AS INTERVIEW | LIVERPOOL-REAL MADRID
Benítez: “At Real Madrid, it was easier for them to blame me”
As Liverpool and Real Madrid head into tonight’s match at Anfield, who better to talk to about both clubs than Rafa Benítez. The coach, who still lives on Merseyside, knows both clubs inside out.
Few people can speak with authority and experience of two of the biggest clubs in football, Real Madrid and Liverpool. Born and raised in the Spanish capital Rafa Benítez has managed both clubs - he won the Champions League with Liverpool in his first season at Anfield, and was in the dug-out when his team thrashed Madrid 0-4 - the Spanish club’s heaviest defeat of the Champions League era.
Benítez talks about soccer even when the conversation is centred around other topics, because he relates or explains everything as if it were a tactic or a rehearsed play. He does it from a deep analysis of the game and with the knowledge of the world and its ins and outs that his experience in Spain (Castilla, Valladolid, Osasuna, Extremadura, Tenerife, Valencia and Real Madrid), England (Liverpool, Chelsea, Newcastle and Everton) and Italy (Inter and Napoli) and China (Dailang) brings him.
AS shared a full day in Liverpool with the Madrid-born coach, where his family has lived since he left Valencia in 2004. In this first chapter, Benítez dissects tonight’s clash between Liverpool and Real Madrid and looks at how Klopp and Ancelotti will be planning it. We take a look at Benítez’s successful spell at Anfield (Community Shield, FA Cup, Champions League and European Super Cup) and his short-lived time at the Bernabéu.
What is your favorite corner of Anfield?
The bench. You can take in the atmosphere from every corner of the ground, but the bench is my place.
Do you go to the stadium a lot?
I don’t like to go to places where your presence might be perceived the wrong way, as it’s a little uncomfortable - maybe because the team isn’t doing so well or the opposite, because it is playing well and it might seems that you want be involved somehow. But now enough time has passed now and I will go now and again. I’ll be there on Tuesday.
How is your relationship with Jürgen Klopp?
I have a good relationship, no problem.
Do you feel like a Liverpool legend?
The word legend in England is used a lot. In Spain it has a much more important value. At Liverpool there are a number of coaches who marked an era and won important trophies. If we talk about the Champions League, the most important in history so far is Istanbul in 2005 because of how it was achieved and because they hadn’t won the European Cup for 21 years. The city erupted, it was an explosion of happiness. We reached other finals as well - the Carling Cup, Club World Cup, European Super Cup, FA Cup, another Champions League final... everything we did in such a short spell of time is recognized by the people, that’s why I’m in the photographs alongside the other important managers. You become part of Liverpool’s history. Now of course, Klopp is also part of that history too.
Will Klopp be remembered more for the Premier League than for the Champions League?
Without a doubt, because it had been 30 years since they had last won the league. But you can’t expect to win the Premier League if you don’t invest more than the teams that are already ahead of you. To beat a team that spends 100 million and is top of the table, you have to spend 150 million. You ask yourself, what did Liverpool want? To win the Premier League because they had already won the Champions League? That begins a new cycle with Klopp outlining the team’s objectives and sending a clear message to the people; because otherwise, anxiety starts to set in.
What is the difference between your Liverpool side and Klopp’s?
In my time, nobody thought that Liverpool could do achieve anything in Europe. When we signed in 2004, they told us that we had to build a side that was competitive within the first three years. I have it in the contract. Three years from now, we want to be competitive. In the first year, we reached the final of the Carling Cup and we won the Champions League. We made the club grow and that changed the fans’ expectations - the objectives after that were different. Since you’ve won the Champions League, they want the Premier League. I some ways, the notion of reality is lost. We had a budget for transfers of 20 million and United and Chelsea spent 30 million on a single player. We competed unequally and we had to compensate. But the club’s message was the right one - to be competitive in three years. We were before. We had players who gave us very high level performances. The best was Gerrard, he was the difference. We signed Fernando (Torres), who pushed us up another level, Mascherano, Leiva... we improved with players like Reina, Fabio Aurelio... there were many successes.
Why did your relationship with Liverpool break down?
We had renewed our contracts for five years. But new owners came in and the focus changed. They came and told me: “We are going to invest 50 million for the draft.” For the draft?! They didn’t understand how it [football] worked, they didn’t even know that teams got relegated. That indicates the kind of involvement and connection they had with the team and the city. In our final year, we had 17 million for reinforcements - less money than when we arrived and by that time, the market had evolved and players were more expensive. Liverpool FC went from being a football team with a local, Liverpool-born chairman to being a company with owners who were in another country and who had no connection to the team. They saw it more as a chance to do business.
Are too many non-football people getting into football?
