The Curious Case of Rafael BenítezPosted: January 18, 2011
Cover your ears Scousers. Rafa Benitez is not a good football manager. He has managed 7 clubs, and been a ridiculous failure at 4 of them. Of the other three, his successes were very much qualified.
Benitez took over at La Liga club Real Valladolid in 1995, and was sacked after 23 games, with just 2 wins and the club rock bottom of the table. He was replaced by Vicente Cantatore, and Valladolid immediately improved, avoiding relegation in 16th place, and finishing 7th the next. From here, Benitez joined Segunda División outfit Osasuna, and this time just lasted 9 games, with only 1 win. After two clubs, Benitez’s record read – 32 games, 3 wins. With this sterling record, he joined another Segunda División team in Extremadura, and this time led them to promotion. However the following season Extremadura under Benitez were relegated back to the second tier. He took a year out working as an analyst and studying in England and Italy before rejoining the game with Segunda División Tenerife. He achieved promotion, finishing third in the league, before leaving for La Liga giants Valencia. Here, his record was very good, winning two La Liga’s in three years. He then left in 2004 after arguments with over transfers.
It was here he joined Liverpool FC. Inheriting a side that had seen Gerard Houllier leave after finishing 4th, Benitez’s first season in charge saw the club finish a disappointing 5th behind bitter rivals Everton. However this was all forgotten as Liverpool claimed their fifth European Cup, beating Milan on penalties in the final after trailing 3-0. The following season they improved to 3rd and won the FA Cup, again after a penalty success following a 3-3 draw. The next two seasons saw 3rd and 4th place finishes as well as another European Cup final, but defeat to Milan. 2008-09 saw Liverpool’s first challenge for the title under Benitez as they finished 2nd, four points adrift of champions Manchester United. However the following season, Liverpool finished a disastrous 7th and Liverpool and Benitez parted company. He joined European Champions Inter Milan, and they currently occupy 6th place in Serie A, nine points off leaders AC Milan.
Taking it for granted that his reigns at Valladolid and Osasuna were disastrous, and his record at Extremadura was so-so, let us take a closer look at Benitez’s successes and failures at Tenerife, Valencia, Liverpool and Inter.
On the surface, Benitez would appear to have done an excellent job at Tenerife. Scratch a little deeper however, and it begins to look a little less impressive. Benitez inherited an extraordinarily talented team by the standards of Spain’s second tier, with the Tenerife side filled with talents like Mista, Curro Torres, and Luis Garcia. Amongst the favourites for the league, they scraped 3rd and therefore promotion with a late goal on the last day of the season. Benitez had made no significant new signings.
He left for Valencia in time for the start of the 2001-02 season. His record here must be commended, winning two leagues in three seasons, the first being their first in 31 years. However, again, scratch beneath the surface and this becomes less impressive. He inherited a fabulously talented team from Hector Cuper, including the likes Santiago Cañizares, Roberto Ayala, Rubén Baraja, David Albelda, Vicente and Pablo Aimar. The team had reached two successive European Cup finals, and challenged strongly in La Liga. It must be noted that Valencia’s season without a league under Benitez was a disaster – finishing in 5th place and 19 points off the top of the league. It must also be noted that La Liga’s two powerhouses, Real Madrid and particularly Barcelona were going through transitional phases. Barcelona struggled under the presidency of Joan Gaspart as he replaced talisman Luis Figo with Petit and Overmars, and managers came and went. Madrid blew extremely hot and gold with the Galacticos policy, with egos clashing and results fluctuating. The struggles of the Big Two led to some more unfashionable teams claiming La Liga’s in this period, with Valencia capitalising as well as Deportiva La Coruna. To illustrate the paucity of quality at the top of the league at the time, Valencia won their two titles with 77 and 75 points, standing in stark contrast to the 98 and 97 points amassed last year by Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively. However, credit where credit is due – Valencia took advantage of this and a more attacking style of play reaped rewards. Unfortunately this was the exception rather than the rule during Rafa’s managerial career.
On the back of this, Benitez joined Liverpool. In six seasons, they won two trophies, both on penalties after 3-3 draws. Now it must not be said that penalties necessarily devalue the winning of a competition, and Liverpool fans may well point to the fact that Manchester United have won the 2008 European Cup and the 2009 Carling Cup on penalties. However, this must be viewed in context. Rafael Benitez won 2 out of 2 Liverpool trophies on penalties. Alex Ferguson won 2 out of 23 of his trophies on penalties (identical to Rafa’s record at Valladolid incidentally). Had both shoot-outs gone awry for Benitez, he would have been trophyless in six seasons at Liverpool. Had both gone against Ferguson, his record would have still been stunning.
Liverpool’s run to the ’05 European Cup final must also be noted. Scraping through the qualifiers after a 2-1 over Austrian minnows Grazer AK, they needed goals on 80 and 86 minutes in their final group game to once again scrape through. A relatively kind draw saw Liverpool defeat Bayer Leverkusen and Juventus before facing Chelsea in the semi’s. They advanced to the final despite the unique feat of scoring no legitimate goals, Luis Garcia’s effort subsequently proven not to have crossed the line. Any observer watching the final would also have noted that Milan completely fell asleep at 3-0 up. They were reported to have been celebrating at half-time, and in the second half didn’t close down, passed sloppily and generally had the look of a team who were completely complacent about victory. As it was, it took a deflected strike and a dive for a penalty that got Liverpool back into it, as well as a ridiculous miss from Shevchenko in extra-time. Now obviously luck plays a part in any successful campaign, and it would be nonsense to suggest that it was a fluke, and doubtless Benítez’s tactics were well thought-out and suited to the European competition. But it must also be noted that had certain things not gone very much in their favour, they would not have won. And when this was his only major trophy at the club excluding the FA Cup, you start to come to the conclusion that Benítez needs things to go very much his way to win a trophy. An excellent achievement of course, but with much fortune and at the cost of league form.
