In the modern game, rarely has one man divided opinion quite like Rafael Benitez. On one hand, a serial winner, a silver-coated career cementing his place among the managerial elite. On the other, a glorified tinkerman, his CV augmented by fortune and circumstance, “just a fat Spanish waiter”.
Naturally, his unveiling as Florentino Perez’s latest trophy-hunting plaything was met with prevalent dispute. The appointment, after all, carried a sense of predictability. Formerly a player and coach of Real’s renowned Castilla, an assistant to Vicente Del Bosque in 1994, Benitez is something of a prodigal son. Departing an ambitious apprentice, returning a prosperous doyen.
However, the doubtful horde point to a paucity of alternatives, with Manual Pellegrini, Jose Mourinho and now Carlo Ancelotti once bitten, twice terrified. Drinking from the poison chalice, after all, leaves a rather sour taste.
Yet, Benitez’s much-publicised ‘limitations’, from a shapeshifting philosophy to renowned rotation, could prove his ace in the pack. Potential success, it seems, is masquerading as probably failure.
Benitez, in truth, is no swashbuckling devotee nor a dogmatic pragmatist. He is less an inventor, more an enabler, altering a strategy to achieve success in the most effective way possible. For him, a spade is a spade whereas Pep Guardiola, for example, would test its ability to plough as well as dig. However, while Benitez’s homogeneity is a painted as a weakness, cutting him adrift from his more esteemed peers, it could fit perfectly at a club which trades in triumph, success its USP.
The President is quite clear, as I am. Being first is the only thing that matters. We have to win everything.
Though this assiduous approach may stir memories of Mourinho, one La Liga title in seven years is simply unacceptable. The 100 goal hauls, the recurrent thrashings of Granada and Vallecano pale into insignificance next to a dust-ridden trophy cabinet.
Benitez may be results-driven, neurotically infatuated by stats and analysis, but Perez would surely swap the thrilling losses for cagey draws, the 8-2s and 7-3s for the odd 2-0 cruise. After all, Real are a different beast to Barcelona, dictated to the point of undermining by an all-conquering philosophy. Galactico football is desired, but victory is non-negotiable. Benitez’s calculated mind-set, therefore, is more than a match for football’s toughest brief.
Departing to sound of support, rather than catcalls and handkerchiefs, Ancelotti remains the rarest of beasts with a La Decima-delivering debut scribing his chapter into Real’s boundless saga. However, in the eyes of the pragmatists, Ancelotti’s downfall was undoubtedly hastened by a galling disregard for those behind the curtain, cast into shadow by the all-star cast.
In February, the Italian’s oft-quoted claim that “if Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale are fit, they will always play” became a rod for his own back as Real once again ceded domestic dominance to their Catalan superiors.
His over-used 11 appeared lethargic, exhausted. That semi-final defeat to Juventus, in particular, highlighted Ancelotti’s incessant over-reliance of the chosen few. In the second leg, only Javier Hernandez rose from the dugout, replacing a Benzema frantically rushed back from a hamstring strain. A decision that restricted his movement, his influence, and Real’s attacking endeavour. Jesé Rodriguez, meanwhile, was given only four minutes in Turin, and remained benched at the Bernabeu.
Furthermore, Ancelotti’s callous segregation of World Cup winner Sami Khedira, plus his vexing mistrust of Keylor Navas, Lucas Silva and Javier Hernandez, until injury forced his hand, only widened a chasm between the teacher’s doting pets and the ill-treated outsiders.
Even Asier Illarramendi, the hyperbolic replacement for Xabi Alonso, was cast into the background, the failed Sergio Ramos experiment epitomising Ancelotti’s baffling obstinacy. While Ronaldo and Ramos mourned the Italian’s short-lived sojourn in 140 heartfelt characters, corks surely popped in the dressing room’s darker regions.
Benitez, however, could breathe fresh life into a team struggling for air under Ancelotti’s stifling rigidity. He has, after all, forged a reputation for valuing the collective over the individual.
The plan is to enjoy having a great team. I don’t focus on individuals.
Rotation; Benitez’s marmite trademark. Lambasted in Liverpool, condemned in Naples, his emblematic preference for adaptability becomes a viable target when results stutter, a stick with which to batter a reputation beyond recognition. The tinkerman tag, after all, is a difficult one to shake. Rafa’s rotation, however, could be far better received by even the most toffee-nosed Bernabau faithful.
Last season, only three players – Raul Albiol, Jose Callejon and Gonzalo Higuaín, started more than 30 times in Serie A for Benitez’s Napoli. In total, only seven made 25 or more. By stark contrast, Ancelotti named 11 players from the start in more than 25 games. The numbers merely further the theory that Benitez can, and will, right Ancelotti’s principal wrong.
Benitez ignores the lure of neon-lit names, prioritising those who fit the system, regardless of age, price or reputation. His early transfer dealings are a far cry from Real’s annual splurge. Cancelling the loan of the dynamic Casemiro from FC Porto, re-signing Espanyol’s Castilla graduate Lucas Vasquez, Benitez clearly compliment Real’s unbridled quality with renewed quantity. Meanwhile, Illarramendi, Silva, Jesé, perhaps even Denis Cheryshev can expect a fresh start under Benitez’s tutelage.
The Spaniard, clearly, is not to be swayed by popular demand, empathised by the high-profile exclusions of John Terry and Higuaín on occasion. There will be no obstinate guarantees a la Ancelotti. How puppet-master Perez reacts to a benched Bale, a dropped Benzema, remains to be seen but Benitez, unlike his predecessor, will not underestimate the quality in reserve.
Perhaps, buoyed by his energy-saving interchanging, his unwavering belief in sharing the load, Real could last the distance rather than falling, exhausted, at the final hurdle.
While Mourinho and Diego Simeone carved triumph from consistency and a tight-knit group, Rafa’s tactical tinkering follows a path well-worn by Guardiola, Louis Van Gaal, Sir Alex Ferguson even. Benitez, after naming a different Liverpool eleven for 99 consecutive games, was commonly chastened, apparently unsure of his ‘best team’.
However, for arguably the first time in his decade-spanning career, Benitez possesses both quantity and quality in equal measure. Thanks in part to Perez’s ink-splashed chequebook, he can rotate record-breaking forwards for home-grown prodigies, world-class midfielders for international stars.
Hardly Duvan Zapata or David N’Gog. At last, the tools match the blueprint. Rotation at Real simply makes sense. A squad filled with illustrious quality, plus an almost guaranteed 60 games per season, and suddenly method shines through the perceived madness.
Benitez is no wide-eyed novice, a Filippo Inzaghi or, Zinedine Zidane. This is not a job too soon – It’s one he has waited patiently for, carefully cultivating a reputation across the continent, leaving a trail of trophies in his wake. One Champions League. Two La Liga titles. A UEFA Cup, an, a Coppa Italia, a UEFA Super Cup, a Community Shield, a Club World Cup, a Supercoppa Italiana.
His success, then, cannot be underestimated. And, though cumulative challenges lie in wait, namely winning the favour of Real’s Ancelotti-adorers, Benitez’s much-maligned preferences could help him acclimatise to the scalding Bernabau hotseat. A must-win mentality, a rotational policy undoubtedly suited to arguably Europe’s finest squad. Benitez, both literally and metaphorically, appears at home in Madrid.