‘A loner with a laptop – ’ The idiosyncrasies of Rafa Benítez

Rafa Benitez

Author: Thore Haugstad

Impersonal and analytical, Rafa Benítez is as attentive to strategic factors as he can be oblivious to human ones. On his first date with his wife, he explained the 4-4-2. During his honeymoon, he took her to a training session at Ajax. (“She despaired a bit, but it was okay as long as I came along on some cultural excursions,” he told Josimar.) Jamie Carragher wrote in 2008 that he had never spoken to Benítez about anything but football. In 2009, when Fernando Torres had played his first match since becoming a father, his team-mates were congratulating him on his newborn daughter as Benítez approached, unaware of the news. “You should be very proud,” Benítez told him. “We’ve been working on your runs to the near post from corners, and it paid off for that goal.”

Born in 1960 in Aluche, a working-class district in Madrid, Benítez spent his childhood engrossed by sports. He played basketball, handball, did judo, enjoyed swimming; but football eclipsed all. At thirteen, his father, Francisco, got him a trial with Real Madrid, and he won a place. (His mother, Rosario, followed the club; Francisco supported Atlético Madrid.) Even for a keen teenager, Benítez’s interest level seemed abnormal. After matches, he filled sketchbooks with tactical notes and player ratings. He videoed himself for self-analysis. On the pitch, he directed and organised. “When I played they said I talked too much, but I couldn’t help it,” he said, according to the Guardian. “If I saw a problem, I tried to correct it.”

At home, board games devoured his time. He played chess, reading books and studying openings, but Stratego was his favourite. Simulating a military battle, two players have forty pieces each that include a flag, bombs and officials of varying rank. When two officials clash, the strongest prevails, and its identity is revealed. To win, one must block all of the opponent’s pieces or find the flag. For a few summers, Benítez played with his brothers and friends. He despised losing. “So, for one day and one night, I analysed the game, considering each piece, its strengths and weaknesses, how it could best be used,” he wrote in his 2012 book Champions League Dreams. He drew up a game plan and vowed to stick to it. “The basic principle was to toy with what my opponent expected me to do, to move the pieces in such a way that they would mistakenly assume certain characters were in certain places, and to keep some pieces back, so that you did not risk losing by finding your forces suddenly depleted,” he wrote. “All of my work did not go to waste. My brother and my friends never beat me again.”

At Madrid, Benítez rose through the ranks. He joined Castilla U-15, Real Madrid U-18—with whom he became Spanish youth champion in 1978—and the third team, called Real Madrid Aficionado. He started as a winger, tried the sweeper role, and ended up a defensive midfielder. In an interview with FourFourTwo, he would describe his specialities as passing with both feet, aerial strength and fitness. “But I wasn’t the quickest,” he said. “And in my case, that was the difference between being a normal player and a top-class player.”

Off the pitch, he was dedicated and prudent. He set aside earnings for tuition fees, which arose from his enrolment at the School of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences (INEF), where he studied physical education. The schooling packed his timetable. Each day, he raced for forty-five minute from the university campus, via the metro, to the training ground. According to Diario AS, his team-mates nicknamed him ‘TriNa’, after a fruit juice, because of his refusal to touch alcohol. This has hardly changed. In 2011, when interviewed in a Merseyside pub, he ordered still water.

In 1979, Benítez was called to the national university team for a tournament in Mexico. In the second game, he suffered a knee injury that would sideline him for six months. Once fit, he joined AD Parla on loan in the Spanish fourth tier, while working as a PE teacher. Parla later won the league and got promoted, but Benítez suffered relapses. With his progression hindered, he left Madrid and joined Linares, in the third tier. Yet his knee kept troubling him and, at twenty-six, he decided to retire.

Benítez’s playing career was, in managerial terms, an auspicious prelude. Old is the debate about what qualities make good coaches, but he seemed to have the key ingredients: his lack of pace necessitated tactical intelligence; his role presented the game before him, requiring judgement and a sharp head; his early retirement freed up time for practice and study; and years in the lower divisions would appear to have fostered an understanding of less capable players. These factors tend to form a holy quartet of experiences. Just ask Arsène Wenger, Carlo Ancelotti or José Mourinho.

