Archive for the ‘Rafa Benitez’ Category

Swansea City v SSC Napoli - UEFA Europa League Second Round First Leg

Last Thursday, Napoli travelled to Swansea City and played out a 0-0 draw in the Europa League.

It is difficult to judge a first leg goalless draw in European competition: traditionally a draw is a good result for the away side, but a 0-0 leaves them exposed to a score draw in the return match, which would result in their elimination.

As such, the reaction to the result varied significantly across the British press. The Sky Sports website, for example, led with “Swansea earned a hugely creditable 0-0 home draw with Napoli”. The Guardian, in stark contrast, headlined their match report “Rafael Benítez masterminds first-leg stalemate.” One suggests Swansea deserve credit, the other insists Napoli and Benitez achieved something particularly impressive. The truth is somewhere in between.

The latter headline is particularly interesting – in any normal sense of the word, Benitez’s wasn’t really ‘masterminding’ anything. Think about the situation: the Serie A runners-up, packed with an array of multimillion pound players and a European specialist as coach, travelling to meet an off-form side who qualified for this competition by beating Bradford City, with a complete unknown as coach. Napoli are a powerhouse of European football, Swansea still an underdog.

Besides, if you saw the match, Napoli were extraordinarily lucky to collect a draw. They were under significant pressure for long spells, recorded one shot on target, and were reliant upon not one, but two, excellent goalkeeping displays to keep them in the tie, with Pepe Reina replacing Rafael at half-time. Napoli unquestionably arrived in Wales with a reactive, counter-attacking mindset, and Swansea’s possession dominance was unsurprising – but Napoli conceded far too many chances and barely created anything themselves.

Yet a fortunate 0-0 draw against a significantly weaker side was termed a masterclass. Now, this isn’t a criticism of the headline itself (not least as I’m a contributor to that particular newspaper) because headline writing is an extraordinarily difficult task, as much about SEO as providing an accurate summary or witty pun. However, it sums up how Benitez’s managerial style has grown into something of a caricature – any acceptable result, especially in Europe, is attributed to his genius as a strategist.

There is, very basically, a linear scale ranging from ‘tactical genius’ at one end, to ‘man manager and motivator’ at the other, which summarizes how various managers are depicted. Some managers are both. Others are neither. But ask 10 football fans to place the likes of Benitez, Harry Redknapp, Andre Villas-Boas, Brian Clough and Martin O’Neill on the scale, and you’d get very similar answers.

Benitez would probably be at the wrong end, however, because it sometimes it feels like everyone has completely forgotten the nature of his greatest achievements. His European Cup with Liverpool in 2005, for example, was clinched in extraordinary circumstances – an unthinkable comeback against a vastly superior Milan side (both on paper, and on that evening in Istanbul). English teams never win the European Cup in style, they triumph in a manner that feels like a self-parody of the ‘grit and determination’ they’re supposedly meant to embody.

Benitez’s FA Cup triumph a year later was similarly astonishing. With Liverpool 3-2 down going into injury time, having stuttered against an average, midtable West Ham side featuring the likes of Carl Fletcher and (look away, Liverpool fans) Paul Konchesky, they kept going and going and going, until Steven Gerrard produced one of the all-time FA Cup final goals. For the second time under Benitez, Liverpool won a major trophy on penalties, a test of nerve and composure.

Benitez’s Europa League triumph with Chelsea last season was similarly dramatic, with defeated Benfica manager Jorge Jesus almost speechless at the injustice of the result. “For most of the 90 minutes Benfica were better – better organized, technically and tactically superior to a very strong Chelsea side,” he complained. However, Chelsea had belief and faith in themselves (something lacking at Benfica after they’d blown the league title against Porto a few days before, and because of their infamously poor record in European finals). Branislav Ivanovic headed the winner in stoppage time.

It’s better to be lucky than good, as someone once remarked. However, these victories weren’t purely lucky: they’ve happened too frequently to subscribe Benitez’s career to fortune. The victories had a similar quality – they showed fighting spirit, never-say-die attitude and incredible self-belief. This is what Benitez instils in his sides.

