'The Great Strategist'
In 2008 he was made ‘Doctor honoris causa’ by the University Miguel Hernandez at Elche ‘in honour of his professional career and the prestige he has attained in the world of sport and physical activity’. He received this award because he applies scientific method to physical activity and football in his coaching.
Since he was a young boy, he has played a lot of chess and ‘Stratego’, a game based on military strategy. This has led him to apply some concepts from these games when he is on the bench in football. He has almost as many titles in the classroom as he has on the pitch: he studied physical conditioning, business and medical science as well as other subjects. He won 2 league titles and a UEFA Cup with Valencia and took Liverpool back to the top of European football by winning the Champions League.
According to Steven Gerrard, a Liverpool icon in the last decade, the man works 24/7. And for El Nino Torres, ‘he analyses everything, including runs and long passes, studying them on his computer. If he tells you to keep your position a couple of metres from the penalty spot, you listen because he shows you that the extra space will make the difference between a goal and a missed chance.’
Rafa Benitez is one of 5 coaches selected by El Grafico on its 90th anniversary list of 90 people nominated to have changed the face of sport. He had the most analytical sporting profile in the world, the one who works 5 times harder on a coaching session before he even begins to speak. If he had the coaching bug since childhood, a premature knee injury in his twenties finished his playing career at 26 and allowed him to study his vocation in depth like Marcelo Bielsa.
At present, coming to the end of a year’s sabbatical in 2011 after winning the Club World Cup with Inter, he is living in England. It is a pleasure to have a mind like his answering our questions about his profession. So here he is.
Who was your role model in your profession, who did you learn from most?
I have always taken samples from many different sources and I have enjoyed analysing, investigating and looking for explanations in lots of people’s work. My main role model was Arrigo Sacchi because his Milan was spectacular. But I have tried to learn from everyone. For example, Maturana had a lot of good things and I always learnt something watching Cruyff work, as well as Bianchi and Cúper. You could always use something. In youth football at Real Madrid, a little known coach, called Felipe Gayoso, helped me learn. He was very analytical and influenced my way of working.
How did your studies help you?
You can always find something you can use in your day to day work. The management of a team for when you are the manager, teaching for when you are a teacher, evaluating injuries if you study medicine. It all helps. I believe this is fundamental at all levels of education and I am sure that all these things have helped me.
Did you think it was possible to win the Champions League Final when you were losing 3-0 against Milan or were you just hoping to score?
This match has a lot of myths surrounding it for a lot of reasons but one thing is certain - our only intention was to give something to our fans who were behind us. We had to change the dynamic of the game. We made tactical adjustments to play three at the back instead of four and I told the players that we had nothing to lose. What we had to try to do was score a goal to kick start the game and to show that we had got there on our merits. Also the fans were behind us despite the score-line, wanting to see a reaction from their team and I can assure you that they carried us through the rest of the game.
Can a coach change the game at half time?
At the very least, I believe that from a moral and professional point of view you must try, although achieving it is another thing entirely. It’s your duty and it’s what they pay you for. Of course the message you give, and the way you communicate it, can make a difference in attitude or tactically. But it’s not easy. There are limits, particularly the shortage of time. What you tell the players has to be clear and specific, making it as easy as possible to understand.
Is the influence of the coach overestimated nowadays?
It’s difficult to judge definitively but they certainly do have influence and usually a lot. It’s another thing entirely to say whether it is for better or worse in certain circumstances.
Should a coach know more about group leadership or tactics?
Both, in the right measures and the right balance. Some matches you can change with just tactical adjustments but in others you will have to influence the players’ mentality.
Stick or carrot for the players?
Depending on the circumstances, sometimes you will have to be strict and at others you will have to let it go, but it will always depend on the professionalism of the player. To please everyone in a 25 man squad is very difficult. The player who isn’t playing always sees it differently to the player who is. And then there are common rules and exceptions depending on the circumstances.
Have you taken anything from other sports to use in football?
For sure. Since I was little I have had different interests and I played different sports: football, judo, basketball, right down to chess which was one of my hobbies. From all of them I have taken something which has helped me on different occasions. Basketball interested me because of its constant evolution and has a lot of usable ideas. And anyone who knows me can tell you, without doubt, I took things from chess. In football, like chess, you have to think and analyse what’s going to happen, to have a plan A, plan B and even a plan C. To calmly evaluate action before you put it in to practice and be prepared, foreseeing the different options of the opponent, is what is required in modern football.
What qualities are required in a good coach?
