Seated in a restaurant on a quiet afternoon, Rafa Benitez laughs as he tells the story of how he first stumbled into coaching. No, not the injury problems that forced him into early retirement as a player at the age of 26 and subsequent entry into Real Madrid's coaching staff -- but how he got involved with coaching one of the boys' teams at his daughter's school in Liverpool.
This particular boys' team had been losing a majority of their games and the school had asked Benitez if he'd be willing to help out. Benitez had originally demurred due to other time commitments, but one day had shown up to watch one of the games. He made a couple of tactical suggestions ( for instance one of the larger kids had been used in the center of midfield, while Benitez advised he should be deployed on the wing to place the player into more space) and armed with the new strategy the team immediately proceeded to win. A smile crosses his face as he remembers the postgame celebration, where some of the parents told him that he was "pretty good at this sort of thing" and should keep managing the team.
It's not just coaching youth teams that occupies Benitez's time. These days the former Valencia and Liverpool manager and most recently Inter, keeps busy working with his website, which in addition to highlighting his tactical observations, helps to promote the charitable works undertaken by his wife's foundation (which among other things, gives financial support to the Hillsborough Family Support Group). The rest of his time is spent watching games -- lots of them -- both in preparation for his role as a pundit for Eurosport but mostly for his own interest. "When you are not training or not coaching, you have to do a lot of things," said Benitez. "Some people just go on holidays and enjoy watching TV, but I like to analyze games, I like to know how teams play, the tactics, the players if they are good enough or not for the future if I [look] to sign players."
It's at this point that Benitez shows me what he and his staff have developed: a new coahing app for the iPad called Globall Coach. It's a tool for coaches (both professional and amateur) that can be used as a visual teaching aid to facilitate learning. "The [initial] idea of a program was to show the fans the tactics of Istanbul 2005 when we won the Champions League [at Liverpool]," said Benitez. "The movement we were doing with Kaka between the lines and after, a line of three defenders. We started working with the IT people and thought 'why don't we create a program that we can use.'"
The app itself is incredibly versatile, it can even be programmed to assess the tactics of a specific game that one has watched. Benitez himself uses it after matches to examine a team's movement and analyze the shape of the game. We talk about tactics for a while as Benitez scrolls through various matches that have caught his interest as of late. He's particularly intrigued by what Borussia Dortmund does, "When I was a young coach, I liked AC Milan," said Benitez, "now I think Borussia Dortmund is doing a really good job. They play with four defenders high, they press high, they go with their fullbacks forward all the time, with wingers inside. If they have to play direct football they go to support quickly and if they give a goal away they press with 2-3 players on the ball. They're very good with their movements." Obviously the current Barcelona and Real Madrid squads also stand out, but Benitez is keen to emphasize that what helps make both teams special is their willingness to press when they lose the ball and the intensity of that pressing.
It's a fascinating conversation as Benitez notes the differences throughout various teams, leagues and compares both their schemes and the numbers. "The main thing for me is passes per game, passing accuracy and in particular final third passing accuracy." It's here that he points out that MLS is far below the other leagues (only a 58.7percent final third passing accuracy compared to 64-65 percent in England, Italy and Spain and with a higher propensity for longer passes, 15.8 percent compared to figures in the 13-14 percent range for top European leagues).
As the tactical discussion continues, it's only natural to ask if we've reached the pinnacle of tactical evolution in the modern game. Just how much more advanced can the thinking develop? After all, many of the staples such as pressing, a high defensive line and zonal marking were in fact proposed or instituted by Victor Maslov, famed for his work with Dynamo Kyiv in the Sixties. "It's not the same systems they were using in the past, similar systems but there's now more pace, more intensity," said Benitez. "I remember an article when they talked about the time you had when you received the ball, I don't remember the exact figures but I think it said it was 4 seconds for Garrincha, 3.5 for Cruyff, 2 for Maradona, 1.5 seconds for the lowest etc.
"So it means you have less time and you have to do things quicker, you don't see as many people dribbling and running with the ball because the opposition are on top of you so quickly you have to pass the ball -- nowadays there's more emphasis on collective technique more than individual technique."