Yes. It is inevitable, because those who have money are people who are not from football. It’s their money and they make their decisions. The question is whether the people who advise them are people who have a conception of football like we did or they only see it as a business. There are a lot of agents hanging around the owners purely for business interests. Everyone has an opinion about football - and other professions like medicine, but the ones who make decisions and get it right are few and far between.
I ask you, as a Liverpool citizen, is there a feeling that Klopp’s cycle is coming to an end?
There is a lot of talk about that, but more in the papers than anywhere else. The owners have said that they will support him in the next transfer window. When a coach has been at a club for a long time, obviously there is wear and tear, you have to replenish to give the team a new stimulus. Bringing in new players does precisely that, it provides stimulus. Klopp has to adapt and change things - now Bajcetic is coming in, Darwin, Luis Díaz, Gakpo have arrived... I don’t think it’s the end of the cycle. It’s the combination of several things - they have suffered injuries to key players, the disruption of the World Cup, new players coming in... but in the second half of the season they will raise the level, they will do well, as they began to see against Everton.
How much do you think Mané's departure affected Liverpool?
Mané is a completely different kind of player to Darwin. Liverpool not only have that to deal with, which could be a problem, although they have replaced Sadio with two good players. But they also lost Firmino and Jota to injury, the two players who can best link up with Salah, because the rest of the team is more about running. Perhaps Darwin shouldn’t have been thrown in at the deep end, because everyone needs to adapt, but injuries deprived him of that phase of being eased into the team. Klopp must be given time to recover those who have been out injured, to see how he handles rotating the team and balance the intensity and speed of certain players with the quality of others so that he can get Salah more involved.
You mentioned Bajcetic, how do you see his progression?
He has the advantage of being a very level-headed player and that will help him, because he knows what to do. I know his father, because he was with us in China as he worked for Celta in the Wanda project. For the moment, he has made it into the first team, which is not easy, and he is playing. I think he’ll be there for a long time, although at a club like Liverpool, nobody’s position is guaranteed.
Liverpool are 9th in the Premier League, is that down to Liverpool being weaker or the league being stronger?
I wouldn’t call it weakness but rather the result of the problems that they have had to face. Neither Chelsea nor United nor Liverpool were at the level everyone expected of them when the season started. However, Arsenal have been well above what was expected and City, as always, at their level. But Newcastle, Brighton, Fulham have joined the race at the top... and that is entirely due to their own merits. But Liverpool will make their way back up.
How would you see Real Madrid competing in the Premier League?
I’m sure they could compete because they have so much quality. However, they would still need to adapt. Their style, the style of certain players, would have to adapt. Here, fewer fouls are called, the contact is much greater - in aerial play, challenges, corners... Foreign coaches struggle to understand the Premier League at first. You expect to be given an indirect free-kick if a foot is raised but it’s not here. In Europe yes, but not here. In a challenge for a ball, players will dig their arms in and nothing happens. That initial adaptation is necessary. But Madrid has quality and also the physical strength to do well.
If you had to prepare for Tuesday's match from Ancelotti's perspective, what would you be worried about?
The initial intensity that Madrid will face out on the pitch and from the crowd, which is notorious for really pushing their team. Ever since that famous chorreo* - some people didn’t think it was a factor, but it does play a very big part. The fans get behind the team and that increases the intensity on the pitch, they make such a racket that it gives the home players an extra impetus and the motivation to continue playing with such high intensity. So from kick-off, I would imagine that Ancelotti will say: “Let’s try to get through the first 20 minutes well, ride out the pressure, because if we get through that initial pressure, little by little, we can hit them on the break.” Because Madrid has enough quality and experience to overcome that pressure - especially the more the game wear on, fatigue will start setting in, leaving the team with the most quality and good support the chance to counter attack and generates spaces. Vinicius will pose a danger trying to get in behind Alexander-Arnold... So, from a tactical point of view, first, it will be a question of handling the emotional side, the pressure and intensity, and not making any mistakes because they are going to press constantly. Then as the game progresses, look to hurt Liverpool on the break. Does Madrid have quality to maintain possession of the ball? Yes, but from the start, Liverpool are going to be at their throats, playing with an intensity that will complicate things for Madrid.
How do you imagine Klopp will approach the game?
As for Klopp, I would be worried if Madrid are able to ride out that pressure and I would pay extra attention at providing cover on the right wing, because that’s where Vinicius has the pace to cause a lot of damage. But seeing as both of them are coaches who will know all about the weak points in each other’s teams, the injury problems which both have... tactically, they might have their own ideas. But from my point of view, it will be the initial intensity from Liverpool which will be what Madrid need to manage.
How are your thoughts on Vicinius?
He is a very tricky players to defend against. Very difficult. Similar to Hazard when he was at Chelsea or Messi - very fast players who tend to get get fouled a lot because they are very difficult to deal with. And it’s easier to commit a foul out on the wing before they are able to cut inside, where they are more dangerous. And because they are so fast, you have to hunt them down.
