The selection dilemmas facing Rafael Benitez at Real Madrid

Upon his arrival at the Bernabeu, Rafael Benitez has been saying all the right things. But actions speak louder than words and the 55-year-old faces the unenviable task of pleasing all of his stars.

Many questions remain over Real’s prospective line up this season and only time will tell if Benitez can find the right balance in his side to be a success.


The biggest question is where Ballon D’or winner Cristiano Ronaldo will operate. Gone are the days when the 30-year-old’s prize assets were his tricks and his ability to dribble past full backs.

Ronaldo has evolved into a serial goalscorer, notching an incredible 61 goals in all competitions last season. It makes sense, therefore, that Benitez makes the Portugal international the focal point of his attack, something that Spanish publication AS eluded to this summer.

The understanding is that Benitez’ system requires his wingers to track back, which would undoubtedly weaken as well as disgruntle Ronaldo. But the former Manchester United star is rumoured to be unhappy about his potential new role, citing his success on the left as reason enough not to change his game.

He may feel goalscoring opportunites will be more reacurring inverting from out wide and not having to act as a reference point for his teammates, but his pace, positioning and finishing should, in theory, allow him to succeed down the middle.

The prospect of Ronaldo playing up front isn’t an all that dramatic change. Essentially, Ronaldo plays centrally already with Benzema dropping off slightly to allow space.

The perception though, is that Benitez may drop Benzema to allow Ronaldo to be a fixture in the centre of attack but during recent pre-season friendlies, particularly against Manchester City, Benzema began centrally and while Ronaldo started in his customary role on the left of the attack, the pair rotated throughout. And it seems the most likely solution.

However, if Benzema becomes disillusioned at having to do Ronaldo’s dirty work, Arsene Wenger will be waiting in the wings to entice him to Arsenal.

Amidst Madrid’s trophyless campaign last season, Ronaldo and Benzema remained relatively consistent, Gareth Bale meanwhile, struggled. The Welshman was impressive in his debut year for Los Blancos as Ancelotti’s men won the Champions League crown.

But last season represented a considerable decline in the 26-year-old’s club form. Bale played once again on the right side of the midfield, but suddenly looked uncomfortable. Having to track back to support full back Dani Carvajal, his attacking prowess suffered and criticism became rife.

Booed by home support, Bale suffered and his future was thrown into doubt. Despite links to the Premier League’s elite clubs, the former Spurs man is set to stay and a new role as the sides central playmaker under Benitez has been mooted, after Bale reportedly asked his agent to convey his desire to not play out wide.

With Bale set to operate behind the striker, the question of where James Rodriguez will play becomes relevant. For much of last season, the Colombian playmaker played in the number ten role behind Benzema.


The most likely outcome appears to be a straight swap with Bale. When fit, James was one of Madrid’s most impressive performers in his first season in the capital.

The 24-year-old is unlikely to be pleased with his switch to the right in the knowledge that Benitez tends to expect a defensive shift from his wide men, but playing out wide is something that he’s used to having operated there during his formative years as a professional.

His work-rate should suffice to his new found defensive duties but the expectation will be that Madrid will benefit less from the former Porto mans attacking talents as a result.

So far, everything just about makes sense, but given that all the attacking positions appear occupied, where does that leave Toni Kroos. Last season, the World cup winner’s influence was more understated than during his time with Bayern and for the national team.

His deployment in place of the recently departed Xabi Alonso in front of the defence seemed logical at first, given Kroos’ passing abilities. However, his defensive qualities left much to be desired and were far less than those of his predecessor.

The effect of his numerous responsibility’s (protecting the defense, acting as deep lying playmaker. etc) meant Kroos struggled to completely adapt to his new role.

Benitez has stated recently that he plans to play the German further forward to avail of his attacking abilities, but such a change would mean either dropping Luka Modric in place of a defensive midfielder to allow Kroos to flourish, or playing them both in a double pivot.

But given Benitez’ preference for a counter attacking style, this would mean that both would have to sit deep and generally remain there, particularly seen as Madrid’s wingers and fullbacks will need all the protection they can get.

The attacking selection dilemmas are likely to dominate the discussions of Madrid fans along with the Spanish media. But there are plenty of decisions to be made at the back as well.

The arrival of €31.5 million right back Danilo from Porto presents a good level of competition with Dani Carvajal and it remains to be seen who will be Benitez’ first choice next season.


Despite playing at left back, Marcelo remains one of Madrid’s most potent attacking threats with the Brazilian afforded relative freedom to reek havoc on the opposition. But the question is whether the more defensive minded Benitez will give him as much license to attack.

If indeed the likes of Marcelo and Danilo/Carvajal are allowed to roam forward, the selection choices at centre back become more important. Pushing the fullbacks up mean the risk of counter attacks is greater and even if a defensive midfielder is signed, it remains wise to play Raphael Verane over Pepe.

The 22-year-old not only reads the game excelently well for his age but his rapid pace means opposition’s counter threat is slightly tamed whenever the French international plays.

Alongside Verane is likely to be Sergio Ramos despite a summer of transfer speculation, probably used as a negotiation tool in aid of a new and improved contract at Real.

In goal, the departure of club legend Iker Casillas initially appeared to be in anticipation of David De Gea’s arrival.

However, Madrid have handed Costa Rican Keylor Navas the number one jersey and brought in Kiko Casilla to provide back up. De Gea still appears odds on to depart United, whether it be this summer or next.

It seems likely that Rafael Benitez will find it impossible to satisfy all of his players but the Spaniard will have to at least try if he is to retain his place in the Bernabeu hot seat beyond this season.

The Author

Patrick Mills

23 year old Psychology student, Coach and Writer. Link to Tactical Theory and Sports Psychology website below.

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