Cautious approach from Rafa Benitez held back the stardust needed at Real Madrid

Somewhere along his career ladder, Benitez has acquired a reputation as too cautious a coach, conservative rather than swashbuckling. It became a stain, writes Ian Hawkey.

Real Madrid named Zinedine Zidane, left, as their new coach on Monday and is congratulated by Real Madrid's president Florentino Perez after a statement at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid. Rafael Benitez's unhappy reign in charge of Real Madrid came to an end after just seven months and 25 games when he was sacked. AFP PHOTO/ GERARD JULIEN
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The more Rafa Benitez presented himself as the perfect fit as Real Madrid head coach, the more he seemed to provoke suspicion. His six months in the job, from which he was removed after a meeting of the executive board of the club, overseen by president Florentino Perez on Monday evening, will now rank as a mere footnote, an unhappy one, on the career CV of a much-travelled, sometimes very successful member of his insecure profession.

There is a part of Benitez that would have traded a large proportion of the trophy haul he has accumulated in the last decade and a half – the two Primera Liga titles with Valencia; the Uefa Champions League and domestic Cup with Liverpool; the Uefa Cup, from the Valencia spell; the Europa League at Chelsea; the Fifa Club World Cup at Inter Milan; the Coppa Italia at Napoli – for one or two big gold medals at Madrid. Madrid, you see, were the club Benitez supported as a child, grew up with as an aspiring player, and stuck with when injury made him turn his mind to coaching.

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Madridista by background, he introduced himself as the popular Carlo Ancelotti’s successor with anecdotes about training with the great Alfredo Di Stéfano in the 1980s, being a contemporary of legendary players who came up through the Madrid academy in his time there. But as he sold himself ever harder as a man with Madrid’s DNA in his soul, a rump of supporters deemed all of that scarcely relevant. Somewhere along his career ladder, Benitez has acquired a reputation as too cautious a coach, conservative rather than swashbuckling. It became a stain.

Judgements at Spain’s most decorated club are cast early. Madrid drew their first match under Benitez 0-0, and though Benitez leaves his post with the team top scorers in La Liga so far this season, and with an average of 2.29 points per game, and leaders of the Champions League group where they had to duke it out with Paris Saint-Germain, the loudest protest about his departure from very many supporters at the Bernabeu will be about why the president did not also consider his position.

Perez has listened to the Bernabeu jeer him, the president, and Benitez for the last two months, louder since the 4-0 defeat inflicted by Barcelona at Madrid’s own stadium in November. There was a strong case that Benitez had picked the wrong team that night, although the heavy scoreline told the story of a superiority that one extra holding midfielder was unluckily to have altered a great deal. What Benitez did do against Barca, the champions, was to select an XI oriented towards attack. His line-up was probably not cautious enough.

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Madrid’s squad is a many-splendored thing; what is lacks is balance. Benitez made ‘balance’ his watchword in news conferences that become increasing attritional. He reached out for an equilibrium between the potentially thrilling combination of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez up front and the covering work that they need from midfield in order to thrive. He did not find it regularly enough.

Which means for all the big scores against smaller teams – three games ago, Rafa’s roundheads beat Ray Vallecano 10-2 – against the tougher opposition, Madrid were imperfect. Twice they let a lead fall away twice in the 2-2 draw against Valencia on Sunday night, a Valencia in the bottom half of the table at kick-off, but a rugged Valencia coached by a man taking charge of only his fourth ever league match as a senior coach, Gary Neville.

Zinedine Zidane, earmarked for the mid-season succession to the Madrid bench, has, like Neville a month ago, no experience as a senior coach in a top division. His apprenticeship as a manger has been served, for 18 months, at Castilla, Madrid's feeder team.

He has not been associated, like Benitez, with Madrid since childhood, but his adulthood there was pretty special, as a star player, and as a matchwinner in a European Cup final. He has stardust sprinkled all over his name, something Benitez could never quite find, and something Madrid’s players, many of whom are tricky to work with, lost hope of finding in Benitez.

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