From your answer, I detect you see those players more as victims than provocateurs?
It depends on each one. In the case of Vinicius we are talking about a player who is very fast and very difficult to face. It is his game and his virtues. So it’s very difficult for defenders to stop him, especially when he launches the ball forward to run onto, because you can make contact just by by arriving late, without even trying to foul him.
How do you manage a players who is in the spotlight for being fouls and his reactions?
I have had some players with the same issue. The most recent case was Anthony Gordon, at Everton, who is very fast and tricky to play against. You have to talk to them, convince him, teach them how to handle certain situations by sitting down and studying videos, educate him to anticipate game situations and minimize the opponent’s chances of stopping him by fouling him.
We were talking about Klopp’s cycle at Liverpool, but Real Madrid is also in a transition phase between veterans and newcomers, how do you see it?
When we arrived at Madrid, we brought in Casemiro [who was out on loan at Porto], Kovacic and Lucas Vázquez. We did that deliberately to bring in players with more energy, physique, versatility. I saw that there were players who had a lot of quality, but they lacked that rhythm and they were getting older. Some of them are still there, so it makes even more sense now to bring in young players who adapt to a team as competitive as Madrid. The problem for youngsters is that if they have to come in very early and play a lot, there are decisive games for which they are not yet ready and they can tale the blame when things don;t turn out. But if they can alternate with the veterans, what you get is that the veterans perform very well up to the point where they are able to physically, and the younger players performs very well up to where his physical-tactical level allows him.
Since Liverpool was founded it has had 21 coaches, 16 have passed through Madrid in the 21st century and two (Ancelotti and Zidane) have repeated, what does that tell you?
It says a lot about the Premier League, where there is generally more patience with the projects. Real projects which you were given time to work on and develop. When I signed on a five-year deal, as I say, they gave me three years to build a competitive team. I renewed for another five years, but I ended up leaving because it was already clear that there was no investment or possibility of competing with the new owners so I accepted Inter’s offer. But nevertheless, it was another five years to continue with the project. Wenger spent 22 years, Ferguson many others... Back then, the coaches were managers, they were there for a long time. But now we are seeing that less and less, because there is much more investment, owners arrive with more money and want instant results. But only team can become champions so now you have many teams, many coaches, who offer modern football, but who are in the middle of the table. They never win. Those who spend a lot of money want to win, be in the Champions League... but only one wins. So there are several who do not meet objectives and get nervous. And those at the bottom end change coach because things are not going well and on top of that here in England much more is invested, because they can spend 40 million on a striker and they want immediate results, they don’t even let him adapt. Now there is more anxiety and nerves.
I asked you before if you felt like a Liverpool legend, do you regret not having been a prophet in your land?
I had the offer from Madrid three times and on the fourth I already had to accept it because I couldn’t keep saying no. The problem, I think, is that we found ourselves in a strange situation.
Ancelotti had left, the players had a very good relationship with him and it looked as though we had been brought in to impose discipline, a hardline approach when in reality, we are very open to dialogue. During our time there, we qualified top of our Champions League group, we were knocked out of the Copa del Rey because of an administrative error by the club and we were two points behind Barcelona, who had one game less and had beaten us. After we left, Barcelona opened up a 12-point lead in two months.
Was there a before and after to the 0-4 defeat to Barcelona?
The perception from outside was that everything was wrong because we lost against Barcelona. But the reality is that Iker Casillas had left, there was talk that Sergio Ramos was also leaving, Keylor was set to join United, but De Gea’s fax did not arrive on time so he ended up staying... There were some circumstances which created upheaval right from the beginning and it seemed that we were responsible, when we were trying to make things right. We beat Malmö 8-0, a Champions League record, we beat Rayo 10-2… The team was in good physical shape, the data said that in 78% of the games we were superior to our rivals in physical terms.
And what went wrong?
One of the players told me: “We really started to find our rhythm in February, that’s when it all started to gel”. We lacked that time to see if we really could do well or not in the Champions League or in the League. We were not given the opportunity, the circumstances are what they are. We asked for a striker because we needed one, especially at the beginning, when Benzema was involved in the Valbuena case, but we didn’t have one. The following year Morata was signed. But history is written by the winners. That team won the Champions League, it seemed that was the solution and that’s all there is to it. It’s something we just have to accept and put up with.
You say that history is written by the winners, what do you mean by that?
There were a series of disruptive circumstances that they tried to blame on us without us being able to defend ourselves. It was easier to blame me. If Madrid hadn’t won the Champions League, they would have said: “What happened here?” But they won it and that allowed them to start a new cycle, bring in Morata... Madrid is a team that usually wins, why wouldn’t they win with us if we were in a position to do so? First in the Champions League and five points behind Barcelona in January. Why couldn’t we bounce back and challenge for the league like we did with Valencia, for example? If we had quality, physique and experience.
