One of the great challenges in managing Real Madrid under club president Florentino Pérez is accommodating his expensively assembled galácticos in what is often an unbalanced squad. The difficulty of the task, of course, is tempered by the fact that as a manager you’ll get to work with some of the very finest talents in the game at the biggest club in the world. It’s an irresistible job with a high rate of attrition.
No matter how good you are, you’re unlikely to be there for the long run. Even success is no guarantee. Pellegrini finished with a record points total, but second to Barca, and was quickly shown the door. The ‘Special One’ himself managed to win La Liga – the only league title in the six years of the president’s most recent tenure – but failure to land the Champions League and a series of personality clashes saw to it that his services would not be retained. Carlo Ancelotti delivered La Decima, but was gone after finishing in Barca’s considerable shadow last season.
Next up is Rafael Benítez. A clever manager, and one more than familiar with the politics of football clubs, their boardrooms and owners; he’ll know he’s already on the clock. And perhaps that explains why he has wasted no time in trying to change things and find a solution to the great Pérez galácticos conundrum.
Benítez is better known for an organisational rigour and team ethic. But without the kinds of defensive midfield talent he favours to anchor his team, and a club president not especially open to that kind of recruitment, Benítez has been focusing on the clubs attacking assets and how to get the most from them in his efforts to please Pérez.
The Spaniard’s approach, if pre-season and the opening exchanges in the league are taken as evidence, has been to allow his front men to play with few positional restrictions. To float and drift and cause havoc. The result, however, before Saturday night’s 5-0 hammering of Real Betis had been chaotic and misshapen.
Saturday night saw Los Merengues cut loose, however, with the returning Karem Benzema as catalyst. Often overlooked amongst Real Madrid’s big stars, the Frenchman made sense of Benítez’s approach. The centre forward’s selfless running and ability to make space and bring others into the game was central to a much improved attacking display. Benzema acted as a pivot around which Benítez’s other attacking players could revolve.
Bale certainly benefitted from Benzema’s return and showed on the night how there is some logic in Benítez’s much criticised decision to play the Welshman in a more central position this season.
Chris Coleman has been using him to great effect behind a front man with Wales. But because the Welsh tend not to be forcing games, Bale is afforded more time and space than he will receive playing in that position in Spain. For all his ability, critics argue that playing on the half turn in very tight spaces – with the expectation that he becomes the side’s creative hub – is beyond Bale. It’s an argument that holds water if you see believe that Benítez sees Bale as a traditional ‘number 10’.
But Saturday night showed the method in the Benítez madness. With Ronaldo tending to drift in from the left to join Benzema, his movement created space left of centre that Bale could profit from. And as Bale drifted left, James Rodríguez, playing notionally on the right of the attack in Benítez’s trademark 4-2-3-1 formation, moved inside and played in the hole behind Benzema to great effect.
Bale, Benzema and Rodríguez dovetailed very nicely all evening – with the Welshman looking a lot more like a free running second striker or attacking midfielder than a traditional 10. In fact, there were echoes of Steven Gerrard’s more attacking roles under Benítez at Liverpool. Getting more performances like that from Pérez most extravagant, expensive and criticised signing certainly won’t do the new manager any harm. It might even buy him a few more months.