Thoughts on Benitez and Real Madrid

It’s the eve of the Champions League final, and I would have loved to write something about it, and I may just do so. But before that, I want to write about my thoughts on Real Madrid sacking Carlo Ancelotti and replacing him with Rafa Benitez, in a move that has been greeted with almost universal derision and disapproval from the club’s fans. I’ve been wanting to write about this for a week, because it was always pretty obvious that Benitez was the leading candidate for the job.

There is a popular perception that they switch managers more often than any other team in the world, but as Florentino Perez pointed out last week, Benitez is only their 13th manager in the 21st century, which is not so bad when compared to the 10 employed by Barcelona, and 13 by Chelsea (albeit 2 of whom lasted a week, managing 3 games between them). While Perez used the comparison to defend his policies, he will have to try a lot harder to justify some of the sackings overseen by the slew of managers who have left Madrid almost as soon as they arrived. This is because there is rarely any rational explanation for some of the sackings.

Given that Madrid prides itself on its innumerable La Liga titles, and 10 European Cup and Champions League titles, you would imagine that winning trophies is the main priority at the club, and every manager to step through the doors at the Bernebau is given that identical mandate: win this club trophies. That is all well and good. Why, then, was Jupp Heynckes sacked almost immediately after delivering the club’s first Champions League title in 32 years? Why was Vicente del Bosque out of a job in 2003, despite delivering 2 league titles, 2 Champions Leagues, and 3 other titles in 4 seasons? Fabio Capello, too, lost his job in 2007, having delivered a league title. Madrid then saw fit to essentially drive the greatest manager currently in the game, Jose Mourinho, out of the club, despite him delivering their only La Liga success in the last 7 campaigns while up against the greatest club side in the history of the game. And now they have chosen to sack the three-time Champions League winning manager who delivered the coveted La Decima, the tenth Champions League title, for which Madridistas had to wait 12 long years, and 3 other trophies in 2 seasons. And what is worse, Ancelotti was loved unconditionally by players and fans alike, and not even 22 consecutive wins earlier in the season could save him.

Alright, let’s assume for a second that the remit for a Real Madrid manager is not just to win trophies, but to do so playing beautiful, attacking football. After Capello, it is widely believed that Capello was shown the door mainly because of his dismissal of the importance of attractive football, and focus on achieving results using a more defensive system. Well, in response to this, I give you Manuel Pellegrini, who got the best attacking football out of Cristiano Ronaldo the winger, and enjoys the best winning percentage of any manager in the history of the club. His time is too easily forgotten. Jose Mourinho came in after him, and installed a ruthless system of efficient counter-attacking football built on defensive solidity, and helped Ronaldo close the goal-scoring gap on Messi, becoming possibly the greatest goal-scorer in the history of the game. He was forced out of the club partly because he dropped Casillas more frequently than he liked, a decision that has been proven correct. Fans would repeatedly call for his head, disapproving of his abrasive and confrontational style, but have been known to say the club needed more of exactly the same during Ancelotti’s second season. The directors and fans seem to have ridiculously short memories, and no level of success, measured either on trophies or in terms of style of football, seems to be enough for Real Madrid.

This makes it slightly difficult for me to understand why any manager who attaches even the tiniest shred of importance to job stability and the pursuit of long-term goals would even consider working for Florentino Perez. Take Carlos Queiroz, for instance. He was sensational as assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, but was lured away to the Bernebau, where he lasted all of ten short months before returning to Manchester and winning 2 more Premier League titles and 1 Champions League, and helping turn a young Cristiano Ronaldo into one of the greatest players of all time. Today, not too many people even remember he ever managed Madrid. The same can be said of a few others who have been fleeting passengers in the merry-go-round that is the managerial position at Madrid. For me, the Real Madrid job is simply un-coachable. For all its ambitions of being the most beautiful club in the world, the less glamorous of the club’s operations rears its ugly head every so often.

But clearly, Rafa Benitez calls Real Madrid home. Whether his return after 20 years in Spain, England and Italy will be successful, no one knows. As we have seen, no one even knows what “success” means in the Madrid President’s office. Given his excellent managerial record, and proven experience in La Liga with Valencia, despite having a vastly inferior squad and funds that were negligible in comparison, I am very shocked that the rumors of his impending appointment were greeted with such disgust and dissatisfaction. How only 7% of Madrid fans approved of him in a recent poll conducted by Marca simply defies logic.