If Benitez was as tactically skilled as the caricature suggests, he wouldn’t have needed to completely restructure his side in 2005. Playing without a holding midfielder against Milan—the most creative side in Europe—was bizarre, although his Plan B was unquestionably brilliant. Similarly, it wasn’t strategic brilliance to rely upon Steven Gerrard’s astonishing long-range effort a year later against West Ham, and his tactical approach against Benfica last season was only a minor part of Chelsea’s triumph.

On the evidence of the last ten years, the major quality Benitez brings to his club, not dissimilar to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, is self-confidence, even when the chips are down. He makes his squad disciplined, focused and together.

This means, incidentally, that the Spaniard is perfectly suited to Napoli – who were often tactically brilliant under his predecessor Walter Mazzarri, but desperately lacked a winning mentality.  They had a dressing room celebration, for example, when they clinched second place last year, despite the fact they were vaguely in a two-horse race with Juventus for the title, rather than a plucky outsider gunning for European Cup qualification. Some mocked Arsenal when they partied after clinching fourth place, but having spent the majority of the campaign in lower positions fighting their way up through the league, it was a more understandable reaction. Napoli were never going to finish lower than second, but acted like heroes when it happened anyway. That has to change, and under Benitez, it gradually will.

In football, the consensus about an individual doesn’t changes once an individual is typecast, because it’s simply easier to play along. Take Toronto’s signing of Jermain Defoe, whose departure from English football prompted glowing appraisals of his role as a natural-born finisher. The common wisdom is that Defoe is superb in front of goal, but never developed his all-round game.

Yet often, the complete opposite has been true – Defoe’s all-round game has improved, but his finishing has been poor. Under Harry Redknapp, Defoe unselfishly dropped off Peter Crouch and made up the numbers in midfield to shift Spurs from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1, precisely the sort of thing a ‘pure finisher’ doesn’t do. In a recent game against Sunderland, Defoe recorded a 97% pass completion rate and created two chances – yet failed to test the goalkeeper from any of his six attempts.

Is this a natural born finisher? Not really. Besides, his finishing is erratic: he often blasts the ball as hard as possible, rather than taking chances coolly. Only once has he scored more than 13 goals in a league campaign. Yet he’s still categorized as a pure finisher, because that’s what he was over a decade ago at West Ham.

It’s similar with Benitez. His tactical ability is less crucial to his managerial style than his skill in managing the mood of the group: an attribute arguably more important, and almost certainly more difficult to teach. Yet he’s still depicted as he chess player, the thinker, the methodologist.

Maybe this a complete façade, and Benitez is deliberately projecting an entirely false image to trick opposition coaches. Perhaps this is the mind game to end all mind games.

Whatever the truth, it’s undeniable that Benitez’s ability to win trophies at various clubs, in various situations, demonstrates that he’s a very fine manager – just in a completely different way than we’ve been led to believe.


By Alex Netherton & Andi Thomas

Rumours that this column is a day late is due to a very, very poor excuse involving a “…broken boiler that means we can’t write just yet, honest, Richard. Yes, I suppose we don’t live in the same flat and that doesn’t really work, but, the phone line is breaking up, it’s *chhrrrrrrrrrrrrrr* *hangs up*” are just that. Really, we wanted to include the struggle of the ages. That is, of course, Manchester United versus Chelsea in the FA Cup. And what a match! Mr Rafael Benitez has made his dash for dignity, and by Jove he has got it. Let’s review just how it came to pass.

1. Couldn’t properly fit into the Chelsea blazer

A lot of us work out. A few of us even work out with some pretty intimidating weights. Boy, I’ve got sore lats as I type this just from the extensive workout I’ve been putting my torso through. Tuesday, it’s arms and back. It’s boring, but it’s part of my life. Benitez is the same. In the years of unemployment, he kept himself in fine physical and mental shape. Mentally? He launched blog. If there’s anything that screams dignity, it’s an out-of-work manager launching a blog to let the world know his views.

