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Jan 2012
Blending Traditions and Trends, by Rafa Benítez

General Articles

Rafa Benítez

Just a couple of hours ago I finished a talk, a discussion, in front of a mixture of candidates for the UEFA Pro Licence and a refresher course for the same licence organized by the FA. And I would like to take the opportunity to share with you here some of the ideas discussed.

The title I chose for this article tries to point out that, in any new working environment, you always have to consider the past which is obviously important but you cannot dwell on it and not evolve. In my opinion, I will say again that balance between the two is the key and that is what I tried to explain in the talk with the coaches.

Let’s talk about structures, systems and chances of success. Drawing on the experience I had in three leagues where we were lucky enough to work, I talked first about the structure and organisation of most of the clubs in each of these leagues to see if one can be more successful than the others. At the same time, I discussed the most common systems used in each of them.

I’m sure that regular followers of our website will recognise these themes, because I have talked about them in this blog. A Football Club’s Structure – Rafa Benitez’s view

In Spain, with the Sporting Director role and/or the Technical Director role being responsible for the football section and working closely with my technical staff, we won two league titles and a UEFA Cup, as well as a couple of promotions with Extremadura and Tenerife, which clearly shows that this structure does not in itself cause a problem. The common playing system in the Spanish League at that time used to be 1-4-2-3-1 with its variants. And we used to use it with reasonable success.

In England, with 1-4-4-2 as the common system for most teams and a structure where the ’manager’ heads the football pyramid, we managed to win domestic cups like the FA Cup and the Community Shield, and in Europe, the Champions League and European Supercup. Amongst others we reached three finals in the Carling Cup, Champions League and Club World Cup. Neither the structure of the club nor the system or style of play (we mainly used 1-4-2-3-1 again) were an obstacle to winning trophies despite a change of footballing scene (England from Spain).

Lastly, in Italy, with a structure and organisation similar to Spain, with the role of Sporting Director or Technical Director in theory making the football decisions, we managed to win an Italian Supercup, Club World Cup and qualification for the knock-out phase of the Champions League with a match to spare. Having looked at and analysed the working conditions, these weren’t exactly poor results in the big picture. But because we were there only 5 months, we will never know what would have happened with the resources we asked for and were agreed. Here the most common system was 1-4-3-1-2 by most clubs we faced.

It’s obvious, and there’s no denying it, that the main organisational difference we find when comparing England with Italy and Spain, is the role of ‘manager’ compared to the roles of Sporting Director and/or Technical Directors. On the pitch, Italian football is much slower and more tactical, while in Spain and England they play a much quicker and more technical game and certainly in England it is more physical.

The aim at the outset was to consider whether one structure, system or style was more successful than another. But Liverpool, as well as United, AC Milan, Inter or Barcelona have all been Champions of Europe in the last few years representing the football and idiosyncrasies of their home country. So we can conclude that it depends more on the team and their capabilities rather than the structure, culture and philosophies in each country or the systems used in each one. So that is some sort of conclusion.

The Future

On arriving at a new club, with a new structure, you have to consider the club culture, the city, the feelings of the fans, assess the technical staff and other employees who can influence things and whose experience you can use. And at the same time, respect the traditions, the guidelines, everything that won’t harm performance but can serve as a true club identity.

We talked about the Financial Fair Play and the importance of youth football in dealing with the future economic climate. Some of these ideas were dealt with in a previous article. (see link above) or when we discussed youth football in England.

Regarding the decisions you have to take on arrival, it’s essential to analyse the squad you have by position, age, contract length, attitude and commitment, potential, and nationality to conform to the rules...

This last aspect is tremendously important and many ‘experienced commentators’ don’t realize that you cannot judge a foreign player arriving in a new league with a player who knows it well. In my talk with the coaches, I gave a simple example, the exchange rate:

£ EuroPesetas
1 1,5250
10.000 15.0002.500.000
50.000 75.00012.500.000
60.000 90.00015.000.000
100.000 150.00025.000.000
1 million 1.500.000250.000.000
3 million 4.500.000750.000.000
5 million 7.500.0001.250.000.000
10 million 15.000.0002.500.000.000
15 million 22.500.0003.750.000.000

At first it looks like something unimportant but when you have to convince players and negotiate with their agents, it is absolutely essential to know the value of the money to be more persuasive.

You have to realize that the pound was stronger compared to the Euro when we arrived in England but we were still thinking in pesetas, the old Spanish currency as you know.

We also tried to change the day to day operating of the club to our own personal and professional way of working. We immediately analysed the past medical and physical tests of the players and the results, the history of injuries for each player, watched all the past games we could to get an idea of each player, the style of play, considered the competitions we were in, canvassed the technical staff to get their opinions... To summarize, we got to know everything there was to know about the club, the staff and the club in general.

With all this information we compiled an annual workplan which in turn was divided up monthly, weekly and daily. And with specific goals for each period.

Each day prior to training, there is a meeting with the medical staff and physios to discuss the physical condition of each player, and with the information we could finish off the prepared session of the day. After the session we had another meeting to assess what actually happened, because you can’t always achieve what you wanted, and prepare the next session.

After analysing the fixtures, number of matches, rules of each competition, numbers of players in the squad…and here raises the famous issue of rotation, another debate many of you will remember dealt with in some of our articles.

We could say the same thing about marking at corners against.

At the talk, we showed clips of positive and negative issues in each case and for this we used the Amisco program, and we also used data published by Opta and also data from our own programs. We never forget that the key to the truth is in knowing how to interpret and manage the data.

The Training Session

After the regular meeting with the medical staff to establish how the players are, there is a meeting with the technical staff to finalize the session.

Our sessions normally last between 60 and 75 minutes and in which we always require intensity, a good atmosphere where the players apply themselves and want to improve. 80% of our work in the season is with the ball, with common objectives and a variety of exercises.

Lastly, and as an added extra, we have specific work for some players, in groups or as individuals. Especially for the younger players to improve specific aspects of their game.

At the end of the daily work, as I said before, we spend time recording information and analysing it to adjust our work for the coming days.


Finally, at the talk with the FA coaches, I addressed the subject of competition.

We prepare the game plan which we have been working on during the week, what we want our team to do, and we prepare the team talk using the tactics board and video to analyse the opposition, and animations which we create in one of our own programs. We want to get the message clearly across so there are no doubts, that is the aim.

We insist on motivation, concentration and we try to ensure the players cope with the pressure and we look to play the match with a high level of performance. Actually, if the players knows what to do and how to do it, he will have a bigger chance of success.

During the game, at half time and after the game, we record the player data from the different technical staff and we begin the cycle again. Sometimes with more or less satisfaction, obviously depending on the result and how it was achieved but always with the same dedication and passion of the previous day.

We try to never forget what was done to make the club and the team stronger, but without forgetting that times change and new trends happen quickly, so you always have to recognise the past without losing sight of the future.