Ahead of the Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid on 28 May, AS sat down with Rafa Benitez, a man who has coached both teams. At his home in West Kirby, close to Liverpool, we talked to Benítez about the Paris clash between his former clubs; about his short spell of him this season at Everton, the Reds’ Merseyside rivals; and about football in general.
What is it about Liverpool that has led you to stay here?
I feel a really strong love for the area. When I came to Liverpool, it was a great time in my career. We won the Champions League, in the most spectacular circumstances you’ll ever see, and the people here treated us really well. My daughters grew up here and you come back because it’s a place where your family is really settled, and where the people are welcoming and appreciate you. The success we had forged that bond with the city.
As you wait for a new job following your departure from Everton in January, what’s your day-to-day life like?
I watch videos in the morning. Right now I’m analyzing how teams play the ball out from the back. They all play it short, taking a lot of risks with ball at feet. We prepare videos that we’ll go on to show to our players. I spend a lot of time talking to people in the game, watching games in the afternoons and evenings, and being with my family.
That’s your routine.
It’s not a routine, because you have the freedom to switch it up. But you have to keep yourself up to date. Now, with big data, you’re constantly having to arm yourself with the latest information. There’s a mathematics professor here who uses big data a lot. I meet up with him frequently to see what he can offer me and what II can offer him. You need an expert to interpret the numbers and that expert tends to be a coach. You’re given the numbers and, drawing on your experience, you unpack and evaluate them. For example, people talk a lot about possession, but a lot depends on whether you’re in your own half or the opposition half.
You’ve been compiling data all your career.
I started 35 years ago with a Commodore 64. I remember that when I was working in the Real Madrid youth set-up, my team had scored 117 goals and had conceded just 19. And someone said to me: “Your computer doesn’t score goals.” I know, but it helps you to manage information. You have to use technology to draw conclusions, but your experience is what helps you to make decisions and make fewer mistakes.
Can you sign a player on the strength of big data?
Yes, it happens a lot – but that often doesn’t work out, because there are external factors that numbers on their own can’t control. I signed a terrific player for Liverpool, a centre-forward. His characteristics and statistics of him were ideal… but his wife of him did not settle and after six months we had to sell him. Going on his numbers from him, it was n’t a mistake to sign him, but his family’s circumstances affected him.
How has football changed since you started out?
The laws of football have changed, particularly when it comes to the goalkeepers, and that has changed the game. Historically, the players who were least good on the ball were goalkeepers and one of the central defenders. There would be one centre-back with a bit more freedom who was good on the ball, and another who was more aggressive. Now you have to play it out from the back and the ones who play the ball the most are the keepers and centre-backs. You see unbelievable mistakes when the ball’s played out from the back that cause clubs to lose millions. And all because it’s fashionable to play it out from the back. Experience and analysis allow you to decide when you have to play it out from the back, when to press, when to wait… the key is to know what tools you have at your disposal, what players you have under you.
What is ‘good football’ in your eyes?
Playing good football means doing everything within your power to win with the tools at your disposal. And it also depends on the culture of each place. When Mauricio Pellegrino was with me at Liverpool, he told me that when his kids went to play a game, they’d be out there taking corners and throw-ins in the warm-up. In Spain, you do passing drills, with the ball on the deck. The obsession with possession doesn’t make sense, because you need a lot of quality for that, from the goalkeeper to the striker, and not many teams have that. My idol was Franz Beckenbauer, who was wonderful at bringing the ball out from the back. Can you replicate what the very best do? Individually, it’s very difficult, so you have to try to compensate for that collectively. You can’t always look to play it out from the back if it’s causing you to lose games; that’s silly. I’ve seen Champions League games where the goalkeeper passes it to the centre-back, who plays it to the full-back, who’s left trying to play himself out from by his own corner flag. I don’t want my defenders to play 17 passes to each other, because nothing’s going to come from that. That’s where statistics come into play, because a high percentage of such moves end up in nothing.
Do you think coaches can be overly wedded to such a style?
I’ve seen Champions League finals where one team has had 29 shots, and the other has had one and won it. Fans don’t remember that. I’ve spoken to the odd player who told me: “We won such an ugly final, but who remembers that?” But that doesn’t mean it’s about sacrificing aesthetic considerations in the name of results. If you’re obsessed with playing one way or another, and think nothing else is any good, then you’re misguided. In football, you can win in a number of different ways. What you have to do is get the most out of the tools at your disposal and develop aspects of play that become second nature to your team – that’s how you’ll perform well and challenge for trophies.
What kind of final do you think we’ll see between Liverpool and Real Madrid?
I imagine we’ll see something similar to what we’ve seen in the two teams’ run to the end. A Real Madrid team who have stepped up in the key moments and gone through by making the most of the quality their players have, and a Liverpool side who play aggressively, on the front foot, who will want to impose themselves on the game from the off by playing with real intensity.
