In 2009, Sam Wallace wrote about the manager of Middlesbrough, though he would only manage a few mere months more, Gareth Southgate, and why he should be continued to be given a chance considering “English football does not benefit from English managers being tossed away”. His comparison point, Rafael Benitez, at that point manager of Liverpool and on course for finishing second in the league, 4 points behind Manchester United.
Benitez, recently appointed by Everton on a 3-year contract, had a turbulent start to his managerial career and is now a swan song for giving a manager a chance, much like Brendan Rodgers, who started lasting only 6 months at Rangers, and Arsene Wenger who was relegated with Nancy in 1987. Even Sir Alex Ferguson was sacked by St Mirren at the start of his career.
Knee injuries curtailed his paying career, and at an age of 26 Benitez had to retire. A glance at the clubs he played for paints a picture. Playing for Spain Universities XI and the Spain Youth U-19s at the World Student Games, you begin to see where his tactically regimented philosophy originated from. “Everything is controlled, he has an obsession”, said Juan Mata who played under Rafael for Chelsea in 2012–2013, arguably his best year as a professional footballer. He enrolled as a student in the Technical University of Madrid and at 22 obtained a degree in Physical Education. Part of the youth academy of Spanish outfit Real Madrid, playing for their third team, Real Madrid Aficionados, and second team, Real Madrid Castilla, Benitez’s managerial career started with the latter.
Whilst a coach since 1986, it took until 1993 for him to be given the managerial reigns. In total, Benitez lasted 3 years with the club in the Segunda División, whilst a short stint as assistant to Vicente del Bosque, manager of the European giants Real Madrid, was sandwiched in between. However successful, guiding Castilla, at the time then known as Real Madrid B due to the Royal Spanish Football Federations ban for separate names for reserve teams, to mid table finishes, the time he spent in the capital was inherently different to managing just a normal football club. The work of a ‘reserve’ club is for player development, rather than promotion, so much so, it would have impossible for Benitez to ever be promoted thanks to the fact reserve teams cannot compete in the same division as their senior.
Rafa, as he is known in England, took his first steps outside of the Real Madrid hierarchy, at Real Valladolid. The club’s future was in the air, whilst relegated in the 1994–1995 season, finishing 19th in a 20-team season, Sevilla and Celta de Vigo both had not made their payments to the Royal Spanish Football Federation, and were subsequently relegated. Therefore, just 2 weeks before the season started Benitez found himself a La Liga manager. “I was complaining about the level of the signings in the end because we did everything in a hurry”, said Rafael. 22 games into the season, with just 2 wins under their belt, Valladolid found themselves hosting Valencia, the club Benitez would go onto to win 2 La Liga titles and the UEFA Cup (now commonly known as the Europa League) in his 3-season reign. Before the game, the Valladolid kit-man approached Benitez claiming, “I’ve put some garlic behind the goal [Valencia’s] to bring bad luck to the goalkeeper”. Maybe there was method to his madness, as in the warmup, Valencia’s goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta, with 126 caps for the Spanish national team to his name, went down injured. Still though, 58 minutes into the match Valladolid found themselves 0–5 down, and whilst they recovered to a less unacceptable 2–5, Benitez was still sacked. The garlic did not work after all, as reserve goalkeeper Jorge Bartual won man of the match.
Worse was to follow when next season he took charge of Osasuna in the Segunda División. This time his stint was just 9 games, 16 fewer than both his roller-coaster stints at Real Madrid and Inter Milan. Just one win, a 3–0 victory over soon-to-be relegated Almería CF, saw Benitez sacked. The directors of Osasuna were new to football, and has envision promotion to La Liga that season, whilst Rafa believed it need at least two years. All in all, Osasuna escaped relegation by 3 points, just above Almería CF, in which saw the club hire 4 separate managers over the year. Asked whether it made himself want to quit his managerial career for good, after two torrid spells, Rafael said “the opposite — it gave me even more determination to be a success”.
The lack of Spanish managers must have been at an all time low, considering just next season Benitez was given another managerial job with Extremadura. The club folded in 2010 due to financial problems, but in their 1996–1997 season, whilst Benitez was starting his short voyage with Osasuna, Extremadura were beginning their first ever season in La Liga. Based in the small Spanish town of Almendralejo, with a population of just 35,000, at the time, they became the Cinderella story for the season. Whilst they started poorly, one win in just 19 matches, which makes Benitez’s one in 9 look good, a second half resurgence left them just a point from safety. The club became victims of a change in league structure, going back to 20 teams, after it became 22 when Sevilla and Celta de Vigo both were reinstated after they were first relegated due to financial problems.
This was not the end of the story though, and with a young Rafael Benitez leading the team, a 2nd place finish in the 1997–1998 Segunda División meant that Extremadura were back in the big league. Their success was founded upon two core foundations which Benitez can be associated with till this day, a solid defensive team with a prolific centre forward, much like Liverpool with Fernando Torres for example. The competitions’ top goal scorer, Igor Gluscevic, netted 24 times for Extremadura in the league, 30 times overall. The striker from Montenegro said, “I remember Rafa being thorough and hard-working, focussing on tactics and leaving nothing to chance. Psychologically, he prepared the team and squad very well. Eleven would start but everyone had a role to play, and we all knew what we had to do. He was a genius as a coach, a trainer and as a strategist”. The runners-up finish also came with only 38 goals conceded in 42 games, 2nd only to eventual champions Alavés. Benitez selected 23 players throughout that whole season, squad rotation another key philosophy that has stuck with himself in his managerial career, 21 of those playing 10 or more games. The following season in La Liga, whilst not successful, is still remembered fondly, as 17th remained Extremadura’s highest finishing position in its history. Igor Gluscevic had left the summer prior for Sevilla, and striking woes followed, with Benitez’s men scoring just 27 times all season. A 4–0 aggregate thrashing by Villarreal in the relegation playoff sealed their fate back into the Segunda División, a feat they never recovered from, and in 2008 they found themselves in the fifth step of Spanish football.
We all know how the story goes, following his stormy start to his managerial career, Rafa went on to win La Liga twice with Valencia, the UEFA Cup/Europa League twice with Valencia and Chelsea, and more importantly the Champions League in 2005, made possible by his incredible tactical acumen in the knockout stages, and the ‘miracle of Istanbul’ in the final.
Benitez has become this benchmark of giving a manager time, and was again used by Sam Wallace in 2013, dismissing the claim that Southgate’s CV is not one to marvel at when he picked up the role as manager of England U-21s. Maybe we would not have had Gareth’s successes at major international tournaments without Rafa. Who knows?