Rafa Benítez Blog RSS Rafa Benítez Blog

Nov 2020
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From China

Rafa Benítez

I’ve had some time to reflect on this strange season and first of all, I would like to praise the hard work of my staff and everybody involved in the daily work of our football team.

Five is too many for me, though not as many as twenty-five, that’s a good number (at least it seems to me to be a good number) and it’s the number of COVID tests that I have done throughout my time in China, the latest being before coming back to UK to see my family again.

It’s been a difficult season, a difficult year for everyone, with so many quarantines and lockdowns, but a life experience all the same. The ability for humans to adapt is incredible, and my coaching staff and everyone working at our club have done just that.

In the Chinese Super League, we’ve seen a season with five substitutions, and in every game, this has been used to waste time. That’s not the point of a substitution.

We have to manage our squad, our bench, to solve our problems on the pitch as well as managing the situation off the pitch. To reduce the number of injuries and the tiredness, we have to reduce the number of international games, the amount of travelling done; that could be one solution.

Some fans might not know how many people are involved in a professional football team and what they do. We’ve been training in China, but the commitment from my coaching staff and the way to do things is similar to what’s done in the Premier League, La Liga or Serie A.

In January we began our preseason in Xiamen, south-east China. Then everything started: Covid-19 changed the world, changed our lives, our way of living and obviously sport, our job. Football’s changed since then, we’ve been concentrated in a hotel for two months to play games without spectators, taking COVID tests every five days and using masks all the time. It’s also changed the way we train and how we manage our players.

Some people simply read in the newspaper for example that a team has too many injuries, and they don’t know why? Is it bad luck or is there a specific reason for this? Especially when they’re not playing at international level.

How we work

I’ll explain what we used to do in Europe and what we’ve done in China.
Paco, Antonio, Mikel, Joaquín and Alex are my coaching staff in China and Pedro Campos is in Spain, they’ve worked with me for a while.

Paco de Miguel is my friend, assistant and our fitness coach since 2007.
Every season, with every team. After the initial medical exam, he tests players throughout the season in Body Composition, Stamina and Strength. We have a specific software which we designed to collect and analyse this data, and we compare the information with other teams, repeating the tests every three months.

He has great experience in controlling the load of the training sessions and preventing injuries, although some of these will happen anyway depending on the intensity of the competition, the habits of the players and sometimes, it is true, out of bad luck. However, we do have a good record of not having too many injuries in our different teams, so that means something is right about this hard work.

Playing two games a week is demanding, so, rotating your squad and knowing exactly how your team works is crucial. Previously, we never made five substitutions and still we managed to compete until the end of every season.

In the past we had our knowledge and experience, plus the control of factors such as heart rate as the only way to control the load of the training sessions. Now, we have GPS units. Expressed in a simple way, we measure the training effort (quantity) and the accelerations and decelerations (intensity).
Another parameter: body fat. At the end of this season, we’ve reduced the average body fat of the squad by 1% and increased the average strength (with both general and specific work in the gym) and stamina, with specific plans for each player. We still think we can improve their stamina even more.

Twenty-five used to be the number of players in a squad in Europe (enough, if you have the Reserve Team behind you too), but in China you have to register thirty players. Plus, with the unique situation this season, with teams in small bubbles, it was important to keep the players training with you because if you need to bring in any player he’ll need to be on the list and pass the COVID PCR test twice before joining the team.

So, during a normal training session you play games 11v11, because we had most of the players available. With thirty players then, what happens with the other eight? You must train them properly.
Then, organization and good staff are vital. Mikel Antía is one of the coaches, he’s in charge, with Paco, of organising the training sessions. We discuss the game plan for the season, the objectives for the month and for the week, and discuss every training session in detail depending on the games and number of players available. Mikel is also in charge of our set pieces and finding patterns during training sessions and games.
As you can see in the table, we do most of our job working with the ball, 73% of the time during the preseason, and 83% at the end. That means we need more coaches to pay attention to every player and to do specific jobs with and without the ball.

 Training distribution during the 2020 season.

Antonio Gómez is the Head of the Analysis Department and a coach at the same time. He played for me (like Mikel and Joaquín did) for four years in the Real Madrid Academy, he was also my Reserve Team coach in Liverpool and coach in Newcastle, so he knows exactly how we work. He uses our specific software to analyse the opponents and our team (that’s one of the main objectives of the software), and depending on his analysis, we adapt around a third of our work every week. The rest of the exercises are related with our decided game plan for the season, based on our ideas and the possibilities of our squad. On the pitch, Antonio helps me and Mikel with both tactical and technical work.