In 1986, the same year he retired, Benítez started a five-year stint as technical director in various gyms in Madrid, one in which he met his wife, Montse. He also began coaching in the Real Madrid academy. He led a series of youth teams, and later the U-19 side, winning cups in 1991 and 1993, and a league title in 1993. The same year, he took charge of Castilla, Real Madrid’s reserve team, in the second division.

Looking back at this period, Benítez would describe himself as a “loner with a laptop”, because of his idiosyncrasies and technological sophistication. At a time when home computers were rarities, he composed training sessions and tactical game plans digitally. In the 1980s, he had owned a Commodore 64 and a ZX Spectrum—home computers released in 1982. He had utilised Betamax, a videocassette magnetic tape first unveiled in 1975. Analysing matches, he connected two VHS recorders to his TV set: one taped the whole game, the other recorded specific situations, such as set pieces. “His working methods were nothing like we had seen at youth level,” Alberto Toril, who played for Castilla, told Diario AS. “He would gather an incredible amount of information on our opponents, and that was quite a surprise for us.”

Benítez drew inspiration from contemporary teams. He hung around at the base of the Spanish Football Association to scout sides and pick up tips. More profoundly, he adored the AC Milan of Arrigo Sacchi—“That team of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten was one which caught my eye and fired my imagination as a young coach,” he would write in Champions League Dreams—and sought to implement their principles at Castilla. He parroted messages about zonal marking and compact team structure. The players were told to imagine being connected by an invisible rope, so that nobody would step out of position. Before long, he had a new sobriquet: Arrigo Benítez.

In 1994, Benito Floro was sacked as coach of Madrid’s first team midway through the season, and Vicente del Bosque installed as caretaker. Del Bosque had noticed Benítez’s work, and appointed him his assistant. But he lost the job in summer and, in 1994/95, new coach Jorge Valdano clashed with Benítez over a youngster named Sandro. Benítez left, and decided to go solo. The early years were tough. In 1995, he was handed a chance at Real Valladolid, recently relegated from La Liga. Excited, he spent pre-season recruiting young players equipped for winning promotion. One day in mid-August, he awoke from a nap to discover that two La Liga teams—Celta Vigo and Sevilla—had lost their places over financial tardiness. That meant Valladolid and Albacete were back up, so Benítez had fifteen days to turn a Segunda squad into La Liga survivors. It was not sufficient, and Benítez was dismissed. The next season he joining another newly-relegated team, Osasuna. He lasted nine weeks.

Such experiences can be disheartening, but Benítez’s self-belief only grew. His reasoning was simple: he was working too hard not to succeed. In 1997, he took charge of Extremadura, in the second division. Few top players wanted to live in Almendralejo, a town of twenty-eight thousand inhabitants, and the squad reportedly had to travel forty kilometres by bus to reach the training complex. Undeterred, Benítez demanded upgraded facilities and devised new dietary plans. Once, he is said to have snapped when discovering that some players were chewing gum. The strictness paid off at first, as Extremadura finished second in the Segunda. But they were immediately relegated from La Liga, losing the play-offs 4-0 on aggregate to a Rayo Vallecano side led by Juande Ramos. Benítez was out again.

A hiatus ensued. Benítez did media work, and studied in countries such as England and Italy. In 2000, like a beat-up boxer refusing to stay down, he took charge of Segunda side Tenerife, and reached La Liga after a dramatic last round.

Benítez had now pulled off successive promotions. In 2001, Valencia parted ways with Héctor Cúper and started hunting a successor. They approached Javier Irureta, Mané and Luis Aragonés, all unsuccessfully. When Benítez’s name was suggested, several board members expressed reservations over his inexperience, but he got the nod. “I remember my agent telling me: ‘How much money do you want to earn?’,” Benítez recalled. “And I said: ‘Listen, it’s Valencia. It doesn’t matter.’”

He inherited a solid core. Gaizka Mendieta left, but the squad included Santiago Cañizares, Roberto Ayala, David Albelda, Rubén Baraja, Pablo Aimar. No luxuries were allowed. Benítez banned paella on match days, and was reported to have outlawed ice cream. A dressing-room culture formed in which slackers were punished. Later, Benítez would tell Carragher that, after games, when certain players had failed in their defensive duties, the Argentines would target the culprits and start fights in the showers.