A large part of the reason, I suspect, Madrid fans haven’t taken kindly to the idea of Benitez in the dugout is that he represents everything that their Galacticos-fueled imaginations have been taught to despise, and scoff at. He deprived the original Galacicos of two league titles, and he has made a career out of solid organization, painstaking prudence in possession and distribution drilled into his players, and defensive solidity, which are the last things associated with the Real Madrid sides we have seen over the last decade. He is the very anti-thesis of the Hollywood club of European football, and has showed Madrid time and again that the club’s football culture is wrong. Take his success at Valencia, despite competing with a Madrid team comprising the likes of Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo, Raul, Roberto Carlos and Beckahm, and a Barcelona side with Ronaldinho. Even if you ignore the genius of his tactical adjustments in the remarkable final of the 2004-5 Champions League against Milan, he  master-minded a 5-0 aggregate Champions League win with a team that involved the likes of Yossi Benayoun, and Dossena, Ngog and Babel on the bench. He plays football with his head, and not his heart, and that is the last thing Madrid fans seem to want, but it may be what they need the most.

As astute a tactician as you will see, Benitez is a rigorous trainer, as meticulous in his preparations as he flexible on the touchline. And I think Madrid players and fans will be surprised at what Benitez has to offer. I’ve taken a brief look at some of the positives and negatives of this appointment, and thought I’d run through them here.

1) Addressing Madrid’s defense: Conceding 38 goals in 38 league games–just 10 less than Liverpool, who have Skrtel, Sakho, Lovren and Toure to choose from against 19 teams of which at least 6 can be expected to beat Liverpool twice a season–is simply not acceptable. Obviously, Madrid fans will point to the team scoring 118 last season and deem any focus on the defensive side of the game pointless, but the season shows that Madrid cannot expect to rely on the likes of Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema to outscore every opponent. Stretched over 38 games, even the greatest attacking forces are fallible, and at least a few of Madrid’s 6 losses in the league could have been averted had they focused on the defensive side of the game. Scoring 6 goals a game as often as Madrid do is all well and good, but conceding 4 to Sociedad, 2 to Deportivo, 2 to Celta, and 3 to Getafe is simply not acceptable. Take the Champions League, where Madrid were on the verge of being knocked out by Schalke at HOME, having thrown caution to the wind in search of goals. This is where I believe Mourinho is the best manager in the world, by a large distance. His team of Hazard, Oscar, Fabregas and Costa can easily score 3 goals a game if they put their minds to it, but the true value of a manager like Mourinho is that he can teach the team to win games 1-0 instead of 3-2. Why else has he been so successful throughout his career? He understands how to pace his team throughout a season, and I feel this is what Madrid have lacked. They won 12 of 13 league games from September to December last season, but then faltered terribly to destroy all their good work. In contrast, look at the team who pipped them to the La Liga title. At the start of the season, there were problems in the Barcelona camp, but the team was still grinding out results, keeping clean sheets, nicking wins they probably didn’t deserve. And then, in the second half of the season, they flew away with the title, capitalizing on the brilliance of Messi, Neymar and Suarez, and–crucially–building on the strong foundation of a solid defense.

I think Benitez can bring attention to the defensive side of the game at Madrid, although I hesitate to call him a defensive manager. After all, Napoli did concede 54 goals in Serie A last season. But his focus on organization will help, and I believe Benitez will do well when backed financially.