During training sessions, Alejandro Dorado is in charge of the specific technical and tactical work of some players, with focus on the young players. At the same time, Alex (Alejandro), helps Antonio with editing, analysing our team and the opponents and then preparing video clips for our own players to watch. Pedro watch all our games and the most interesting of the other teams and he pass reports every week.

Joaquín Valerio is the goalkeeping coach, a very difficult task here in China. The keepers have to be Chinese and one of the challenges with the Chinese players is helping them mentally to manage making a mistake, imagine this for a keeper. Technically they have different habits, so to change that without ‘conceding goals or making mistakes’ is very complicated. But Joaquín is very enthusiastic, and his relationship with the keepers is important for his job.

Finally, Javier Sagaste, he’s the physio and readaptation fitness coach who manages the injured players, and he coordinates his plans with the doctor and Paco daily.

As you can see, there’s lots of work behind the scenes and that’s without adding the translators. Don’t forget most of the players don’t talk English, some were in Spain with the Wanda project and talk a little bit of Spanish, but the translator is another ‘important signing’ every season.
We want our players to understand football, to read the games and make decisions, not just to repeat patterns. We had to change some things to adapt to the culture, but our fundamentals must remain the same, if they change there’s no point in bringing foreign coaches. The big problem in China is how to pick the players’ brains. You need the translator for everything and even when using video analysis for individual or small group sessions, you still don’t know if what is translated is exactly what you want to say. Even during the games, the translator needs to understand how exactly you want to explain something. I recorded some Chinese words on my phone, and I repeated them constantly so they know what I’m trying to say, even if the pronunciation is almost impossible to replicate in some words and they don’t talk any English. It’s another challenge.

Rules and project

Our team was the youngest team in the CSL, the new rules for signings, the salary cap, the U23 and U21 rules and COVID changed our project, but we realised early in the season that this would be the case, so, we adapted to the circumstances. The target was to do as well as possible in the CSL whilst improving our young players as much as we could, and we did it.

We created a proper scouting department, but we had to change the way we worked because, scouting Chinese players is very complicated. There aren’t too many available (in China, for many parents, education is more important than football, and it’s almost impossible for them to go to a high school and play football), then the top sides have the majority of the good ones, and they’re not for sale.

So, you must produce your own players. Dalian Pro, with the Wanda Group behind them, invested in the Wanda kids project (kids who go to Spain for several years to learn Spanish and play football), and also in a New Training Ground with fourteen pitches, a medical department and rooms, restaurants, etc…, everything you need to develop the young players with a Spanish Methodology and Spanish coaches working together with Chinese coaches from when the players are 6 to 21 years old. The innovation of this project is that they play football, but they’re also given facilities to study, even in high school, which the parents appreciate.

Dalian Pro Training Ground

The League

The format of the CSL this year has been special. It was important to play, therefore they decided to divide the league into two groups. After the first half of the season, like a normal league, the top four in each group would play against the top four in the other. The next phase would see the teams play a knockout competition, which did make some lose interest. As soon as any team was saved (like us), the foreign players started going away with their national teams or home to their families.  They are the key players making the difference and have to play for their countries, so, the problem of travelling and risk of injuries arises again. In the last few games we didn’t have Rondón, Larsson and Danielson, which was a big loss because the Chinese players lean on them. The unfair situation created with this system means that teams like Shiajazhuang Ever Bright, who got 17 points in the first phase, were relegated in the knockouts, yet Tianjin Teda, that had only two points and no wins in the first part of the competition, was safe after winning 2-0 and losing 2-1 in the first knockouts games.

This way of organising the league, with all the teams stuck in a hotel for 3 months seems to me to be impossible to model in Europe. We didn’t have anyone infected with COVID as we were in a bubble all the time, but 2 months in there, followed by another month after (with 15 days in between), was too much, especially for the foreigners.

I can see this option for short periods in Europe, to play two games a week for maybe three weeks, no more.

In this case I could see the five substitutions as an option, but in a normal league, three substitutions per game are enough for me. In one of the games, we wanted to keep a high tempo in the game but the other team wanted to make two substitutions, as they weren’t ready, the keeper faked an injury to give them time. Two more substitutions, no extra time added ‘for each player’.

The solution in regards to the injuries has to be to play less games. There are too many international competitions everywhere which means, more travelling and different training methods in the middle of – or even worse –  at the end of the season, this increases the risk of injuries.


We watched the Premier League games in China, and the strange results at the moment are likely due to a lack of a proper preseason and having no fans in the stadiums. It’s a question of time before the teams perform to their full potential.