Benítez appeared to condone this behaviour, which reflected his valuation of defensive conscientiousness. His list of buzzwords includes ‘balanced’ and ‘compact’—all referring to work without the ball—and Sacchi’s revolution centred on shape. This manifested itself in Valencia’s first season, which contributed to erect the reputation in Spain of Benítez as cautious. They finished top despite scoring fifty-one league goals. Only in three games did they strike twice or more, and the top scorer was Baraja, with seven. Twenty-seven were conceded.

After a disappointing second season, Valencia peaked. They shipped twenty-seven again, but went twenty goals better up front, Mista hitting nineteen. Yet despite La Liga and UEFA Cup successes, the board refused to offer Benítez a long-term extension, aggravating a situation in which his relationships with several officials were tense. When Benítez requested a new striker, only to be given attacking midfielder Fabián Canobbio, he resigned in tears. His parting shot was a zinger: “I asked for an armchair, and they bought me a lamp.”

When Benítez joined Liverpool in 2004, stories preceded him. Carragher: “’They call him God over there,’ I read. ‘Not the fans, the players. Rafa thinks he knows everything.’ That stuck in my mind.” Yet few knew his traits. His personality—intense, cold, unflappable, confident, irreverent, blunt—did not appear until a meeting with Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Carragher at England’s team hotel at the Euros. “Rafa kept asking for our opinions, but I sensed that whatever we said, it didn’t matter,” Gerrard wrote in his 2006 autobiography. “Rafa was his own man, not the type of manager to be swayed by others’ views. He had his own methods, which worked wonders at Valencia, so why did he need advice? He was just judging us.” The previous season, Gerrard had practically run midfield on his own. “I’ve watched your games on video,” Benítez told him. “Your problem is that you run around too much.”

Although Benítez’s English was poor at that stage, the trio felt his messages could have been clearer. Gerrard called it a strange meeting. At one point, he told Gerrard—who contemplated a move to Chelsea—that Liverpool “have not got loads of money”, which left him in confusion and torment. No money to strengthen? Did they want to cash in? Gerrard’s future would be resolved, but it was not Benítez’s only error as a communicator. He gave the impression of thinking the side were only tweaks away from greatness. “I’m not sure you appreciate how bad we are.” Gerrard told him. Indeed, after taking his first training, Benítez would describe the level as “a bit of a shock”.

This was a time of adaptation. Having dismissed language classes as too time-consuming, Benítez read English newspapers, watched television with subtitles and listened to The Beatles. (“I was not quite aware of how much the Scouse accent would change the words I was hearing,” he later wrote.) On the pitch, the rules were unfamiliar. “It surprised me constantly, in that first year, what was deemed a good challenge, particularly in the air,” he wrote. “For me, my assistants and the Spanish players, every single one was a foul.”

If his daily routines at Liverpool during the season are still followed, we can assume that Benítez rises between 5.30am and 6am. If he awakes too early, he merely starts working sooner. By 8.30am he has eaten, checked his inbox and scanned the press. Once at work, he is briefed by medical staff. At 9.30am the injured players undergo treatment; fifteen minutes later, the remainder of the squad arrive. They breakfast at the club. (Benítez worries that if they eat at home, they will consume either too little or too much.) Training starts at 10.30am and lasts for an hour and fifteen minutes. The annual training schedule is broken into mini-cycles of seven to fifteen days with specific aims, such as stamina, or retaining possession. After a warm-down, Benítez assembles the coaching staff to analyse the session. The observations are fed into a computer system and later perused by the analysis department, who condense the information. Then it’s lunch. During busy periods, Benítez eats at his desk.

Like its occupant, Benítez’s office at Melwood was not high on sentimentality. The only photos were one of youngsters Darren Potter, David Raven and Warnock celebrating a win in the Carling Cup; and one of a Kop banner with the words ‘Rafa the Gaffa’. The only other decorations were a miniature European Cup and a signed rugby ball. The books lining the walls were mostly on football or physical education. More mundane facilities included a flatscreen monitor, a laptop, a printer, folders of information on players and training sessions. For conversational moments, a dark leather sofa sat in front of the desk, accompanied by two chairs and a small coffee table. More importantly, a vast glass wall offered Benítez a view of the pitches.

