Much criticised and even ridiculed in certain quarters, Rafael Benítez has achieved more in football than many care to acknowledge. Some managers are hailed for the amount of titles they win; fewer managers are recognised for revolutionising the game, and even fewer are recognised for accomplishing both. With a quick review of Rafael Benítez Maudes’ career thus far let’s try to establish where exactly Rafa fits in.
Very often, and not just in football, human nature appreciates something only long after it graces us. Benítez’s story doesn’t start and end with trophies won but rather expands deeper into what we call the beautiful game. Opposing opinions and views will always exist and Rafa Benítez divides many. However when he decides to draw the curtain on his career, he will leave behind much for football fans to appreciate.
To start with, Benítez boasts no ordinary CV. The Spaniard has won 12 trophies which includes the coveted Champions League with Liverpool in that now famous final in 2005. This includes trophies in three different countries, namely Spain, England and Italy. Critics will argue Benítez is merely a cup coach and they would be somewhat justified. Rafa has only won 2 league titles both with Valencia in 2001/2002 and 2003/2004. The rest have all been cup trophies including his latest – the Italian Super Cup with Napoli in December 2014. Two league and 10 cup trophies is however no easy feat. Some coaches struggle a lifetime never to get their hands on the Holy Grail – the Champions League trophy.
Besides the silverware it is what Benítez has brought to the game of football that perhaps deserves more recognition. Regarded as a perfectionist, a tactician, an organiser, Benítez is meticulous in his planning and preparation.
The current Napoli coach has a trilingual (Spanish, English and Italian) website that is updated frequently on a wide range of intriguing and interesting football topics. Football fanatics will definitely find something interesting to read there from time to time.
In the first edition of the ‘Congress of Football and Technology’ held at the headquarters of the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) in February 2012, Benítez was the guest speaker. The centre of his presentation surrounded an innovative creation – Globall Coach. Alongside a team of coaches, Benítez developed an iPad app which is a comprehensive, versatile and sophisticated method in assisting with training and competition. The tool which helps the coaching process and also goes a long way to eliminating the language barrier encountered by many coaches by visually showing the exercises to the players.
Back to the game of football itself and Benítez ‘s name is often synonymous, especially amongst English Premier League supporters, with zonal marking. The tactic of zonal marking used by both his Valencia and Liverpool teams’ was by no means a new concept. In fact it can be traced as far back as 1954, used by the then extraordinary Brazilian national team. It was later implemented by the creator of “Total Football” and Dutch Legend Rinus Michels in the 1970’s. Moving forward a few more decades, it was again successfully implemented by the wise Italian tactician, Arrigo Sacchi. After Sacchi, zonal marking disappeared somewhat from the football limelight and it was Rafa Benítez that once more drew attention to its use with Valencia and Liverpool.
The tactic was heavily criticised in England when Benítez arrived however Valencia had conceded the least amount of goals in La Liga in each of the 3 season’s Rafa utilised it there. More importantly, they conceded very rarely from set pieces, which speaks directly to zonal marking’s use.
When constantly criticised about the use of the system in England, Benítez responded with data provided by Opta which illustrated that during his time at Liverpool, the team were twice the best in the Premier League at preventing goals from set pieces. They were also always in the top 4 for leas set piece goals conceded except for one season, 2007/2008.
Roll forward almost another decade to the present and while zonal marking still ignites debate, the system is widely used and accepted. Many teams and managers have in fact enhanced the system using a combination of zonal marking and man marking.
Perhaps Benítez’s greatest work was the lasting legacy he achieved with Valencia. Football formations has often varied and evolved through the decades. The first user of the now common 4-2-3-1 may also be a topic for debate, however it was Benítez who was the first to quite clearly line up with four bands, and a clear ‘three’ behind a lone frontman with Valencia. They were, as we now come to expect from Benítez’s teams, incredibly well organised and disciplined. Ruben Baraja and David Albelda formed what is sometimes referred to as the “double pivot” in front of the back 4 and at the base of the midfield. They formed an exceptional partnership, very rarely giving up possession and both possessed excellent passing ability. A key to Benítez’s 4-2-3-1 formation or system was its ability to create a cohesive defensive shape and in the same manner transform effortlessly into a powerful attacking unit.
As with zonal marking, the 4-2-3-1 formation is now common place in modern football. José Mourinho used it consistently in his tenure at Real Madrid and now uses a variation and more adaptable version of it with Chelsea. Jürgen Klopp with Burossia Dortmund, Unai Emery with Sevilla and Joachim Low with the German national team, just to name a few, are further exponents of the system.
Benítez’s career has however not all been successful. We have already touched on his struggles to win league titles with Liverpool, Chelsea and Napoli. Sandwiched in-between his three stints with those clubs is also a short and miserable failure with Inter Milan. His many positive attributes, as so often in life, also leads to many flaws. Rafa’s strict adherence to his ideologies at times paralyses his ability to adapt especially during games. His in-depth planning and almost totalitarian persona also at times has restricted his sides from exciting creativite play or producing something “out of the box”.
Benítez is no perfect coach. As he said: “The perfect coach does not exist.” Despite his flaws, disappointments, under-achievement at some clubs and many personality feuds, Benítez has managed to an extent, change the game of football. He is not yet finished but has already left behind lasting contributions to football. Let’s not forget those 12 trophies he as well. Behind the glasses, over-sized suits and overweight body is an astute, innovative, brilliant mind and ultimately both a student and tutor of the game of football.