2) The infamous rotation policy: One of the biggest questions that has been asked of Benitez over the last few weeks has pointed at his faith in regularly rotating his team, and how he can possibly stick to this approach in a team with “non-negotiables” such as Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Kroos and Modric. While I admit it would be slightly ridiculous to see Ronaldo dropped to the bench (it has recently been revealed that Ronaldo will play as the out-and-out number 9, with Benzema the most likely casualty) I am convinced that Madrid will stand to benefit immensely from this strategy. People say Ronaldo determines the fate of a Madrid match, and while it is true his goals play a large part in securing results, I feel no player’s absence was felt more strongly than that of Modric. When the engine in the middle of the park was left on the sidelines, Madrid simply had no one to look to (a case of poor squad management, maybe?); Illarramendi is not capable, Khedira was curiously sidelined, and Isco and James Rodriguez are not the right kind of players for the position. We all remember what happened when Ancelotti was forced into trying Sergio Ramos in midfield. I think a rotation policy would work wonders here, because crucial players like Kroos, Modric and Ronaldo would be allowed to retain freshness for longer periods of the season, and Madrid would have enough in the bag to sustain a title challenge beyond February or March. Giving players like Lucas Silva and Casemiro game time certainly wouldn’t hurt their long-term development (although one must question whether that is very high on Madrid’s agenda, especially when the next big talent can always be bought for 40 million euros).

3) A pretty safe appointment: Benitez is, for slightly inexplicable reasons, not nearly as fashionable a name as Mourinho or Ancelotti, which makes it really easy for the Madrid board to release him at the faintest sign of trouble on the horizon. I don’t expect Madrid fans to take to him immediately, so their dissatisfaction shall always loom in the background, threatening to result in action from the board the moment things go south.

4) Say what you want about Benitez misjudging the limits of  John Terry’s fitness during his time at Chelsea, but the Spaniard is great at analyzing his own squads’ weaknesses and identifying areas that need further investment. He left Valencia in 2004 after falling out with the club’s director of football over control of transfers, and claimed he did not get the funding to buy the players he wanted in order to addresses weaknesses in the squad. Sure enough, Valencia finished 7th, 3rd, 4th, and 10th in the four seasons following his departure. Later in his career, he replaced Mourinho at Inter Milan, and almost immediately demanded a revamp of the squad, perhaps to replace its ageing core and egotistical players, but was denied. Inter finished 6th (26 points behind the league winners), 9th (33), 5th (42), and 8th (32) in the 4 years following his departure. I think this is evidence that Benitez can be trusted to identify the best path forward for Real Madrid, who will need to buy the right players, and not the most fashionable ones, if they are to create a squad of soldiers, and not stars.

5) The biggest problem I see for Benitez is, coincidentally, the squad that is undoubtedly the best he has ever worked with. As admirable as he is from a tactical perspective, Benitez has proven to not exactly be everyone’s cup of tea, given his highly calculating and impersonal approach to man-management. His highly-demanding methods are sometimes difficult to communicate to players, and there is a strong chance that Madrid’s players, the so-called Galacticos, will openly rebel against him from the very first training session. He might suffer the same problem he did at Inter Milan after Mourinho left, and at Chelsea after di Matteo left, in that he inherited squads that were loyal to his predecessors, and blatantly disrespected him. We have seen highly influential members of their respective dressing rooms such as Materazzi and Terry publicly insult Benitez, making unfavourable comparisons with Mourinho. We’ve seen the same thing at Manchester United following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, with David Moyes never standing a chance against players who, for all intents and purposes, were “Ferguson players”, and not “Manchester United players”. How many times did we see van Persie express disenchantment, Kagawa disinterest and Ferdinand disillusionment? Even with Madrid itself, we have seen managers incur the wrath of Iker Casillas the moment they drop him, and with the majority of the squad taking to social media to express their disappointment at Ancelotti’s departure, I fear winning over the squad may be too big a task for Benitez. Sure, he is tactically versatile and adaptable, but changing the core principles of his man management strategy may be too tall an order for the Spaniard. After all, I highly doubt Benitez will ever be heard screaming the words “Hold on! Hold on! Listen to the manager!” like Louis van Gaal did at Manchester United’s end of season awards ceremony.

As I mentioned above, Benitez’s low approval ratings make him a very easy scapegoat. Say Madrid sign De Gea, and Benitez makes him first-choice. If Casillas complains, Benitez loses his job. If Benitez gives in to pressure and plays Casillas, who has become highly susceptible to errors, and Madrid lose points, Benitez loses his job. If Benitez rests Ronaldo against 20th-placed opposition because Madrid have the Clasico next week, and Madrid lose that game, Benitez gets sacked. For me, the Madrid job is a lose-lose-lose situation for Benitez, but it seems to be what he wants, and I can understand why he believes in himself. I wish him all the best, and I hope his time at his dream club is fruitful.

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