The conversation inevitably drifts to what Benitez is looking for in his next management job. He's certainly not been short of offers since leaving Inter, but he's in no hurry and is waiting for what he sees as the ideal project, a team that matches his desire to win trophies and a team that doesn't necessarily have to be in the Premier League. With his daughters happily settled in at school in the Liverpool area, Benitez is accepting of the fact that he might have to move on his own and commute when possible if his next job falls outside England. It's also no secret that Benitez would consider returning to Liverpool
There continues to be a pervading myth in some quarters that Benitez had vast transfer sums at his disposal during his time at Liverpool. While it's true he spent around £223 million during his six-year tenure, in actuality, according to calculations by Paul Tomkins, author of
"To be fair, everyone has had bad signings," said Benitez. "But if you analyze the current squad of Liverpool -- [Pepe] Reina, [Glen] Johnson, [Daniel] Agger, [Martin] Skrtel, Lucas Leiva, [Dirk] Kuyt, Maxi -- a lot of these players that are doing really well, they were signings that we did. So the people that talk about [Philipp] Degen or [Andriy] Voronin who were free, how you can compare them to the signings of [Fernando] Torres and [Xabi] Alonso? Even with Torres, Alonso, [Javier] Mascherano and the money brought in [with their sales] and still they talk about the other signings, the majority [of which] were not too expensive. "
We debate some of those moves that didn't pan out as planned at Liverpool such as the signing of Dutch forward Ryan Babel in what seems to be Liverpool's never-ending search for a potent winger. "Babel played in a 4-3-3 system at Ajax, " said Benitez. "But he didn't do well as a winger at the end, we were trying to find his best position but it was not going well. Babel was a young player that needed to understand the English game and he didn't." Benitez admits he had searched extensively for wingers while at Anfield, in hopes of replicating his use at Valencia of dangerous widemen Vicente and Rufete. One deal he confirms, which almost came to fruition, was that of Brazilian Dani Alves, then at Sevilla. "Daniel Alves was our first option on the right side," said Benitez. "The problem that we had -- I had to decide to bring Alves as a winger when he was an offensive fullback. It was a difficult decision as we had money at the time for only just one striker or a winger/fullback. We signed a striker, the striker was Kuyt, who to be fair has turned out to be a fantastic contributor to the club."
As for the much criticized sale of midfielder Alonso in the summer of 2009, Benitez explains that his plan had been to bring in both Alberto Aquilani and Stevan Jovetic. "Jovetic was our target but we didn't have the money," said Benitez. "My idea was to play Mascherano, Lucas, [Steven] Gerrard, Aquilani -- two of these four players in the middle and Jovetic between the lines, but we didn't have the money."
In theory, weren't the funds from the sale of Alonso more than enough to cover the purchase of both Aquilani and Jovetic? "You are right. In
The other stick which is often used to beat Benitez with is his relationship, or supposed lack of, with players. Too cold, too dour, too calculating say those same critics. It's a gross misrepresentation if ever there was one. In person, for those who know him, Benitez has always been warm and friendly. He explains his philosophy thus. "Normally the manager has to do his job, he cannot be the close friend of the players, it's an old style that does not [necessarily] work now. You have to do your job, you have to improve your players, you have to teach them, you have to coach them properly. At the end they will realize and see the difference. You cannot say there's no relationship -- every day we train, you can see managers that don't train for 3-4 days. I train every day with my players and talk to them every day, trying to improve them. "
As for not getting along with players, Benitez says it's simply not true and reels off a list of players he's still in close contact with, including several stars who some media outlets have falsely claimed to be estranged from him. Benitez might not text his former players as frequently as certain other managers do -- largely out of respect to their current mangers -- but as he shows me, he's clearly viewed fondly by many of his former charges.
By now, Benitez is running late to pick up his daughters from school -- as he's dashing out the door there's only time for one last question, one that has bothered the masses who've been reading the tactical blogs on his website. Why then does he include the goalkeeper when he's mentioning formations, why 1-4-2-3-1 instead of 4-2-3-1?
"I was saying 4-2-3-1, but if you go to coaches' schools they say 'oh you have to play with a keeper,'" smiled Benitez. "I've also had this conversation with some goalkeeper coaches and they all say 'listen, the keeper also plays' so I have to say it to keep all the goalkeepers happy!"