The Impossible Cruise

Man overboard.

Rafa’s gone. Following the drawn game against Valencia, he’s been kicked to the curb by Florentino Pérez. He lasted only seven months; seven months and one day, to be exact. And then, that was it. No additional ‘time to work with the team’; no ‘pressure gradually building on the boss’; no ‘final warnings about unsatisfactory results’. He flew right through the window, with a compensation estimated to be around £7 million in purse – the fifth highest payout any sacked manager has ever received in the history of the game. Still, that’s not all money that was on the cards here. According to Real Madrid’s former chairman Ramón Calderón, Benítez lost the job just after New Year’s Eve precisely to reduce the amount of cash Real Madrid would’ve been forced to pay him had they let him go next summer. That is a piece of fantastic foresight by Pérez – however, it’s also probably the only smart move he has pulled off since hiring Carlo Ancelotti in June 2013.

Let’s sort out the facts. Spring 2015. Carletto finishes La Liga two points behind Barcelona thanks to… a 2-2 draw against Valencia in a critical moment of domestic dogfight. In the Champions League, Real are unable to break Juventus’ defenses and get eliminated in the semifinal. Meanwhile, in Naples, Rafa wastes a golden chance to win a CL qualification for Partenopei. The team loses a must-win ‘season final’ at home to Lazio and finishes fifth, 24 points behind the Serie A champions. The other competitions also go downhill for the club from San Paolo: a clear defeat to Athletic Bilbao demotes the team from Champions League qualifiers to Europa League struggles. On Thursday evenings, SSCN manage to storm their way into the semifinal – only to get played by heroically defensive Ukrainians from Dnipro. In Coppa Italia, Lazio show up again and are again, victorious – which means that Benítez completes the 2014/15 season without a single trophy to his name, being in fact far, far away from ever claiming any silverware.

Afterwards, he gets a chance in Madrid. There’s a certain logic to that move: after all, Rafa has the experience of a Champions League winner. He is also a born Madridista, having spent nine years as a member of backroom staff at Santiago Bernabéu. But such logic is faulty in more than one way – and it’s not just about the less-than-impressive record Rafa boasts these days. Known for being a perfectionist who puts a strong emphasis on hard work and discipline, he seems doomed to antagonize the overpaid, over-pampered players – especially those with big egos. He also has a tendency to depend on defensive play to get the results: as he himself claims, ‘coaching defending is easier because all you need is teach players how to organize properly’. To have such persona leading a club that spent around £234 million on attacking players in the span of just five years – seems like an awfully big gamble.

But then – something unexpected happens. Something unthinkable even to the farsighted journalists. Weird but true: the start of Benítez’s tenure turns out to be a resounding success.

The past says it all: in a grand scheme of things, Rafa came out on top. Between August and early November 2011, Real Madrid went on a 16-game unbeaten run – and that’s a fact some people seem to forget today. The manager came under fire for imposing more defensive discipline, for constantly starting Casemiro and eventually, for forcing Keylor Navas to make an awful number of difficult saves – but, in the end, the expected results have been delivered. Whenever Real were unable to break the opponent down, they simply made a draw. Navas has accumulated 12 clean sheets, Casemiro has been one of the most solid performers and the team, while not exciting to watch, remained a hard nut to crack. For a club that prioritizes the result, Benítez was doing just fine – even until the very end. Numbers don’t lie: the man has been sacked with 17 wins, 5 draws and just 3 defeats on his scoreboard. Combined with 69 goals his lads managed to score – that’s not a bad record at all.

The actual downfall of Fat Spanish Waiter was his team’s performance against the top sides – both in Spain and in Europe. Real Madrid moved from a botched 1-0 lead over Atlético at Vicente Calderon to a completely equal 0-0 draw against PSG; from a lucky 1-0 fluke in PSG rematch to an abysmal second half in Sevilla which costed them a 2-3 defeat. The pinnacle of this underwhelming run was of course a 0-4 disaster against Barcelona in front of 80.000 die-hard Los Merengues’ fans. From the word ‘go’, the result of that prestigious game was never in question. Barcelona absolutely murdered their sworn enemies, who on that evening, looked like a bunch of lads barely interested in playing football. Without the intensity, without the collective responsibility, Real’s 4-3-3 system looked a caricatural version of an ancient 4-2-4 ideas that dominated in football back around the year 1950.

Benítez is certainly the one to blame here. After all, even without Lionel Messi, the arch-rivals from Catalonia do possess the tools to cause all kinds of mayhem in front of any opposition’s goal – and ex-Napoli manager has decided to face them without fielding a proper holding midfielder! In the absence of Casemiro or any other form of defensive anchor in front of the back three, there was simply not enough pressure on players like Iniesta and Sergi Roberto – and it’s them, who pretty much secured three of the four goals that went in the back of Madrid’s net. What’s worse, there was no realistic plan B: once the 1-0 was up, the heads went down and the last shred of motivation has exited the stadium. The rest was simply made of white handkerchiefs in the fans’ hands and Cristiano Ronaldo’s close-ups, as the Portuguese has pulled off more facial mimicry than actual footballing graft.

