There was a great deal of media comment in the summer following Rafa Benitez's appointment to Real Madrid, and in particular many of the comments queried how well Rafa would manage the ‘big names' in the dressing room. It soon became apparent though that during the pre-season period and early part of the league campaign most of the players took to the new coach and bought into his ideas. However, in recent weeks the media have become more and more vociferous about Madrid's playing style, fans have become disgruntled after losing to Sevilla away, and now the same questions are being asked. With the latest reports in Marca now suggesting that senior players are proposing a ‘change of strategy' towards a more attack-minded approach, Rafa's response to all this is going to be under intense scrutiny.
On the subject of managing the ‘dressing room heavyweights' to quote from Marca, nothing's changed. Rafa's had to manage the players all season. Not just the big-hitters either; he's had to manage the whole team together with several back-room issues, staff changes in the cantera and medical departments, plus integrate the Castilla prospects into the first team environment. His every movement, comment, and gesture, have been analysed over and again since the season started. It's all part of club management. The difference is that people want to know how the head coach of Real Madrid reacts to the challenges of managing some very high profile players; and with the ‘Clasico' approaching, these challenges take on a new meaning.
The latest notes on Marca suggest that some of the Real Madrid players aren't too happy with the current tactics and are therefore intending to raise this in the days leading up to the Barca game. All eyes are therefore going to be on Rafa. If we really are looking at a situation where the gloves are off - as Marca suggest - then what the media really wants to know is whether he's going to emphasise his position and manage the team, or whether he's going to adapt his style to keep the players happy.
If the players aren't keen on his approach to the game, does Rafa then change this approach because it's Barca on Saturday or does he stick with the current style? Either way, it's a ‘Catch 22' situation for the coach. If he now changes his tactics for the ‘Clasico' and Real win, people will take the view that he's listened to the players and they've proved to the coach that they know better. If he sticks to his guns, doesn't bend, and Real lose; then he's being stubborn just for the sake of it.
What if the intention all along, though, is for Rafa to actually approach the Barca game with a different strategy? After the Sevilla game Rafa might have felt that a change of approach is needed for this weekend but now that it's been highlighted that the players intend to suggest this, it's a difficult call for him to make. To change or not to change? It needs to be a management decision based on the task in hand. Reported comments in the media shouldn't really influence the coach's thinking even if they are reported to come from the dressing room.
At any other time of the season routine comments by both players and management would have been forgotten. However, with Cristiano reported to have recently suggested that Madrid won't win anything with Rafa in charge, the coach's response to that will certainly be monitored; particularly in the dressing room and in the media in the week leading up to the ‘Clasico'.
James Rodriguez' comments that he felt he was ready to play a couple of weeks before he actually did might also have been forgotten had not the ‘Clasico' been imminent. Before that it was reported that Rafa had to sit Gareth Bale down to discuss comments made by his agent after returning from Wales duty and ascertain whether he had a problem with Cristiano - or vice versa. So it's been managing players all season as it turns out; except that in the next few days people are going to be looking even more closely at how he responds to different situations.
Selection and tactics should be a footballing decision only and nothing to do with anything else. If there's still that bit of unrest to deal with behind the scenes then it needs to be dealt with as a separate issue and shouldn't be confused with whatever approach is favoured on Saturday. Now that the players are reported to have raised the issue over the tactics, there's not really any going back. Here we have yet another challenge to assess Rafa's response to. Will Madrid play in a different style this coming weekend, and if so who's behind any changes? The football world will not only be watching how Rafa Benitez reacts to the tactical question but also to the reported comments by Cristiano in particular. The response from the players will be equally enlightening.