There are different types of coach and different ways to get to the same destination and it is difficult to define. Players always respect the coach’s knowledge and that is fundamental. Then his personality, his professionalism, his capacity to lead will be important to complement each other. But I think the basic principle in order to earn respect of the squad is his knowledge.
How many different exercises do you use?
Over many years of work, and since I like to evolve and learn new theories and trends, I have used many exercises and have a wide variety of them. The credit, if that’s what you call it, is not just mine. Now we work together as a team and it benefits us all. The winner is football as it becomes more specialised and professionalism increases, if that is possible. For many years, I have used computers to collect training sessions and categorise them, and my assistants continue to do the same, so quantity is not the problem but how to use them. That is what makes them successful or not.
What can be improved?
Training sessions, as a fundamental part of the preparation phase, can always improve particular players and the general squad. But maybe defensive aspects, the ability to concentrate, intensity and some basic attacking movements are the themes that are most influenced by a good session.
What technological systems do you use?
We have specific programs to help us control our sessions, matches, opposition and work load. They give us a lot of data on many different aspects but they must be used for the players’ benefit because he is the one who makes the difference. The key is how to interpret the information you have at your disposal.
How do you keep up to date?
What any professional in any job would do. I read everything I can to keep informed, I speak to professional colleagues to exchange points of view and experiences, I listen to everything I can, I watch as many games as I can, I try to be up to the minute and at the same time my assistants do the same and let me know what they think.
Do you work 24 hours a day like Gerrard said?
We are back to myths. As a Manager in England, I did work between 12 and 14 hours a day many times. Unfortunately it is difficult to switch off, even at home, to the detriment of family life. It shouldn’t be like that but it is difficult to avoid and I certainly didn’t manage to do it. If you love this profession, you live for it. Besides, at Liverpool I was the Manager and in English football culture this person has more responsibilities and influence. There, the Manager knows the future depends on him, for better or worse, rather than on a technical director above him like in Spain.
What do you like to work on, what aspects do you think you can influence most?
I think organisation in general. I am a big fan of being organised. Then more specifically, on tactics on the pitch. I love to contribute to a young player’s technical improvement. This always depends on the time available and the type of player you have though. If you have knowledge, they appreciate it, and if they are intelligent, they follow you because they realise the benefits for them.
"Rafa is obsessed with football 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I have to take my hat off to him. He's the type of person who after a match, even if you've scored a hat trick, he won't mention it but he will ask you why you didn't use your left foot at a certain point".
"When you are doing well in this profession, you usually get offers from clubs or coaches looking to bolster their squads. Rafa Benitez, though, wanted me, and believed in me at the lowest point of my career. He taught me a lot and I will always be grateful to him".
"Rafa Benitez has been the most important coach in my career. He is very meticulous identifying very important details that no-one else sees. He pushes you every day, all week. He gives you different drills. There are days when you think ‘Good God, this bloke doesn’t let me breathe’. He calculates everything and studies it all on his computer".
When do you think this fails?
If I’m honest I have to say that I never feel it has. On the one hand I have self-confidence and, on the other, I think that defeat is part of the game, the same as any of the other 4 options in a game: win, draw, lose or postponement due to snow or rain. One of these things is bound to happen even though you know what you would like best. When you lose, there are more feelings of disappointment and annoyance but also feelings of stimulation and challenge for the next match.
What is the key to winning games? Do you look for the same things in each match or do you change things for each opponent?
This is a bit like a philosophical premise. You always try to impose your style on the game although you don’t always succeed. But if you know the weak points of the opposition, you can use them where possible to benefit your team. And if you can do it without changing your style, or changing it the least possible, you are almost reaching the perfect situation. But key things, key concepts that will guarantee a win, no-one has them 100%.
Son of a Real Madrid fan father and an Atlético Madrid mother, Rafa started out at the Real Madrid Academy. He played in midfield or as a líbero. ‘My favourite player was without doubt Franz Beckenbauer’ he recalls. He was coach of different age groups at Madrid and assistant to Vicente Del Bosque with the first team for a year, but his work was underestimated when the man with the moustache also moved on. However there are many who think that one day Rafa will again wear the Madrid colours. In the meantime he is doing in-depth analysis on the TV and on his very detailed personal website (www.rafabenitez.com) a facility only a few coaches have.
‘I want to express my ideas and share them with football people, to get information to keep learning, to help promote the Montse Benitez Foundation created by my wife to help local charities. And ultimately to share all this respectfully with others. Society can show a lack of respect for others and we should try to avoid this to the best of our abilities.