43 days later, the things got much better – only the result didn’t. A Sunday evening in Valencia was, in many ways, different from El Clásico. First of all, Real Madrid played better. Not by a mile, but still: significantly better than the hosts. Second of all, unlike at Bernabeu against Barcelona, the fans at Mestalla were actually quite friendly towards the Benitez’s side – they still remember two La Liga titles and UEFA Cup victory handed to them on a silver platter by Rafa. And thirdly: this time, the team was actually bold, focused and committed. The fantastic combination between Kovačić, Bale, Ronaldo and Benzema has allowed the Frenchman to give his team a deserved 1-0 lead. That goal was quite a beauty: and a sign that Cristiano & Co. may finally start enjoying themselves in a high-level, competitive football match.

Unfortunately for Los Blancos, one thing remained unchanged from the last failure they’ve produced: poor defensive organisation. Barça exploited that through floating in-between midfield and defense and using individual skills – Los Che did the same by using simple crosses, few set-pieces and quite direct approach. The reason why that happened is that the visitors were not really willing to produce a 2-0 lead after a fine start – and, worse, they were unable to control the game at 1-0 either. Surely, Toni Kroos might’ve had another night of 100% pass accuracy, but that wasn’t enough to keep the contest locked up. A penalty conceded seconds before the end of the first half only confirmed Gary Neville’s hopes: that Real do have a weakness worth exploiting. Additionally, as usual in such circumstances, the whole Valencia team got a huge confidence boost just before the break, allowing them to basically start the game all over again.

The second half will surely be remembered as one of the most exciting shows of 2015/16 La Liga season. Benítez’s boys have squandered six pretty decent chances before their effort were finally rewarded. On a positive side: neither the questionable red card for Kovačić nor the ungrounded and dismissed penalty appeal by Ronaldo have managed to bring them down. On a negative side: they threw away a well-earned lead just seconds after putting in on the scoreboard. It was again, a cross from a seemingly innocuous position, a header and yet another header – all while the main offender, Pepe, was letting his man go there and finish the chance with ease. That guy used to have a couple of decent season in Madrid back when it was all down to clearing headers and putting some physical challenges, but let’s be real: at the age of 32, he’s not of the high enough standard anymore – and he costed his teammate two points.

New captain.

Now, it’s yet another day at RM’s office job. In other words: the boss is dead – long live the boss. Zinedine Zidane is in charge now. A great (though overrated) player. A smart, hard-working family man. A club legend. A footballer who marked the transition from pure, one-man playmaking to an era where a creative player had also to be unselfish, composed and combative. Zizou had it all – though he didn’t have as much flair or vision as some football romantics are attributing to him. His touch was admittedly, great – but how all these traits translate into a man-management job? During his entire career, he’s won 15 trophies; Cristiano Ronaldo, still far from being done with football, already has one team honour more, not counting the individual accolades. Also, new captain of Pérez’s ship is known for being a silent, evasive introvert – not necessarily the best qualities for controlling the team of big-ego primadonnas. That, plus the lack of experience, are now all working against him.

In view of that, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Zidane will fail in Madrid and most likely is going to be sacked this summer. And it’s not just because he’s been a good leader on the pitch who doesn’t have enough skills to be a leader in a dressing room. No. The main problem of his tenure is that Real Madrid simply want everything; they want everything and they want it every season. They want it without taking a stock of their own situation; without getting a reality check before big games; without satisfying themselves with some semi-final or runner-up status. And that makes the whole venture problematic. Because the team might have enough individual quality to warrant such attitude, but in football, that is not what matters the most. Zizou’s task will be to build what’s infinitely more important: a good, stable workplace environment where the relationships between the players won’t be secondary to their selfishness. For a relative freshman in a managerial world – that is like scaling K2.

We’ve already seen the worst part of it. Your name could be Benítez. You could have the fond memories of bringing home a gold UCL medal from Istanbul. Your record could be plagued just by a single, truly embarrassing loss in 25 matches. Your style of management could be, overall, effective. And you still would get fired long before the end of your contract. For Zidane, this is the fate to avoid – but can he stop the axe? During the last decade, only two fairly ‘green’ managers have managed to defeat the odds: those were Pep Guardiola and Roberto Di Matteo. One of them is now a superstar in the football world; the other had a terrible spell at Schalke before going on a break that lasts until this day. And still – those guys both needed a lot of luck to even come close to winning the European Cup…

It’s not a question if Zidane fails – only when he’s going to. As it stands, staying afloat longer than by the end of the season would already be a gigantic accomplishment. And if he can’t make it until the spring? Calderón has already revealed that the club contacted José Mourinho before handing the chance to Zizou. At the moment, The Special One was not interested in coming back to Madrid in the middle of the campaign. But things may change soon – providing, of course, that Mou doesn’t get a job in his beloved Manchester United first.

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