It’s just a shame nobody else wants to hear them and that the image of Benitez sitting typing in his pants was more pervasive than anything he actually wrote. Physically, he put on so much mass, he was like a Spanish Rob Mcelhenney. He deliberately came back physically imposing, so much so that a couple of weeks ago Alex Ferguson was too scared to approach him to shake his hand. There’s an exclusive for you, tossed to the audience with all the enthusiasm you have the right to expect. Now, of course, he can fit into the blazer, because he’s lost weight. Sorry, I mean he’s had the jacket altered. When Rafael Benitez is at a club, he even micromanages the seamstress.
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You know those people, right?

The kind that need to reiterate their positive attributes in conversation, whether or not it’s particularly warranted or appropriate in context. In the above interview for example, Rafa Benitez felt it necessary to preface his sensible squad rotation following Chelsea’s Europa League tie midweek with the reminder, “I’m a professional,” which kind of sounds like it makes sense, but doesn’t at all. What does being a professional have to do with giving some of your squad a rest ahead of a Sunday FA Cup tie?

This further compounded the confusion following Spanish manager’s earlier answer to questions over why he skipped shaking Sir Alex Ferguson’s hand—”I have some education.” Most assumed this was some sly reference to Sir Alex Ferguson’s peculiar social graces and attitude toward the former Liverpool gaffer, and perhaps it was. Or maybe it was yet another inappropriate reminder that Rafa is an educated professional.

We get it Rafa, it’s cool. No one questions your professionalism or education. I’m not even going to call either Benitez or Ferguson’s little pantomime handshake show childish. After all, no-one died. The nukes won’t be launched tomorrow. And, historically speaking, sometimes even the threat of mass death doesn’t prevent men from acting like complete assholes. I read late last night that Union army general George B. McClellan once refused to reinforce a perceived rival in general Pope in the second Battle of Bull Run during the American Civil War simply because he though Pope an inferior general and did not want him getting any credit for anything (this was followed by perhaps entirely unnecessary 10,000 Union casualties).

This entire notion of good graces and etiquette in football is entirely out of place anyway. It’s not exactly a coincidence that Sir Alex tends to be nicest to those managers in charge of clubs that pose no threat to United. And this is as it should be—why put your principle rivals at ease? After all, Sir Alex is a professional; he can do what he likes. And so is Rafa, I hear…
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1. Barcelona suffered their third defeat in four games, the past two of coming at the hands of Real Madrid. Goals from Karim Benzema and Lionel Messi were the highlights of a rather dull, watered down first half by El Clásico standards. The second 45 was a different story. A total of 12 cards were handed out by referee Pérez Lasa. Jose Mourinho begrudgingly inserted Cristiano Ronaldo in the 58th minute. An unnecessary corner conceded by Barcelona resulted in the game winning goal, with Sergio Ramos towering over Gerard Piqué and heading the ball past Victor Valdes. A Barcelona penalty shout in extra time was not awarded, though replays indicated  Ramos’ lunge impeded Adriano. Dani Alves (who was awful today), Andrés Iniesta and Valdes went after Lasa as time expired. Barcelona’s keeper received a red card for his boorish exploits.

Let the ‘end of Barcelona’s dominance’ hysteria live another week. Thought Real Madrid are still miles behind the league leaders, Mourinho gets what he wants, inflicting another dent in the Barcelona mystique. Read the rest of this entry »

The Lead

Depending on who you believe (which, by all accounts, really shouldn’t include Guillem Balague), Pep Guardiola seems intent to start managing again next season following his “sabbatical” in New York.

The Guardian reports he loves the Premier League. That said, it’s not clear the former Barcelona coach has done his homework. He said this for example ahead of the FA’s 150th anniversary celebration:

“I’ve always found English football very fascinating, for the environment, the crowd and the supporters,” Guardiola said. “In Italy, Latin people will support you when you are playing and when you lose, they kill you. In England I’m always surprised that people always support everything and that is nice. That’s why, maybe, I hope to have the challenge or the opportunity to train there.

