Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Rafa Benitez Had No Chance at Real Madrid

By Justin Sherman (@JShermanOfficial)

The Rafa Benitez era is over.

Seven months and 25 matches in, Benitez was sacked by Real Madrid president Florentino Perez on Monday. It was at this very same podium, just six weeks ago, that Perez himself called a press conference in order to deny reports that a sacking was imminent, instead blaming the media for seeking to “destabilize” the club.

“Rafa has just started his work; let him work. He needs time,” PĂ©rez said then.

Failing to heed his own advice, Florentino has again put the scapegoat out for slaughter, but honestly, I can’t blame him.

From the beginning, Benitez’s appointment made little sense.

The fans knew it. Madrid knew it.

They even admitted as much when, in the introductory press conference, they didn’t go far beyond the praise that he was “organized” and the fact that it was important to to have a Spanish coach.

It’s not that Benitez lacked a proven track record or the tactical know-how to manage at such a level. But managing Real Madrid is more than that -- much more.

You’re walking into an environment full of oversized egos and corporate entities, requiring superior man-management and diplomacy. Carlo Ancelotti mastered this aspect, personifying the “players coach” label that allowed him to receive an incredible amount of support when he was under fire. Even Jose Mourinho’s “us-against-the-world” siege mentality garnered support for two-and-a-half years before the wheels fell off.

Benitez simply didn’t fit either profile. He has never been the warm ego-massager. In fact, he has often clashed with his superstar players in the past. In an early season interview, Benitez refused simply to say “yes” when asked if Ronaldo was the best player he had ever coached. Perhaps, this was an attempt to shift the pendulum of power towards Gareth Bale, something that Perez has subtly been pushing for over a year.

In the end, Benitez hoped the play on the field would do the talking. Unfortunately, the results were poor and the performances uninspiring.

Especially against the top teams in La Liga, Madrid have faltered.

0-4 against Barcelona. 1-1 against Atletico. 1-2 against Sevilla. 0-1 against Villarreal. 2-2 against Valencia.

He was defiant about accusations that he was a defensive coach, but truth is, they weren’t very good at that either.

All wasn’t Rafa’s fault, to be fair.

He inherited an unbalanced squad, stacked with attacking midfielders, who would rather watch paint dry than retreat back on defense in an effort to win back the ball.

Trying to mask their vulnerabilities, Benitez often featured the more defensive minded Casemiro or Matteo Kovacic, resulting in the sacrifice of one of his stars. The sight of James and Isco riding the pine so long they were picking splinters had to infuriate a president who shelled out close to a $150 million for their services.

In the end, Florentino’s statement lasted all but a minute and a half, with Benitez nowhere to be seen and not even informed. Twitter and the evening news had done the dirty work.

No questions were taken, and even less nostalgia offered. Instead, Perez looked to his left, and introduced a new coach who didn’t need any.

Zinedine Zidane is the new Real Madrid manager.

Yeah, let that sink in for a bit.

No, he’s not just the guy you remember being sent off in the 2006 World Cup final for a headbutt reminiscent of a Mike Tyson uppercut.

Zidane was a global icon. A player who cemented himself into Real Madrid lore with his breathtaking volley in the 2002 Champions League Final. He brings a certain aura and respect that Benitez, unfortunately, simply couldn’t match. His grooming for this day started all the way back in 2009 when he was appointed a special adviser to Perez.

Since then, he has held various roles working alongside Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, including as an assistant on the 2014 Champions League winning side.

Still, there are some concerns.

First of all, Zidane's experience as a first team manager is brief, and that’s putting it nicely. Since June of 2014, Zidane has managed Real Madrid Castilla, a job for which Florentino Perez hand selected him. This youth team plays in an equivalent to the Third Division in Spain, and consists of players with an average age of 20 years. He’s now being thrown into the arena of big boys, in possibly the most pressure packed position in all of sports.

Secondly, he may not have the personality to be a successful manager.

Zidane was a player whose game did the talking. Strong, but mildly mannered, he barely ever showed much emotion on the pitch, and even less with the media. At Madrid, the way you communicate is imperative, maybe even more so than your technical acumen -- Hence, Rafa Benitez.

Connecting with his players and, to a lesser extent the fans, will be imperative for Zidane to be successful.

Best case, he’s Pep Guardiola. Worst, the experiment goes up in flames and another club legend is disgraced.

Not like we haven’t seen that movie before, but this time something else may be different.

By sacking Benitez and replacing him with his groomed crown jewel, Perez has run out of safety nets. If Zidane fails, there's no other head to be had but his own, and for Madridistas, that would be a dream come true.

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