Benitez’s expenditure at Liverpool must also be noted. It was the first time he had the chance to really mould a team in his image, having signed relatively little at former clubs due to limited tenures (Valladolid, Osasuna, Extremadura, Tenerife), or an excellent squad already (Valencia). In his reign at Liverpool, Benitez spent almost £300m at Liverpool, second only to Chelsea during this period, with net spend of about £12m per season, compared with Manchester United’s expense of £5m a year. Rafa’s signings for Liverpool were almost exclusively unmitigated horror shows, signing a host of dreadful players for under £10m, and expensive failures like Keane, Babel and Aquilani. Of over 80 signings for Liverpool, only 4 can be considered excellent purchases – Reina, Torres, Alonso and Mascherano – all players whose qualities were obvious and deals expensive.
His tactical failures at Liverpool were at times absurd. Favouring two defensive-midfielders might look positively attacking compared to Mancini, but at the time was poorly thought out, the system was ineffective at home to the likes of Hull and Burnley, however Benitez persisted with it – the result was a host of home draws. The only time Liverpool challenged for the league was in a sense an accident; Benitez had tried to flog Alonso in the summer and replace him with Gareth Barry. Bizarrely, Benitez claimed this was some form of masterplan with Barry to feed balls from the left to Keane who would tuck them away. The Barry deal fell through and Benitez was forced to play Gerrard in the hole with the unwanted Alonso tucked in behind directing play. The result was Liverpool’s best performance in several seasons, with Alonso superb. The following summer he left, citing differences with Benitez. Rafa replaced him with Alberto Aquilani and spent the rest of the money and more on Glen Johnson. Liverpool fell apart. Finishing 7th in the league, their worst finish for years and years, they were also dumped out of the FA Cup in the 3rd round by Reading, and finished bottom of their Champions League group.
Strangely, Liverpool fans were split about Benitez, with many wanting him to stay – complaining he was the victim of a xenophobic media and a paltry transfer budget. Benitez had created a type of cult of personality despite his results, by declaring his love for the club and quoting the lyrics to the club’s anthem at regular intervals. More sensible Liverpool fans pointed out that he had spent a fortune on tripe, brought Liverpool backwards in the league and hadn’t won anything in four years. Benitez was sacked.
It was at this stage that Inter Milan chief Massimo Moratti made the frankly bizarre decision to hire Benitez. Inter had just had the most successful season in their history, winning Serie A for the fifth time in a row, as well as the Coppa Italia and the Champions League for a wonderful treble under José Mourinho. Benitez once again inherited a splendid squad, with Julio César, Lucio, Wesley Sneijder and Diego Milito, the European goalkeeper, defender, midfielder and forward of the year, as well as the likes of Samuel, Santon, Maicon, Cambiasso and Eto’o. Under Benitez, they won only 6 of their 15 games in Serie A, and lay 7th at the time of his sacking. They were also comfortably beaten in the European Super Cup final by UEFA Cup winners Atletico Madrid. Interistas complained of bizarre team selections and poor man-management, hallmarks of Benitez’s managerial career, as well as injuries due to over-rigorous training sessions. Since his sacking, Inter have won 5 straight games.
It is time to put the myth of Rafael Benitez as a quality manager to bed. He has had certain qualified successes in his manageral career, but they are completely overshadowed by his failures.
He won 3 games in 31 at Vallodolid and Osasuna. He promoted and then relegated Extremadura. He scraped promotion with an extremely talented Tenerife team. He achieved two La Liga’s and a 5th place with the twice reigning Champions League finalists. He won two trophies on penalties in six seasons with Liverpool, spending £280m. He took the five-in-a-row Italian champions, and reigning European Cup champions to 7th in Serie A.
Former Liverpool coach Jacques Crevoisier:
“Liverpool’s current failure is linked to three people – [Rafael] Benitez, [Tom] Hicks and [George] Gillett. Benitez is an excellent coach but he recruited over 60 players during his time in charge. And, apart from Fernando Torres, Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso, his signings across five years were pitiful. Benitez brought in a staggering amount of players and at some cost. He is a very bad recruiter. His communications were weak and his links with the players did not work. When the team lost it would be the players’ fault and, when they won, it would be thanks to him. People who were at the club at the same time as him told me he was a megalomaniac, with people having to pledge allegiance to his way of doing things.
The three players I’ve mentioned don’t require an army of scouts to tell you they are very good, while all the rest were average. If you look at Benitez’s legacy, you’ll say his scouts were no good. Has he left the club in good health? No. Has he prepared for the future? No. Benitez is a charmer. He comes on TV with a nice smile but I’m not fooled.”
Sir Alex Ferguson on Mourinho to Madrid and Benitez to Inter:
“That favours Madrid, no doubt about that”
Jan Molby after Liverpool’s Carling Cup defeat to Northampton:
“We are seeing the result of Rafa Benitez’s legacy”