A strong, decisive leader with a clear vision, Benítez likes to empower his players, while at the same time maintaining a genuine and acute sensitivity to the culture and heritage of each of the clubs he manages.
Following his recent induction into the LMA Hall of Fame and 1,000 Club, he gives Sue McKellar an insight into the upbringing that shaped him and his approach to leadership.
My parents were a great influence on me, growing up in Madrid. My dad worked in the hotel industry from the age of 11 right through until his retirement. Meanwhile, my mum, who was a huge Real Madrid fan, looked after three children. I remember she took me to the Bernabeu stadium for training and she followed and supported me as I played football and various other sports as I was growing up.
I was part of the Real Madrid academy for many years and, while I wanted to play for the first team, a serious injury meant it wasn’t to be. I played on for a while with other clubs, but the injury forced me to retire at only 26 and I started to earn my coaching qualifications, working at the academy with the under 16s with the likes of Vicente Del Bosque. I was learning so much from everybody around me, just by watching and listening. I remember helping to analyse data and review matches on the old Betamax and VHS video tapes, something that was all quite new back then.
I went on to work as a PE teacher and then in a gym as a teacher and co-ordinator, so I spent many years developing the kinds of teaching and people skills that you need as a manager.
Looking back, I think I knew I wanted to coach and manage from an early age. At 13, I was already making notes on my team-mates and marking their performances; I’d always give myself maximum marks, so I was player of the year every season (laughs). At university, where I gained a degree in physical education, I would finish my studies each day and then rush off to play for the Real Madrid U18s. Juggling my education and football was tough, but it was worth it because I loved both.
Going abroad to coach was a great challenge for me. After we won the La Liga title with Valencia in 2003/04 I had a number of options open to me, but coming to manage at Liverpool was the most attractive, in part because of the passion of the fans. Some years before, I had tried to improve my English by listening to The Beatles, so I felt I had a personal connection to the city. Then I arrived in Liverpool with my family in the middle of a storm and thought briefly, ‘whoa, what are we doing here?’ (laughs).
It was also a challenge because of the language barrier. I speak Italian, some French from my school days, and English, but I hadn’t anticipated how hard it would be to communicate my messages in the way I wanted with the players. I was confident, though, that I could make a positive impact at the club and with the players. To improve my English, I took lessons, immersed myself in the country’s culture, watched English television programmes and listened to the radio whenever I was driving.
I always try to be rational and stay calm under pressure. I have done my whole life. It’s something I learned from Luis Molowny, General Manager of Real Madrid - just stay calm and don’t rush. Sometimes when you face a problem you need to give yourself time, use your common sense and then decide what to do.
Dealing with injuries as a player probably influenced how I handle challenges as a coach. When you’ve worked so hard and given everything to make it as a player, but you can’t continue on that path, it’s very tough. You have to be resilient and find another way forward. I think each time I was injured as a player it helped me become better at coping with setbacks.
Leadership means being yourself. It’s about setting a good example and, little by little, gaining the trust of those around you. It wasn’t until my last year as a professional player, at Linares in southern Spain, that I really saw how I could use my experience to help the younger players. It’s so important to realise that players need that guidance; they’re looking to trust and follow you and will take on board everything that you do. As a coach, I used to follow Arrigo Sacchi closely; he was my idol. I think when you’re young and learning you take something from every coach that you admire and respect. Learning from others in that way is important, but you still have to be yourself.
I’ve always tried to understand the culture and needs of my clubs. It can be difficult when you first join a club, especially when you’ve previously managed a rival side. I joined Chelsea, for example, having managed at Liverpool, with all the rivalry that exists between the two clubs. You have to approach the new role as a professional, be yourself and not try to do different things that you wouldn’t normally do. While it might take time, eventually people will realise that you are trying to do what’s best for the club.
It’s important to be approachable to the fans and it has been an advantage to me to have managed in England, Italy and Spain, as I’ve learned about their cultures and people and have been able to adapt each time I’ve moved to a new club.
When I was manager of Napoli, I walked around the city and spoke to the fans, which was fantastic. I discovered how proud they are of their city. In Milan, with Inter, there was the intense competition with AC Milan, then in England you have the rivalries between, say, Liverpool and Manchester United or Everton, Newcastle and Sunderland. You have to understand what all of this means to the fans if you want a good relationship with them.
Recruiting the right backroom team is essential. As you get older, it’s important to keep up to date and one of the best ways to do that is to have people around you who are well prepared and good at their jobs, and not only people with experience in the game, but also younger people who understand things like social media. Today, it is impossible for a manager to achieve what he or she wants on their own; you have to have a good team around you, as I’ve been lucky enough to have.
Your support staff is also vital when recruiting players. In the past, we were entirely reliant on people’s knowledge of the players. Now, as well as our scouting department, we have access to social media networks, enabling us to gather more information, not only on how each player performs on the pitch, but also how they behave off it. All of this needs to be taken into account so you can make an informed decision when recruiting.
More experienced players can help to manage the dressing room. They can guide the younger players and help ensure everyone is working to the same goals. That means the manager needs to be honest with the players about what they think the team can achieve. Your job is to encourage them every day, week in, week out, to reach one target at a time towards the ultimate goal. If you can do that your team will grow stronger and stronger. Of course, it’s also important to ensure the players enjoy their jobs and are self-motivated to achieve their own personal goals, while still working towards the aims of the team.
Leadership groups within the team can also be valuable. After all, you can’t be with the players every moment of every day. As the manager, you have to make sure that you give the players the right messages, that they agree with those messages and that they’re able to carry out your instructions. To do this, it helps to have three or four players in every team that have the experience, knowledge and intelligence to reinforce those messages with the rest of the team.
I don’t like to be too negative after a defeat. I give the players a little time and then the next day we’ll analyse the video footage and start working on what we can do to improve and what strengths we can build on. If I need to speak to someone who has made a mistake, I’ll make sure I also show them the positive things they did in the match.
When you’ve managed as many games as I have there’s a lot to reflect on. As well as the big achievements and highlights, there are countless little moments that make a difference to your career journey. I remember really clearly, for example, when Tenerife earned promotion. At the end of a really difficult season, we were away at Leganés, while 10km to the north Getafe were playing at home to our rivals, Atletico Madrid. Our stadium was full of Atletico Madrid fans and so to win the game was incredible.
It was an especially important moment in my career because promotion with Tenerife later earned me the chance to manage Valencia, where we went on to win two league titles and the UEFA Cup. Those achievements then led to the opportunity to manage Liverpool.
In Spain, they say you’re not a proper coach until you’ve been sacked. It used to be the case that managers in England were given more time to make a difference, whereas elsewhere in Europe clubs changed their managers more frequently. When I came to Liverpool and signed a five-year contract, I knew it was a massive opportunity and that I could start to build for the future. In the end, I was there for six years before moving to Naples for two years.
After that, I was six months at Inter Milan and six months again at Real Madrid. You learn something each time you lose a job like that; it’s valuable experience. You just have to deal with it, acknowledge the events that led to it, including those that are not within your control, and then try to get back into the profession. Each time you take on a new role you have to do your best, take it one game at a time, remain humble and always work hard.
Thanks to the League Managers Association (LMA) for their support to the managers and for giving us the permission to publish the full interview.
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