It’s a pity that the wildly entertaining, back-and-forth, wide open 2-2 draw between Real Madrid and Valencia this weekend will be remembered more as Rafa Benítez’s Waterloo than as the thrilling spectacle it was in its own right. Real dominated the match for large stretches and, with a couple favorable refereeing decisions, could’ve easily won. It was a good microcosm of why Benítez was fired today.
The Valencia match loomed large on the calendar for weeks leading up to it, as clearly the final banana peel Real might slip on that would cost Benítez his job. That’s because Real under his leadership have regularly failed when facing the best teams in La Liga. As AS pointed out earlier today, the capitol club has only taken five points from a possible 18 against Spanish teams that qualified for either the Champions or Europa Leagues last season. That sorry record against good teams was the hint that, despite an otherwise perfectly respectable results (Real are only four points off the top spot in the league, after all), Benítez’s managerial style was not working for a club that expects to beat anyone and everyone en route to multiple titles each season.
The match itself bore the marks of some of those concerns and frustrations about the manager’s tactics. Real began the game with intensity and attacking fervor, probing deep into the Valencia penalty box at will. Their opening goal in the sixteenth minute was as pretty as it was deserved. For the majority of the first half, Valencia struggled to stay in the match as Real poured forward.
Towards halftime, though, the Blancos made an all too familiar adjustment in response to their 1-0 lead. Rather than pressing their advantage in attack in search of more goals to put the match away, Real began playing more conservatively and focused on staying compact and organized defensively to stymie their opponents. This has been Benítez’s modus operandi all season. He has at times looked to lock up shop at the back to preserve leads against even badly overmatched opponents. The strategy has worked against those smaller teams, but it’s proven ineffective against more competitive ones, and maybe more distressingly for the fan base, the players, and the club’s leadership, it projected the image of a timid team worried about losing their advantage rather than a brash, confident one that sensed moments of vulnerability and struck with deadly force whenever the opportunity arose. At a club like Madrid—especially in the post-Guardiola’s Barça vs. Mourinho’s Real era—public perception of the team’s playing style matters. On cue, as Real switched to a more cautious approach, Valencia played their way back into the game, equalized before halftime, and fought them evenly in the second half.
Still, though, if the referee gave Cristiano Ronaldo a penalty—it would’ve been arguably a harsh decision, but not criminally so—midway through the second half, Mateo Kovačić never gets red carded during the ensuing counter and Real probably eke out the win. If the ref gave Gareth Bale an even more convincing penalty in the first half before Dani Parejo’s equalizing penalty, Real very likely go up 2-0 and coast the rest of the way. If Real’s players kept their focus a little better after Bale’s go-ahead goal with less than 10 minutes remaining, Valencia maybe never get the tying goal. Point being, if this game went just a hair differently in a one of multiple eminently feasible ways, the Spanish media spends today gossiping about Barcelona’s third draw in their last four league matches and how the big win in Valencia might be the catalyst for a coming Real Madrid title push. And yet it’s for another reason evident during yesterday’s match that likely confirmed in the club’s decision-makers’ minds that firing the manager in light of yesterday’s draw was the best solution.
As arguably poor as Real Madrid’s performances have been this season—and again, remember that they’re only four points off the league lead and topped their Champions League group—Benítez’s unimpressive record in big games or his predilection for staid, counterattacking play or his tendency to protect leads at the earliest opportunity rather than trying to increase them aren’t the main reasons why he’s out of a job today. The underlying issue that explains why Pérez either couldn’t or didn’t want to look for a silver lining in Sunday’s match was because the players themselves—and some of the biggest names, especially—do not get along with Benítez. The most concerning frayed relationship in the dressing room was between the manager and James Rodríguez.
Anyone who’s watched Real over the past couple years has realized that the 24-year-old attacking phenom is the future of the club. He is young, already great, and has the looks and personality to become the figurehead of the team and, if everything goes perfectly, maybe even the sport itself. While Pérez remains married to the idea that his handpicked €100 million man Bale is the club’s next transcendent superstar and will take up the mantle Ronaldo has held for so long, James looks more ready to slide into that spot. For that reason, as well as the fact that Real are historically a club of huge names and similarly sized egos, the manager’s relationship with players of that caliber must be strong.
That is not the case with Benítez and James. For months the press has whispered about beef between the two, as James felt like Benítez didn’t count on him as one of his core players while the manager thought the Colombian had to do more to earn the privileged spot the player thought he deserved. This insinuation of discord between the two and including even more of Real’s prominent figures was the subtext to much of the discussion about whether Benítez should or should not retain his position over the past few weeks.
Not only was a healthy (though recently controversy-embroiled) James not in the starting lineup against Valencia, neither he nor fellow Benítez malcontent Isco made it off the bench at any point in the game. As a statement about those two players’ standing in Benítez’s mind, the coach did make an attacking change in the game, taking off goal-scorer Karim Benzema in favor of Lucas Vásquez. A hypothetical Rafa Benítez with the same record in the same league position who’d just lost in the same way to Valencia could’ve theoretically survived the storm if he was on better terms with James and Isco and Ronaldo and the like. Instead, there was no positive indicator the club could use as an excuse to give him more time.
The worst part about all of this from a Real Madrid fan’s perspective is how predictable this all was. Benítez has always been a meticulous, controlling, defense-minded coach with an aloof affect that rubbed certain players the wrong way. That he would continue being that guy at Real, and that the players, the fans, and the club leaders would come to resent him for these traits was inevitable. If you’re going to hire Rafa Benítez to lead your team, then fire him when he does what he was always going to do, then your mistake isn’t in the specific timing of when you get rid of him; it’s the decision to hire him in the first place.
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