Another wall carried shelves holding hundreds of DVDs of match footage. In a scrupulous system, each was categorised, numbered and linked to a library on Benítez’s computer. The collection—which, presumably, is still growing—includes matches of his Castilla side; films on Extremadura, Tenerife; all his games at Valencia; clips on common opponents and specific players. Carragher was given videos on how Benítez’s Valencia defended, and on Franco Baresi. Such videos analysis often occupied Benítez’s afternoons.

At about 7pm, he goes home. Down in his Merseyside basement, his library of football continued: reports on all his Castilla games, notes on his Madrid youth teams, training schedules from Tenerife, details on tactical systems at Extremadura and Valencia. More was stored in the attic of the house of his parents: videos of his early playing career, cassettes, magazines, notes from his university course. Back home, Benítez generally spends time with his family, though leisure does not always come easy for a workaholic. After the birth of his two daughters, Claudia and Agata, he would tend to them on late nights, watching footage on the side.

The debut season at Liverpool was mixed. They finished fifth in the league, thirty-seven points behind Chelsea, but in Europe, Benítez’s appetite for analysis underpinned a run to the Champions League final. Ahead of big games, he would work twelve to fourteen hours a day. All findings on the opposition were compiled into a dossier that could run beyond thirty pages. The player briefing was boiled down to fifteen or twenty minutes. Like with Stratego, Benítez often looks to deceive the opposition. In the quarter-finals against Juventus, he used a 4-2-3-1 for the first two minutes; Juve adapted, and when he went 3-5-1-1, Fabio Capello failed to notice.

Other details can be decisive. At Melwood, Benítez made a group of analysts study the opponent’s last three or four games for set pieces. Like most coaches, he possesses an arsenal of routines, in which some are more treasured than others. In fixtures preceding a crucial game, he will leave out his best move to mislead scouts. In a 2006/07 Champions League tie against Chelsea, Daniel Agger struck from a free-kick routine that Benítez had last used when Valencia met Celtic in 2001.

In the final, Liverpool were 3-0 down to Milan at half-time. Yet Benítez retained a calm demeanour. “People often ask if I am ever overwhelmed at the scale of the task in hand, thinking about all of the fans filling up the stadium, each one of them hungry for victory,” he writes in Champions League Dreams. “When you are focused, though, so absolutely concentrated on the task in hand, you cannot think about anything else….” His switch to 3-4-2-1 changed the game, alongside a slice of fortune perhaps attributable to a lucky charm: a pair of bright-red boxers worn in each European fixture that season, emblazoned with the face of a cartoon character, namely the Tasmanian Devil.

Benítez is not known for prolonged celebrations. His reality revolves round work, analysis, work, observation, study, reflection, work, and more work. The morning after the final, he contemplated which players to flog. Less than thirty-six hours after the trophy lift, he was back in his office at Melwood. When Liverpool had beaten Chelsea in the semi-finals, and even Montse backed an all-out party, he dampened the mood. “It was not that I do not enjoy those moments—far from it…” he wrote. “But it is not my style to be extroverted, to have a public celebration. I prefer to relax with a few friends, surrounded by the people I work with, to assess what we have done, and how we have done it. I suppose I am a naturally analytical person.”

A football fan as much as a footballer, Carragher was the player Benítez found the most convivial. They loved tactics and shared a cynicism about how football works. “Football is a lie,” Benítez would say, referring to the credibility of public declarations. After one press conference, Benítez told Carragher he had said he was better than John Terry. A fine compliment, had Benítez not proceeded to mime the nose of Pinocchio.

Because of Benítez’s chase for perfection, his feedback cycle is devoid of positivity. There are only corrections, delivered without the conversational encrustations most deem customary. In the pre-season of 2004, after a friendly with Celtic, Benítez tapped Owen on the shoulder. “You have to learn how to turn more quickly when you have the ball with your back to goal,” he told Owen, who had just scored twice. Carragher: “I glanced at Michael, saw the look of astonishment on his face, and started laughing… I’ve not heard a manager speak to Michael like that for years.” This was only the start. “He was privately critical of our squad, which was reassuring in some respects, although he was just as negative about the Valencia side he’d left, which I thought was so good,” Carragher wrote about Benítez. “In fact, you’d be hard pressed to get Rafa to say anything positive about any player or team he’s worked with.”