Now while it’s true that, for the most part, English football supporters don’t travel to grounds and hold players hostage. Those days, for better or worse, have been gentrified right out the game.

Instead, the English gentry is more comfortable with chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing,” “Sacked in the morning,” and various banners or, more commonly these days it seems, 8 1/2 x 11 print outs with nasty epithets on them. It’s ironic after all that the same day Roman Abramovich’s hopes and dreams declared for England, his likely Chelsea predecessor told reporters:

“You have a word in English: manager,” said Benítez. “The manager has to manage and consider everything, and afterwards he has to decide. I talk with my staff, the players, and I have all the feedback and information. Then I make a decision. I consider everything before making a decision. I told you about Fernando’s stomach problems last week, and about Ba’s slight problem, and I was not making excuses. I was telling you something you didn’t know, but still people criticise me for the decisions I made despite the fact Demba Ba had a niggle.

Essentially in England—as with everywhere else in the world—fans only support you if you are winning. And even then it might not be enough. Sir Alex Ferguson, the most successful manager in English history, and leader of first place Manchester United, still has to answer as to why Ryan Giggs is still allowed to play football. Pep will get a honeymoon for the ages should he arrive there this August, but as soon as Chelsea pair a couple of Ls—even in games that Chelsea has outshot and out-played its opponents—expect a Daily Mail story on his poncy Euro GQ tactical notebook.
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This is going to sound ridiculous but it isn’t—the truth often takes on an air of the ridiculous, particularly in the hands of a maverick. Rafael Benitez is a parody of football manager, not an actual football manager. This isn’t a metaphor for a manager who does everything in extreme and it’s not a joke; it’s a genuine conclusion. Rafael Benitez doesn’t exist as a person or professional football manager; he exists as a parody of one. Continuing as if this isn’t enough information and in doing so pandering to the lowest common denominator audience once again, I’ll explain.

Nothing Benitez does fits within the usual spectrum and it’s too perfect to be real. It can’t be real. Most managers and, in fact, people in general, are different shades of grey, with the odd, special individual such as me standing out as a strong pink or some such, but Benitez isn’t either of those. He’s arrived at a pure grey which seems to make no logical sense: he’s normal in every aspect, but in each of those individual aspects he’s normal multiplied by a million, which creates something hideous. Ultra Grey Rafa: it sounds like a brand of razor, but as far as we can be aware he has never helped cut anyone’s beard except his own. Do not let him near your hair.

Here we go. Benitez, like many football managers, is unpopular with his club’s fans at the moment. Chelsea fans are booing him at every game and producing witty, post-ironic slogans such as “I’d rather have half a can of Sprite as our manager than Rafa Benitez*” Unlike other managers though, Benitez has not received these jibes for doing a bad job—which, coincidentally, he has done—he’s received them for the act of being himself. The explanation for Chelsea fans’ ongoing protests comes down to this: Chelsea fans do not like Rafa Benitez. Yes, there have been some top-up explanations, such as him having put down their club a few years ago when he was Liverpool manager, but no-one has really shown much commitment to those, they’re just back-ups. Chelsea fans do not like Rafa Benitez because they do not like Rafa Benitez and they do not like Rafa Benitez because they do not like Rafa Benitez, and so on.

So he’s unpopular, which is very normal, but he was unpopular from before he actually got his job, which is a distorted version of normal. And then there’s the way he’s gone about managing Chelsea. Rotation has been the main theme in what’s going to go down as a pretty unfortunate managerial incident. Since coming into the club a couple of months ago, Benitez has seen fit to open up a policy of not always playing his best players, with Oscar, Mata and Hazard the first guys to get to learn the game from a new perspective: the bench. More recently Fernando Torres has been introduced to this policy, which we can imagine he’s not only enjoyed but learnt a lot from. Some have argued that there’s nothing unusual here—every manager does it!—and that would be case, except Benitez seems to have forgotten why he’s entered the revolving door and is now just stuck going around and around in it…

A lot of managers rotate their squads, but Benitez does it for its own sake. “Resting your main players for the big game next week Rafa?” “No, I’ll be resting them for that too.” Benitez has invented not playing your best team as a means to its own ends. I hardly need to add that it’s exactly the kind of thing a parody of one would do.

