Tuesday 24 April 2018

Dion Fanning: Real Madrid's star system in direct conflict to Rafa's beliefs

Few managers survive at a club where only the players really matter

Real Madrid manager Rafael Benitez
Real Madrid manager Rafael Benitez

Dion Fanning

Few managers seem to be as dogged by preconceived notions as Rafa Benitez. When he was at Liverpool, every change he made was seen as a fundamentalist adherence to the concept of rotation.

Despite bringing Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Pepe Reina to the club, he was said to be a dunce in the transfer market. When Torres was in his prime and playing and scoring every week, Benitez was criticised for resting him.

Benitez's obsessive personality prevents him from shaking off these labels too easily. Even when he tries, his mind is occupied with other things, and he has an angular personality which is often wrongly described as cold. He is warm but incapable of smalltalk, often incapable of any talk which doesn't involve football.

When Jonjo Shelvey was moving to Liverpool, he went to the Melwood training ground with his family. Benitez spent the time explaining to Shelvey's mother the best way to combat Stoke's long-ball game. Some see this as coldness when it is more accurately described as eccentric, but it is an eccentricity which places certain aspects of the modern coach's repertoire out of reach.

Benitez's reputation as a defensive coach has caused him problems too but after recent times at Real Madrid, it must be the misconception which is most under threat. After the 4-0 home defeat in the Clasico last weekend, Madrid conceded another three during the final 13 minutes of their game against Shakhtar Donetsk to transform a comfortable 4-0 win into an uneasy 4-3.

There have, of course, been moments when the absolute control Benitez wants from his sides have been present. Madrid's opening La Liga game was a scoreless draw at Sporting Gijon, and there was further evidence that Benitez was making Madrid difficult to break down in the 0-0 games against PSG in Paris and at home to Malaga. Here was Rafa doing what Rafa does best, making his sides hard to beat, which has its merits, but maybe not at Madrid where there is no place for the logical and rational way in which he manages.

Today Madrid play at Eibar and, despite only two defeats in the league, Benitez is under unrelenting pressure.

Of course, Madrid are not about being difficult to break down which may be one of the reasons that Benitez seems to be the wrong kind of coach for the club.

They won the European Cup in 2014 which has concealed the fact that they have claimed the title only once in the past seven seasons, a victory for Jose Mourinho before he too became consumed by the battles he decided to fight.

Few can survive there, in fact it is a club designed to sacrifice managers and promote the idea that players are all that matter. And, of course, the president. Benitez has always been seen as a political animal, but even that view might be tested by what he is experiencing at Madrid. This is a club which has put the promotion of the individual first and in Benitez they hired a coach who believes in the team more than anything, well, perhaps not as much as he believes in the idea that he knows what is best for the team.

And what Benitez knows was always going to be tested in Madrid where his belief system collided with the star system, and not just the star system, but the star.

There have been problems with others like Sergio Ramos but there is one individual who must be acknowledged above all others. Cristiano Ronaldo may leave this summer and his relationship with Benitez has been tricky.

Benitez doesn't make it easy for himself. He refused to say Ronaldo was the best player he had ever coached, possibly thinking that pronouncing Ronaldo the best player in the world would be enough.

But Ronaldo already knows that, he needs more. Benitez's career has been built in a different way, in looking for players to respond to his methods, to want to learn and develop.

There have been plenty of players at his clubs - including Chelsea - who enjoyed working with him, who took his obsessiveness for what it was, and didn't expect big dollops of love.

Since he left Inter Milan, Benitez had hoped to get another opportunity at a big club. The treatment he received at Chelsea took him by surprise but he might not have taken that job on those terms if he hadn't been out of work for 23 months following his dismissal in Milan.

Last summer West Ham, who have big ambitions when they move to the Olympic Stadium, were the most likely choice before Madrid got involved. West Ham's co-owner David Sullivan said they were "three hours" away from completing a deal with Benitez before he went to the Bernabéu.

Benitez was never going to turn down that opportunity. He had joined Madrid as a boy when he hoped to make it as a player at the club, and he was part of the coaching staff when he was a young man. The emotional pull might have been strong and West Ham may have been a less attractive option, but a club where he would be seen as a manager of substance rather than Madrid, where many wondered what he had done recently to deserve it, might have been a better choice.

He may have hoped that a season in Madrid would have allowed him to move effortlessly to another big job, but last weekend's defeat will make completing a season a trickier task, despite the backing of Florentino Perez last Monday.

Benitez is the man protecting Perez from the anger of the fans. If Ronaldo does leave, as seems likely, it might be convenient for Madrid if Benitez could be the man who is perceived to have sent him on his way.

Last week Zinedine Zidane, currently managing the club's Castilla reserve team, denied he was going to replace Benitez. Zidane has stated his ambition is to coach the club one day. By then, Madrid could be without their star so they might have to turn to a galáctico, before he, too, disappoints in some unanticipated but wholly predictable way.

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