In 2005/06, Liverpool finished third in the league and won the FA Cup final on penalties against West Ham, after Gerrard had inspired a comeback. Amid the celebrations, the captain hoped for praise. “Go on, just say it, Rafa,” Gerrard wrote. “Just say ‘Well done, Steven’. For once. Would he? No chance! Our chat once again revolved around things that went wrong on the day; it was nothing to do with how well Liverpool had done to get back into one of the greatest FA Cup finals ever. ‘Next season,’ Rafa kept saying. ‘Next season, we have to do better in the Premiership.’” He did not mention the two goals Gerrard had scored. “Not a squeak!” Gerrard wrote. “I smacked in twenty-three goals that season for Liverpool—not bad for a midfielder. Any other manager would have been all over me. Not Liverpool’s gaffer. ‘You never hit twenty-five,’ he remarked. ‘You missed the target by two!’ But, a smile! Amazing! Rafa actually smiled! Thank God. I wandered back to the lads, thinking: ‘Jesus, that was a compliment off Rafa.’”

Benítez is rarely attentive to the human side of his players. Like in Stratego, they are viewed as bricks with characteristics that can be moved around. At Liverpool, the word used by Benítez about their personalities was ‘professional’—players who, like him, dedicated their lives to work. “We are cogs in a machine for Benítez,” said Gerrard in 2006. Would he describe him as a warm person? “Definitely not,” he wrote. “All that matters to Benítez is football. To Benítez, I am Steven Gerrard, footballer and LFC employee, not Steven Gerrard, flesh and blood, thoughts and emotions. The boss is obsessed with football. Any conversation with Benítez is football, football, football. Matches, tactics, players. He rarely passes me in the corridor at Melwood and enquires: ‘How’s the family? How’s the new house?’ For Benítez, my life revolves around only Anfield and Melwood.”

Though more affection might have been nice, Benítez’s lack of empathy never troubled Liverpool’s key players. Yet based on perceptions denoting his modest interpersonal skills, one can understand why he had been, and would continue to be, involved in confusions and fall-outs with players. At a time when Benítez was still his boss, Carragher compared him to a hands-on teacher whose relentlessness could annoy you, but who you’d later appreciate as educative. “My other view of Rafa is as one of those fellas you see sat in the corner of every pub who’s an expert on any subject,” he wrote. “If you tell a story, he can always go one further. If you tell a joke, he’ll say he’s already heard it, or tell you how to deliver the punchline better.”

One of those irked was Craig Bellamy, signed by Benítez in 2006. They first met in the manager’s office. “He produced a cutting from a newspaper,” Bellamy recalled in his autobiography Goodfella. “The page was dominated by a picture of me with a snarl on my face. Most of the time back then I’d have a snarl on my face. It was nothing unusual.”

“Why are you looking like this?” Benítez said. Bellamy said he could not remember.

“You can’t play like this. This kind of aggression is not what you need as a player.”

Benítez then produced a board and quizzed Bellamy on tactics. His thoughts on various systems, the benefits of playing between the lines, his choice of runs in given situations. For each reply, he injected a twist.

“If this player has it, where would you go?” Benítez asked.

“I’d run to the left,” Bellamy replied.

“Yeah, but run right first, then go left.”

This was typical Benítez. He wants his players to understand why they are doing something, believing it fosters trust. “I was a bit taken aback by his attitude,” Bellamy wrote. “It was like being in the presence of an unsmiling headmaster.

“The atmosphere at the club seemed strange, too,” Bellamy continued, in forthright fashion. “It was a place of business and a place of work. There weren’t very many people smiling. There wasn’t a lot of laughter around the place. Even the physios were on edge when they were doing the medical. Everyone seemed uncomfortable and wary.”

The fitness work under Pako Ayestarán is described as military-like. Bellamy hails Benítez’s defensive work as “exceptional”, the video analysis as “extremely thorough”. But he criticises his rigidness. On the training ground, Benítez wanted certain running patterns to unfold whenever the ball reached a certain area. Bellamy felt this undermined individual improvisation. “It was a bit like Groundhog Day,” he wrote. “You came in and did the same stuff over and over again.”

