Unfit, underqualified, and placeholder were just a few of the adjectives thrown his way when Rafa Benítez was named Real Madrid manager in June. Many (myself included) wept as Ancelotti walked out the door to go drink Masseto wine, eat capicola, and generally live a more laid-back life than the rest of us, having just been sacked. It was considered an objective fact that Benítez was not only a downgrade from Carlo, but a considerable one. It didn't help that Carlo's suave and charismatic, while Rafa looks more likely to go teach 10th grade algebra than coach the world's biggest club.
And yet here we are. Real Madrid have made it to November unbeaten, top of the La Liga table, and boasting the best defensive record in world football, feats even more surreal when you consider the laughable amount of injuries they've taken on. The man whose teams are known for nil-nil draws are putting more shots (18.1), shots on target (7.4), and balls into the net (24) than anyone else in La Liga. Through 10 matches last season Real had netted a stunning 37 goals but surrendered 9.
Benítez has done it by cultivating his depth and being adaptable. Whether he's been extorted into it or not, Benítez has built a team that's two-deep at every position. Of course there's drop off between the likes of Kovacic and Modrić, and Jesé and Benzema, but Real Madrid are no longer one key injury away from abject disaster, as was the case last season.
Casemiro's carved out a role by being the world's most glorified garbageman (and I mean that as a high compliment), which has allowed Toni Kroos to be even better. Jesé has regained his confidence and has shown he's comfortable playing all over the front of the attack. Even the likes of Lucas Vázquez and Nacho have been given a chance to show their value. Benítez debuted Borja Mayoral against Las Palmas, and has sent out Marcos Llorente a few times as well.
The residual effects of Real's injuries have been an increase in quality depth, not poorer results. Rafa's all-hands-on-deck approach to managing his teams both in-game and pre-game may be the difference in the enduring matches of the spring.
Real Madrid's death-by-papercuts approach to defense must make teams dread playing Madrid in a whole new way. Under Mourinho and Ancelotti, Real would blitzkreig teams for 90 minutes, but opponents knew they'd have their share of chances. Now, if a team goes down, they need either a wonderstrike a la Nolito's, or an Arbeloa blunder to get back in it. By going into Paris last week and tormenting one of the world's best midfields for 90 minutes, Rafa made it clear: Real Madrid is not going to beat itself with wreckless mistakes in defense. We may well see a handful more nil-nil draws, and the goal total may not break 100 as it has the last few seasons, but that's okay.
The idea there's an obligation for Real Madrid to play "beautiful football" is just foolish. Real Madrid have the top rated defense and offense in La Liga, and have made it this far with patchwork lineups. As far as I'm concerned, that's as beautiful as football can be.