If you had to prepare your team for this final, what strengths would worry you the most in each side?
Liverpool have quality and speed going forward, and are really quite a complete side. They’re now capable of keeping the ball for longer because of their superiority to their opposition in most games, but they’re still so dangerous on the break and at dead-ball situations. So there’s a lot to worry about.
And Real Madrid?
Real Madrid rely on the experience of their midfield to make the most of the quality and movement that Karim Benzema provides, and the penetration that Vinícius Júnior provides. On top of that, Rodrygo Goes and Eduardo Camavinga have given them energy, balance and end product when they’ve played. It seems clear that Benzema, Vinícius and now Rodrygo will be the Liverpool players have to watch out for.
Benzema, Salah, Modric, Mané… with such an extensive cast of stellar individuals, what influence can Jürgen Klopp and Carlo Ancelotti have on the final?
The players make the difference on the pitch, but the coach has an important role to play in preparing the game plan, choosing the line-up that’s best suited to the situation, and then doubling down on what the team does well and changing things if something goes wrong during the game. Now that you can make more substitutions, the quality on the bench is key. At the big teams, the advantage the coaches have is that they have a better chance of making a ‘good substitution’, because they’ll have better players on the bench.
In a hypothetical game between Benítez and Klopp’s Liverpool teams, what do you think would happen?
If you analyze my Liverpool side when I arrived in 2004, who were the best players? Steven Gerrard, who was a young lad who played in a range of positions… and when it came to world-class players, there wasn’t much more than that. People talk about Xabi Alonso now, but at that time he’d been on loan at Eibar not long earlier. Luis García was a player who Barcelona had routinely sent out on loan… Among the best players who came afterwards was Fernando Torres, who would score 15 or 20 goals a season in Spain and at Liverpool got up to 33. We brought on Javier Mascherano, who had been a substitute at West Ham; Lucas Leiva, who went on to spend 10 years at the club; Daniel Agger, who cost six million… People remember that team, they remember Pepe Reina, for example, but they compare it with a Liverpool side the club has spent a billion on. It’s money they’ve spent very well, it’s true, but they have players worth 40 million on the bench. So you can’t compare my Liverpool team with Klopp’s, because you have to look at the context. I had a budget of 20 million – 20! Tell me what Liverpool could get for that nowadays. Nothing. They’re bringing in players for 40 million for the bench. They’re a great side. They’re quick, intense, and have a coach who pushes them and drives them on, and he is able to do that because he has the tools at his disposal. Because if you don’t have players as good as that, you push them and they get frustrated.
Let’s finish on your most recent coaching experience. Was it a tough decision to say yes to Everton?
You have to analyze things in context. I was at Newcastle United, where we had a project, got the team promoted as winners of the Championship, which is very tough, and did so with a 30-million budget excess. Yet there was no investment in the team. Arab investment was close, but it wasn’t materializing. You’re waiting, and then you get the offer of a project in China. People didn’t understand why I said yes to a project in China, but there they gave us free rein to organize how everything was done, from the youth teams up. We had 15 Spanish coaches. A structure was created there. But Chinese football is what it is and covid changed things a lot. That’s why we came back here. We were waiting for a project that would allow us to compete. We came close to returning to Newcastle, and then Everton emerged with an ambitious project, with a plan for continued investment and the creation of a structure that would enable the club to compete with the top teams…
But it didn’t turn out that way.
Unfortunately, when we arrived, they had already spent a lot of money and the Premier League’s financial-fair-play rules didn’t allow us to spend any more. We spent just two million euros on five players. Even still, we worked with what we had, brought Anthony Gordon through from the youth set-up, got good performances from Demarai Gray, from Andros Townsend, who beforehand had almost seemed like a player who was coming to the end of his career… We got performances out of the team, but we began to suffer injuries and bad luck. One lad dropped a piece of furniture on his toe from him and the four players who made up the spine of the team got injured. Things started to get tricky at that point…
Do you regret taking the job?
Joining Everton, a club that’s in your city, where you have lots of friends who are supporters, where you’re signing up for a project you think can grow and be competitive, was a decision that had plenty of logic to it. Given what the scenario was at that time, at least. But then things became difficult and the feeling seemed to be that I had made a mistake. But I don’t see it that way. In that moment, Everton were the competitive club that offered me a chance. We believed it was going to work out. Then things turned out they way they did. But when we left we were six points off 10th, with two games in hand, and six points clear of the relegation zone. It wasn’t a position that matched initial expectations, but it was in line with the investment there’d been and the injuries we’d had. At that point, you can talk about having patience and keeping the faith, but people get twitchy, social media has an influence, and a decision was made. After we left the club, Everton made five new signings, had a full complement of available players once more and brought in a new coach, who also has to take responsibility. We did well to begin with, but then we lacked a little bit of luck and didn’t have the time to keep on working and making adjustments. We have the experience of having managed it in other places, where in time we’ve improved the structure, such as at Napoli.