Benitez finds devil in the details
Dublin – There was a clue to the inner workings of Rafael Benitez in his answer to the question of which football coaching book he might recommend, in the Ask Rafa feature which concluded his chronicles on the European Championships in The Independent this summer. Benitez suggested the works of the Hungarian tactician Arpad Csandi, some of which were out of print, and Dante Panzeri, who wrote Futbol Dinamica de lo Impesando – not so much a tactics book but an entire approach to the game.
That is Benitez for you: the man with such an insatiable appetite for the analysis of the game that he has been compiling detailed information for 30 years on where penalty-takers place their kicks and - as he explained in one of those summer columns - likes to divide the goal into six numbered sections when telling his goalkeepers precisely where a ball is likely to be struck. At Liverpool, his goalkeeping coach Jose Manuel Ochoterena would yell the numbers at Jerzy Dudek or Pepe Reina when the moment came. The keepers were drilled by sitting in front of a laptop before a match, though even Benitez admits that “sometimes it is understandable that they forgot”. The white heat of the 2005 Champions League final was one such occasion, though that night turned out fine.
Benitez's friend Paco Lloret has described him as someone whose belief in the rational is almost Cartesian. As a child he would spend hours immersed in sessions of the complex tactical board game “Stratego”, against his brother, and the story told in his new book Champions League Dreams of how he prepared Liverpool to get the better of Jose Mourinho's Chelsea through set-pieces in the tournament's 2007 semi-final shows how that served him well. Calculating that Mourinho would be scouting Liverpool for three or four games beforehand, Benitez “hid” his special pre-planned set-piece for weeks, saving it for Daniel Agger who scored from it when the sides met.
Some Liverpool supporters will say that Benitez – the man who had the salt and pepper pots straight out at a hotel to demonstrate various tactical points when we met in Liverpool last year – thought too much. Many remember him substituting Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard in the away game at Reading in December 2007, conceding hopes of winning in order that Liverpool were ready for a vital Champions League trip to Marseilles three days later. Some players will say that they have not liked what Lloret describes as Benitez's “insatiable diligence” – this deeply serious man's inability to enjoy success.
One of the excellent anecdotes in Fernando Torres's biography El Niño concerns a day when, after Torres had scored twice in Liverpool's 2-0 win over Chelsea in February 2009, he was tying up his boots ready to head out to the training pitch. The weekend papers had been full of stories about Torres being set to become a father and he takes up the story: “'Congratulations, Fernando,' Rafa says. 'Thanks, boss,' I reply. I assumed he was congratulating me on the pregnancy and I paused, expecting the obvious next question. I was wrong. 'Just as we'd anticipated, attacking the near post really paid off yesterday,' he said. 'You got ahead of the defender into that space we talked about, which gave you an advantage and allowed you to with a header.'“
Benitez explains in his new book that the anecdote “shows we were trying to help him”. Jamie Carragher says he has “never spoken to Rafa about anything other than football” though the defender adds in his biography that Benitez has had “the greatest overall influence” on him as a defender. Coming from Carragher, that is something.
The Benitez style is confrontational. He can seem tactless. He always knows best. He has particular disdain for players who believe they have the right to play because of their reputation and experience – which could store up trouble at Stamford Bridge. Life was never the same for Robbie Keane at Liverpool after he challenged Benitez's authority in a game at Tottenham and Carragher tells how Peter Crouch's relationship with the manager changed once he'd become a star player for England.
Perhaps a little more diplomacy in his relationship with players would help – though perhaps adding it would take away a little of that calmness and composure which Benitez derives from the fact that he has everything covered and that the players need only adhere to his plan. His fearlessness explains why he once sent out right-footed Alvaro Arbeloa at left back to mark Lionel Messi. The plan worked because Arbeloa was so endlessly drilled. “He is always pushing the players because it is the best way to improve,” Torres has said. One of Benitez's players from his time at Valencia has observed that “obsession is good for work, but bad for life”. Carragher is not a Benitez fan but he agrees a professional distance can be a good thing.
Benitez is not without emotional intelligence. His preparations for the Istanbul final of 2005, for example, included an initial tactical video for players and then a 10-minute film, with music from the Beatles, capturing the greatest moments in the history of the club, from key goals to winning finals. The supporters adored him at Anfield, a stadium where that analytical mind told him You'll Never Walk Alone should no longer be played when the players were in the tunnel – but when the they were actually on the pitch, to generate maximum momentum. “Small details,” as Benitez would say.
A minute's silence observed at Anfield was like nothing else for this man. “You can hear the rain fall,” he once told Lloret. Adaptation to the less homely environment than Merseyside will be tough. He is also a huge believer in the team ethic. It is why he so often uses the plural “we”, instead of “I” when talking about what he and his coaching staff have planned.
What can be said for sure about Chelsea's ninth manager in nine years is that he will be more meticulous and unstinting in his efforts than any who went before. He is someone who manages with a mixture of excessive passion and analytical curiosity, Lloret reflects. “Someone unstintingly dedicated to his profession. A lover of football who has made his vocation the driving force of his whole life.” – The Independent