And then there’s the support he’s received from fans of his former club. Not Inter Milan fans: strangely, they didn’t take to him. No, he’s received support from Liverpool fans, defending him against criticism even as he leads Chelsea towards highly tactical mediocrity instead of them. Managers are occasionally popular at clubs, but only pretend, parody managers are popular at clubs even when they move on to one of that club’s rivals. I’m not buying it.

Benitez is a parody. This is beyond doubt, particularly because of the number of times I’ve repeated the accusation. But that isn’t the end of it. Bringing the game into disrepute is against FA rules and if that isn’t what’s going on here then I suppose the next thing you’ll be telling me is that Ultra Grey razor reference earlier was spurious and ill-thought out. Benitez needs to punished: we can’t have managers who are parodies, they’re a blight on the game. Luis Suarez has already attempted the same on the pitch and look how that’s turned out: commentators are no longer allowed to acknowledge his presence for fear of offending his delicate sensibilities by describing his own appalling actions. Football matches are fracturing right in front of our eyes and the game can’t take much more.

How to stop Benitez then? One way. Allow him to continue exactly as he is. You’re surprised, but here’s the thing: Benitez isn’t sustainable as a parody. He isn’t real, he’s been sent to confuse us and if we just ignore him he’ll simply disappear. No one honestly thinks that constant rotation makes sense—behave.

*A representative sample but not an actual sample.

Spanish football guy Sid Lowe has another take for Sport Illustrated on why FIFA’s La Liga XI does not, in fact, portend a new dawn in Spanish football:

But the team of the year award masked a troubling reality for the Spanish league. In fact, more than masking it, it reflected that troubling reality. And in reacting to it, in puffing out his chest and glorying in it, the man responsible for it served only to underline it still further. The result did not so much reflect well on the Spanish league as on Spanish football. Nor did it change the fact that the league has serious problems, from falling attendances to poor organization, in-fighting, economic crisis, a lack of competitiveness and fragmented kickoff times.

If the Spanish league as an organization had contributed to those 11 men standing on stage in Zurich, it was at least in part in allowing two clubs to become so powerful at the expense of the rest as to dwarf not just the rest of Spain but the rest of Europe.

The man he is referring to is Juame Roures, owner of the company which holds La Liga TV rights (Lowe calls him the “de factor” owner of the Spanish league).

Most of the nastiness of this concentration of power is normally discussed in terms of economics, but I believe it also carries with it an ugly cultural effect, beyond even the simple issue of lack of local support for Spain’s countless non-Big Two storied clubs.

For one, it’s made fans of at least one La Liga club bat-shit crazy. There is more evidence this morning of the inability of fans to see their club for what it is—fundamentally, essentially, structurally not as good at football as Barcelona, but still competitive, particularly in the Champions League.

How else could one explain this? From Marca:

Real Madrid’s members cannot decide who should take over from José Mourinho. Despite two thirds of those asked agreeing that the behaviour and attitude of the Portuguese coach is damaging the club’s image, they know it will be difficult to replace him.

According to the survey carried out by the company Sigma 2 for MARCA, not one of the potential replacements for when Mou confirms his decision to leave at the end of the season reaches 25% of support amongst those polled.

Chelsea manager, Rafa Benítez, is the coach with the highest level of support in the survey, but with only 21.4% of the votes he is a long way from becoming a strong candidate to take over. What is true is the Madrid born coach who came up through the club’s youth system is the favourite amongst the over 65 year-old supporters, amassing 27.5% of their vote.

Rafa. Rafa! Rafa pit against Vilanova! Rafa! And they already have Mourinho. The delusion among Real Madrid supporters—that their historical rivalry, their wealth and their employment of Cristiano Ronaldo and three other FifPro XI players cannot compete with Barcelona’s La Masia-educated first team, one of the best European midfields in football history, and Lionel Fucking Messi.