The general approach to the pandemic in Europe has been wrong and in Asia they handle things differently. China’s a special case. Some days ago, a person tested positive in the Shanghai Airport and they isolated everyone who’d had direct or indirect contact with them; 183 people were put into quarantine to prevent contagion to others. Could we do something similar, not equal maybe, but similar, in Europe?
Spain and the UK have 20,000 daily cases; the USA, 100,000. Yet in China, with just 1 case they test and track everyone around to stop the spread of the infection. Is that the way to control case numbers?

Systems and tactics

Anyway, moving back to football, when we finish the games, we input all the data (physical, technical and tactical data) into our software, and then analyse and compare this data with our team and the others in different games. From here, we start to adjust our training sessions and prepare for the next game, as we did in Europe.

It’s important for the Chinese players to know how you want to play or they will get confused. We have to choose a system to play, it could always be the same system but you might want to change the tactics. A system is the formation, 1-4-2-3-1 or 1-5-4-1, for example, these are systems. The tactics are how you play or how you want to play, for example: more passing game, more direct play or more counterattack. To understand the difference here we can offer an example. With Newcastle against Burnley, two years ago, we played a ‘defensive system’, 1-5-4-1 and won 1-2, but we used offensive tactics and because of the approach and movements of the players in reality we played something more similar to a 1-3-4-3 formation, winning the game with authority as we did in the 0-4 win against Fulham in the last game of the same season, again with an offensive 1-5-4-1. But then, against Manchester City or Liverpool, the same system is used with different tactics, it has to be more defensive because they don’t allow you to control the game, they push you all the way.

Intensity and time

We know how we want to play, and we work on that throughout the week. At this stage of the project, if we change the system without practicing enough, our team doesn’t yet have the understanding of the game to manage the problems and find solutions.

With the information we have at the moment, the biggest difference between the CSL and the Premier League is the overall intensity, both with and without the ball. That has to be the target of Chinese football for the future, to improve intensity through understanding of the game, to play quicker and safer and not give the ball away, and to stop the games less to make football more attractive to the fans.

When we talk about the project it doesn’t mean we have to reach the same level as the European teams, it means we have to keep going in the right direction. China (Wanda for us) has this potential and they have to be patient and consistent to achieve it.

19/11/20 at 03:33:29 #1
Dear Rafa
as a fan of Dalian Pro, first of all, thank you very much for all your team's outstanding contribution to Dalian Football since this season. Although many Dalian fans are not satisfied with our team’s results this year, But I believe that they really love Dalian football just like me. I wonder if you understand that football is not just a sport for Dalian, but a belief. Football symbolizes the spirit of this city. It is impossible to find another city in China that loves football as much as Dalian,From this point of view, I think you and your team should be lucky. Choosing to come to Dalian is a correct decision.
But we know that we have made some mistakes in the past few years. We failed to pay attention to the youth training, so you don’t have more good players now. We clearly realize that it is difficult for us to rebuild the past glory of Dalian football in the short term. But we are also lucky: Wanda is back, you and your team are here. TBC...
19/11/20 at 03:47:32 #2
Although the fans are very interested in the big project of Wanda that you mentioned many times to attract you, But now I think it’s not that important anymore. Because we all know that Dalian Football is now on the right way. All we have to do is stick to it. Therefore, we hope you can stay and continue fighting with us. Although we know this is a bit difficult for you, we still hope that you can manage Dalian team as much as possible. No matter what choice you make, we will respect it. I believe my opinion can represent a large part of the fans, even though they cannot speak English but I know English a bit. Finally, Dalian fans wish you and your family all the best.
Thank you and thanks you all teams.
--------a fans of Dalian.

Thank you, we will try our best, take care!

19/11/20 at 13:25:31 #3
Class Man!! Stay safe Rafa!!

Thank you, Puscegram! Take care and best wishes!

15/04/21 at 02:05:38 #4
Hi Rafa

I know you're a busy man but I would just like to say that I would love to read more of your tactical analysis on here. I'm always interested in more detailed stuff and I know your insight and approach to the tactical side is legendary among players you've worked with. I'd love to read more of it, current or past.

Wishing you and your family well.
06/06/21 at 01:46:10 #5
İsmail Şenerkek
Dear Benitez, I enjoyed reading your blog post. I realized that 2+2=4 is not in football. The reason for this is evident in what you describe. Most coaches around the world aim to score goals by getting an offensive player into the game. Similarly, he aims not to concede a goal by taking a defensive player into the game. However, according to what you wrote and my personal opinion, things don't go that way in football. Thanks again for this informative text. Best Regards from Turkey :)