Which coaches have, for you, revolutionised football in the last 50 years?
Arrigo Sacchi changed a lot at his AC Milan. For me he was a clear role model.
Who is the best coach in the world nowadays?
I’ve never liked this question because the reply can never be fair. Who is the best? And in what circumstances? There are excellent coaches doing a spectacular job at lower level teams who cannot win titles because the club does not have the capacity. But they can be better coaches than others at big teams, with all the resources at their disposal, and who win regularly and automatically, thanks largely to their players and their potential. Who do you think is the best coach? The one who has to overcome obstacles on a day to day basis, knowing they will never be on the front page, or the one who has a team of millionaires at their disposal?
Mourinho, Guardiola or Ferguson?
It’s difficult, but so as not to avoid the question, I will say that I have always liked the particular way of playing football, the football environment and lifestyle example of Pep Guardiola.
Should Guardiola take credit for this Barcelona or could anyone have done it?
He should take credit. I think his main contribution has been knowing how to maintain continuity in the project. To get to the top is not as difficult as staying there. You can win one day but to win again and again and win practically everything……This has come through his strength, credit as the father of the creature, as the creator of the project.
Is it difficult to take over a team left by Mourinho physically and mentally drained?
No, no. The problem we had at Inter was lack of resources. Despite promises, they didn’t sign one player and there were 15 over the age of 30. In spite of this we won 2 trophies. It was difficult, practically impossible, to win more without some support from above
You coached in Spain, England and Italy. What differences did you see between the 3 leagues?
Every football culture has an amalgam of characteristics which make up its own structure. Bringing them all together but with the inherent problems in doing that, we can simplify it by saying that the Spanish league is perhaps the most technical, the Italian the most tactical, and the English the most physical, although there are fewer differences now between the English and Spanish leagues.
Have you watched the Argentinian league?
Less than I did a while ago. Before, when looking for talent I used to watch more. But now, with scouts as they are called here in England, you can cover almost all regions and when I need to see a player, then yes, I follow several games of his team. Argentinian football is very passionate.
Which Argentinian coaches do you like?
In Spain I saw several but almost always as an opponent. I studied the differences between Menotti and Bilardo and both drew my attention as two great coaches with their styles of play. I also read Dante Panzeri to try to understand them more fully.
Why did you choose Pellegrino as your assistant?
My contact with him at Valencia and Liverpool showed me that he is a person with a desire to succeed and with enough football knowledge to be part of our team. Mauricio has a lot of assets, one of which is his ability to analyse. I also liked his work and it will stand him in good stead for the future. He has an enormous future as a coach.
You have coached many Argentinians. Do you see them as any different to other nationalities?
Without doubt; in most cases, you have a player with enormous competitive spirit. This special character that they have, with some exceptions, is a trait which is always well channelled.
What can be the main failings of a player?
It may be that, without knowing it, the players are nowadays too involved with the communication media which has permeated our lives. I think that in some cases they can be too influenced by what people are saying rather than listening to their coach who, on the contrary, wants to help them improve so they both can win.
How did Spain become candidates to be the best in the world?
Here my perception is that a series of interesting circumstances has developed. A group of players with exceptional ability has come together and who play with two of the best clubs in the world, Barcelona and Real Madrid, along with others who have complementary talents and international experience. Players with character and a high level of performance who have known each other for some time, even if it doesn’t feel that long. Aragones and Del Bosque had to make them gel and give them a common philosophy with a defined objective. I have known Vicente for a long time. I know how he works and what he is capable of. I am very happy for him and for the magnificent team he has with him.
What’s going wrong with the Argentinian team? Do we have expectations that are too high for them, winning a World Cup?
The first thing to say is that there is no doubt about the quality of the Argentina players. Looking for the reason from the outside is difficult but with the relationship I have had with some of the players, I always see some anxiety in them. A sort of urgent need, the overwhelming desire to win, seems to make them play below their standard and each failure piles on the pressure and inhibits their performance. Maybe that’s the problem.
We will repeat a question here. Why does Messi shine over there but does not here?
I will mention here what I’m convinced of. The environment at Barcelona suits him and he loves it. And I can reiterate my previous answer. People expect so much from him, the expectations and pressures are high and this can influence his level of performance. At Barcelona he knows that he is very important to them and everyone trusts in him. He feels loved and plays with less pressure. He is a great player as anyone who watches football knows. His humility, another of his assets, can also help him stay at the top level for many years. He is already an exceptional player and what is really exciting is the future he has in front of him.