So, finally, after a short tenure filled with moans, groans, waving of white handkerchiefs, plenty of scapegoating, an absolute mauling at the hands of an arch-rival, internal conflicts and the exposure of an identity crisis, Rafa Benitez has been put out of his misery.
The ironic thing is, amid the maelstrom that lasted throughout the majority of his time at Real Madrid, Benitez did not do too badly. But that was never going to be enough for Florentino Perez, who gave his Coach the dreaded vote of confidence only 43 days ago. It was clear that patience was running thin, though, after Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Valencia at Mestalla. Madrid failed to win against Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, Villarreal and now Valencia and club legend Emilio Butragueno’s refusal to support Benitez emphasised the diminishing number of advocates for Rafa within the club.
It seems as though this forced Perez’s hand, and reports from Spain on Monday afternoon, which were eventually confirmed by a less-than punctual President, said that the 55-year-old was a goner – and that Real Madrid Castilla Coach Zinedine Zidane would be his replacement.
It is a pity that Benitez, a man who always wanted to return to the Bernabeu after starting his coaching career at the club, was placed in the position he so craved in the long shadow of his predecessor. Unfortunately, it was the right job at the wrong time.
Carlo Ancelotti had won La Decima, earned absolute trust and faith from his players and he was highly-respected at Valdebebas, the training ground of Los Blancos. This meant that when he was inconceivably ousted, the players were understandably disappointed and probably a little disheartened – they had enjoyed the Italian’s spell at the club and as a result, whoever was to receive the position next was in a very difficult position.
How was Benitez ever going to succeed when everything that he did was compared with the work of a Coach whose methods and approach to the game contrast his own? Benitez is a much more rigid and strict trainer than Ancelotti, who affords his players a certain degree of freedom, so perhaps Benitez’s processes came as a bit of a shock to certain players who had grown comfortable while Ancelotti was at the club.
The Spaniard even spoke of needing ‘Ancelotti’s famous balance’ ahead of the trip to Valencia, which exemplifies the farce of Madrid’s chopping and changing of Coaches. Whatthey need most right now is what their former boss gave to them, and Perez simply threw it away.
One thing that Benitez probably got right during his period as Coach of Los Meringues was the way in which he ensured that they conceded fewer goals. This was undoubtedly aided by the formidable form of goalkeeper Keylor Navas and a few injuries that made defensive midfielder Casemiro a regular in the starting line-up.
Come November 21, though, and Rafa succumbed to the protests at his slightly more defensive style, fielding one of his most attacking, and star-studded, line-ups yet. The problem was that this came against the best team in the world, and Barcelona destroyed, demolished and humiliated Los Blancos at the Bernabeu in a 0-4 victory. It is rare for any Coach to recover from such a devastating defeat in such a high-profile game. It is a loss that fans can simply never forget and the manner in which it occurred completely undermined Benitez’s authority. It was becoming increasingly apparent that Rafa’s time at Madrid would be a short-lived one.
The deciding factor in the sacking of the Spaniard was, in all likelihood, the strained relationships between the Coach and his players. It is almost as if the only constant in Benitez’s tenure was that there always seemed to be a player rumoured to be unhappy with his Coach, and this stems from the aforementioned problem of the former Liverpool and Chelsea boss not being able to emulate the role that Ancelotti played with his players.
There was Sergio Ramos speaking out about the defensive playing style after Benitez publicly criticised him for conceding a penalty against Atleti, James Rodriguez reportedly fed up with the lack of trust shown towards him in his return from injury and right up until the end, Isco was apparently reprimanded for laughing when an opponent scored whilst he was on the bench, resulting in the 23-year-old only playing 12 minutes in Benitez’s final four games in charge.
This kind of environment was the root of Rafa’s troubles, because it resulted in certain players not wanting to play for him, which meant that key games often did not go in their favour.
Yet in spite of the pervading problems within this period, Benitez has still had a 68% win percentage as Coach, Los Blancos lie in third place and only four points off top spot in La Liga, they are in the knockout phases of the Champions League and would still be in the Copa del Rey had Denis Cheryshev not been fielded ineligibly against Cadiz. The outlook, on paper, really wasn’t that bleak.
Additionally, the last time Perez sacked a Coach halfway through the season was back in 2005, when Vanderlei Luxemburgo was replaced by Castilla Coach Juan Lopez Caro. Perez then resigned two months later. Perhaps internal disputes forced the President to act quickly, once again proving that no matter who you are, no matter whatever link to the club you have and no matter what you have achieved in your career, you are never safe when Florentino is around. Good luck Zizou.