Given his critical eye, Benítez will be familiar with human imperfections. By most accounts, he seeks to limit the number of individual errors by implementing as much behaviour as possible under his own systems. Whether dietary or tactical. After training, Benítez removed the balls so that nobody could do extra work. Bellamy might have had a point when he noted that “of all the managers I have worked with, he trusted his players the least”. This also goes for Benítez’s policy of naming the line-up just an hour before kick-off. Benítez sees it as a Stratego concept—never risk giving your secrets away—but his reasoning puts his players in an uncertain light. “If they bump into a friend from the opposing side before the game—or receive a message from him,” Benítez wrote, “they might inadvertently let slip who is playing where.”

Bellamy would also discover Benítez’s bluntness. That season, Liverpool came third once more, and lost the Champions League final to Milan. In Athens, Bellamy had been benched without explanation. On the plane home, he sat alone, distraught, when Benítez sat down next to him.

“What are your plans for next season?” Benítez asked.

“I looked at him,” Bellamy wrote. “We’d just lost the Champions League final. I hadn’t got on. I was feeling glum. I wasn’t in the mood.”

“I haven’t really thought about it,” he replied.

“We’re going to buy another striker,” Benítez said. “If you want to go and speak to other clubs, that’s fine.”

Benítez got up to leave. Then Bellamy shot back: “I’m still trying to come to terms with the disappointment of what’s just happened, and now you tell me you want to get rid of me. Classy timing.”

“Rafa started stuttering,” Bellamy wrote. “He did that shrug he does, that merciless kind of shrug that says all emotion is futile and, actually, wholly unwelcome.”

In his book, Bellamy later clarified he had no problem with Benítez, despite his directness. “He could have let me get over the disappointment of not playing in the final,” he wrote. “But Rafa doesn’t have any sentiment. He’s not interested in social skills. He tries to come across as a warm person, but he is as harsh a guy as you will ever come across.”

In 2008/09, Liverpool came second, four points behind United. After a close race, some held decisive Benítez’s aggressive press conference, in which he read out ‘facts’ from a sheet in protest at Sir Alex Ferguson’s perceived influence on referees. More important was the sale of Xabi Alonso, which Benítez was never able to live down. By this time, Tom Hicks and George Gillett had bought the club, and Benítez chafed under their incompetence. Relationships broke down, promises went unkept. When Liverpool finished seventh in 2009/10, he was fired.

Having just left an eristic environment, Benítez proceeded to walk into another one. His succession of Mourinho at Internazionale was a disaster: a treble-winning squad toiled under his management, ugly fallouts ensued, and he was sacked in December. But in a later interview, he accepted no blame. Asked about his errors, he interrupted the questioner to deliver an aria of explanations; rejecting that his stint had been a failure, he reminded that his Inter had qualified from their Champions League group, and won the Supercoppa Italia and the Club World Cup. (Though both titles required just a handful of wins.) The table position? Inter had two games in hand. The play? Massimo Moratti had promised funds to renew a geriatric squad; none had arrived. The injuries? Disobedient members of the mainstay coaching staff had put players through fitness work without his approval.

Benítez rarely admits mistakes. In another interview, when put to him that selling Alonso was his greatest blunder at Liverpool, he said poor finances made wheeling and dealing necessary to strengthen the squad. Would he do that ‘rant’ again? “Yeah,” he said. “One hundred per cent.” Back at the Madrid academy, after a 2-1 defeat, Benítez once railed against the club for not informing him of a rule change: he had been allowed to bring six substitutes; not five, as he had done. “Who knows?” Benítez later wrote. “That extra substitute might have made all the difference.” Carragher: “I’ve never seen any evidence of Rafa’s certainty in his own talent being shaken. He attributed our poor league form in his first season to the circumstances he’d inherited. In his mind, there was nothing more he could have done.”

There is little to suggest Benítez’s obsessiveness has dimmed. In his spell of unemployment prior to joining Chelsea and Napoli—where he spent two years alone in an apartment adjacent to the training complex—he helped the coach of a local school team. “It was hilarious,” said Montse, according to the Liverpool Echo. “He stood on the sidelines and shouted at them as if they were first division players, waving his arms about.” In June, twenty-four hours after he had been confirmed as coach of Madrid, local press claimed he had not even left the training ground to eat. “I don’t know if he’ll ever retire,” says Montse. “All being well, he has twenty years of football left.”

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