prominent in the modern game and something Rafa takes very seriously.
- Lack of intensity: Players that are fielded 2 or 3 times a week show a lack of intensity in their runs and actions at crucial points in the game, which eventually results in poor performances, increased risk of injury and squad disharmony.
- Encouraging competition: Teams don’t win big trophies, squads do. It’s obvious that some players are fitter than most, and some more important than most. But it’s very important to take the squad along and give youthful exuberance a chance. Benitez has a history of adding value to ordinary players, and it wouldn’t be possible without his rotation policy.
What it means for Madrid
The days of the unchanged starting XI are over. Fans can expect a refreshing introduction of young and hungry players getting a chance. Everything with Rafa Benitez has a wrong side, so a little disgruntlement from senior players could be expected, given he isn’t the most decorated Madrid manager in recent times.
It could be argued that Rafa’s Liverpool would have done a lot better if he had a better squad and more cooperation from the owners to secure his targets. But to win a Champions League, FA Cup, FA Community Shield and UEFA Super Cup with a below par squad is commendable to say the least.
Perez’ obsession with the Champions League seems to have quenched with the La Decima, but he is expected to drill into Benitez, the importance of winning La Liga as they’ve failed to win it in 6 of the previous 7 seasons. Maintaining squad fitness will be the key to a winning campaign and with Paco de Miguel by his side, the rotation policy is here to stay.
Zonal Marking: The best example of a Rafa side displaying Zonal Marking is Liverpool. Liverpool found themselves in the top 4 teams to concede the least amount of goals from set pieces in 5 of his 6 seasons at the club. 2 of those 5 seasons, Liverpool conceded the least amount of goals from Set Pieces in the league, thanks to Zonal Marking among other things. Although, it could be argued that goals conceded from set pieces depend on a lot of factors including quality, skill, weight, height and spin of the ball, anticipation and determination. But one or two goals could amount to 3 or even 4 places on final league table. Benitez leaves no stone unturned, in that respect.
- Squad values and finances: Benitez is obsessed with numbers. It was pretty evident in his ‘Fachts’ tirade how serious his research is. At Real, he will be equipped with one of the most extravagant transfer budgets in world football, but it won’t stop him from signing only those players to which he believes he could add value to. At a gathering in Merseyside in 2011, less than a year after he was sacked, he pointed out to fans and journalists that he inherited a squad from Houllier approximately worth £120m and left the squad valued at £240m.
What it means for Madrid
Benitez left Valencia due to disagreements over transfers which led to him saying
“I was hoping for a sofa and they bought me a lamp,”
His relationship with the American owners at Liverpool was far from amiable. Stints at Inter and Chelsea just weren’t long enough to form an opinion, while he did leave on a sour note with de Laurentiis at Naples.
Rafa will not assume full autonomy over transfers; but one thing he’ll never have a shortage of, is funding transfers of his choice. It’s documented that he scouted the likes of Juan Mata, Dani Alves, Eden Hazard, Stevan Jovetic, Santi Cazorla and Luis Suarez before they were even hot prospects at their respective clubs. He couldn’t sign any of the above players, but if he has the support of the board at Madrid, the fans will not be left disappointed.
Life starts now…
There are two kinds of fans: the first that demand stature in a manager, and the second that demand tactical and strategic acumen. Benitez passes with flying colours for the second kind as he’s proven by winning tactical battles with many top managers across Europe. And he should ideally surprise the first kind when he leads the team out for the first time.
Simply put, Rafael Benitez has worked exceptionally hard to get this job and deserves to showcase his methods at the grandest stage of them all. He isn’t simply a manager, but a project. The methods of his management style and the execution of his ideals may be a stumbling block for a Real Madrid side low on morale, but if they stick long enough, there’s no reason to believe he’ll leave without adding value, great memories and a barrage of winners’ medals.
With two UEFA Cups, two La Liga, and a Champions League medal on his CV, he will bring a confident, tested and proven management style destined for success in both Europe and domestically.