There was some talk about a difficult relationship with some of the players.
That’s not true. There are 25 players in the squad. If there are two or three that are not happy, that’s normal. It happens in every team. The thing is that, at Real Madrid, the media glare is much greater. My relationship with the squad at the start was normal - before you start understanding the dynamics like in all dressing rooms and understand that you have to keep your distance in some cases and that your assistants are the ones who strengthen the relationship. But you can’t beat Malmö 8-0 or Rayo 10-2 and say we’re wrong. The last game was away to Valencia, we had a player sent off, but the team did quite well. A solution had to be found because there was tension and nervousness, someone from the club would have to explain why that was the case. But the team was fine to continue competing and fight for titles.
What would you not do if you went back to that time or what would you do that you didn't?
Analysis and decisions are made in the context of where you are at the time. I tried to be a club coach and there are many things that go on behing the scenes, it happens in every team, things that as a coach, you keep to yourself. What isn’t nice is that, when you’re no longer there, things come out that are not true, things are misrepresented for the interests of others. But you can’t be defending yourself all day because you’re no longer there and you don’t have a media presence. Nor is it my goal. My goal is for the teams that I train to improve, the footballers to improve, to grow and to win competitions, but if they don’t want to give you time or options... well, what can you do?
Do you think the fact that you got a little emotional in your presentation went against you?
No, why? I’d spent practically all of my life at Real Madrid and I got emotional because that is how I felt at that moment. I don’t think it had any influence. On the contrary, I think it was positive. I won trophies in three different countries and came back to hometown club with the intention of to trying to do well.
I was referring to whether his emotion could have left you in a position of weakness in that locker room.
I don’t think so. I still have a good relationship with those Real Madrid players, who are true professionals. They know that we were very honest and professional. Another thing is that you expect more results or that the environment expects such or is interested in directing public opinion to one side or another, but I cannot control that.
Do you think it was a mistake to meet Bale before you had met Cristiano?
That’s not true. It wasn’t a meeting. There was a Belgium-Wales game and I went to see that game because I live close to Wales. I can see Wales from my window! I went to watch a game in which Mertens was playing, who had been with me, and also Bale, who was going to be one of my players. The controversy is generated in the media saying that I had not gone to meet with Cristiano and yes with Bale. Stories come out that are far from the truth, like the one about Modric, but since you can’t defend yourself, people start believing they are true.
I never told Modric not to use the outside of his boot to pass the ball; I only told him that in short distances a pass with the inside is better for the team mate you are passing to, because the ball has less spin and control is easier. But in a 20-metre pass, Modric is a phenomenon with the outside of the boot...
Any other stories where your version is different?
It’s not about defending myself now. I am clear that it is impossible to change the opinion of those who do not want to change it. There is a story that has been written and that’s it. But as I say, the club could have waited a little longer and I am convinced that we would have achieved good results. I don’t know if we would have won, you never know, but we would have laid the foundations of a team that could grow. Casemiro has been a fundamental footballer and it was us who gave him that chance; Kovacic left economic benefits for the club and Lucas Vázquez is still there. We could say that we got it spot on when we took a chance on them.
Did you feel alone at Madrid?
It's not a matter of feeling alone, because my coaching staff was there and many people supported me.
I mean by the club.
It is a very complicated environment and that’s it. If you get over it, great, and if you don’t, then they blame you, they take you out of the way and that’s it. Like I say, it is something that you cannot change and from a distance it is impossible. In time, after the team has been successful, they can say what they want. But those players that we brought in were and are part of that success. And the obvious proof is that a striker was needed - we were asking for one because of Benzema’s personal circumstances, then Morata comes on board and scores 15 goals, so we weren’t so far off the mark. Another thing is that they didn’t want to listen to us. But we had professional criteria to say what we said and we made the decisions we made, we have shown that throughout our career. The teams we leave are usually better off in economic, physical and dynamic terms...
She has spoken with Florentino again
Haven't you had a chance?
I have not had the opportunity nor much interest.
Did that dressing room have too much power?
All the locker rooms of the big teams usually have power. The key for the coach is to win matches, because people respect you more, value you more or put up with you more. This is what happens in all big teams.
Let’s go back to tomorrow’s game, does Liverpool remember the infamous Chorreo clash?
Well, young people are more aware of the most recent Champions League finals, but these days they do talk about it in the media because it was also in the round of 16 (2008/2009). That tie was the reaffirmation of a job well done and also that when people came together, without egos, goals can be achieved.
Is your heart divided?
It is a game that I will try to enjoy as a spectator and I will analyze it as a coach. But my house is in Liverpool, my family lives here, they have always treated us great and I left Madrid a long time ago. If I have to choose a favourite... I say Liverpool.
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