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Why Real Madrid Were Wrong to Sack Rafa Benitez

Zidane isn't ready.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

I distinctly remember my reactions to Madrid’s last two managerial departures. For Carlo Ancelotti there was immense sorrow and anger. I raged and raged, and maybe even shed a tear or two. For Jose Mourinho’s departure I felt a sense of relief. I mumbled off a couple of thank you’s aimed at Mourinho, but at the end of the day, I was quite happy to see the back of a man who had torn our dressing room to pieces and had become tactically immobile and obsolete. For Benitez’s sacking, the only thing I feel right now is immense frustration at our fickle institution. Kiyan Sobhani wrote an article on why Benitez was doomed to fail and he was so correct it hurts. There are unrealistic expectations for Real Madrid to win something big every season, especially when you consider the fact that Madrid have a consistently unstable squad that never has the chance to find the appropriate chemistry or philosophy to be a force beyond a year.

Rafa Benitez crumbled under the pressure

Benitez came into this situation and he didn’t do well (Let’s be clear with that fact. I am under no impression that Benitez has been some startling success). Despite his more than average tactical acumen and excellent CV (however old it is), Rafa lacked the mentality to be a Madrid manager (the most important trait for a manager of the famous Whites to have). The pressure was monumental before he even got the official notification from Florentino Perez and he never was able to handle it. To many, the time when Benitez delivered his now infamous "there is a campaign against Madrid speech," was the indication that Benitez had cracked under the pressure. But the truth is that the signals had been flaring up for several weeks in the lead up to this moment. His sudden split in attacking and defensive philosophies and his inability to find an identity for Real Madrid after he had seemingly found one (remember the clean sheet run and defensive performance versus PSG?), displayed his loss of composure for anyone smart enough to see it.

So why were Madrid wrong to sack Benitez? Surely everything I have said reinforces the idea that Benitez simply had to go? The truth is that the reason sacking Benitez is wrong, has less to do with Benitez, but more to do with the man taking his place. At the end of the day, your opinion on whether Florentino has made the right decision or not, depends on whether you think Zidane can do a better job than Rafa. If you get past all the nostalgia, remember that being a good player has nothing to do with being a good manager, and analyze Zidane's performance with Castilla, you can only conclude that Zidane will be infinitely poorer than Benitez.

Zidane is not set up to succeed

Many liken Zidane to Guardiola, but nearly everyone forgets that Pep promoted his side to the Segunda B with pomp. There was a clear identity and methodology in what Pep did and it followed the philosophy that Johan Cruyff had instilled in Barcelona when he became manager. It was clear that Pep was a genius who had been brought up and bred in this style of football for years. In essence, Barcelona had done more than just create a philosophy that makes it easier to feature La Masia graduates in the first team, but had created a system that made it easier for talented managers to transfer from managing youth teams to the first team (Guardiola and Luis Enrique are the standout examples).

Real Madrid has none of this. There is no singular philosophy that links Castilla to the first team and there is no easy way to transition a youth team manager to the big job. Any manager that comes from Castilla to the first team will be dealing with players with highly different profiles (at Barca the players are obviously be miles better than the youth teams, but they are still similar in terms of the traits that they possess) and a tactical situation that will be incredibly different and highly complicated. Dealing with such monumental adjustments takes time, however Madrid is a place where time is a luxury that will not be afforded. But if you thought that was bad enough, Zidane has even less time than usual. Madrid are halfway through the season and challenging for trophies, meaning from day one Zidane has to somehow find an identity for this team and start winning games convincingly.

Zidane has been poor with Castilla

And it’s not like Zidane actually has the tactical acumen or ability to suggest he can operate in such circumstances. Before you start harping about Guardiola again, remember that he was a remarkable exception, working in a place of continuity meant to promote people like him. Zidane was underwhelming in his first season at Castilla and was unable to combine his best team and star player Odegaard. The media typically ignored golden boy Zidane’s tactical rigidity and instead falsified reports of Odegaard stirring trouble in the dressing room whilst simultaneously faking the level of his salary. If Zidane couldn’t even incorporate Odegaard, a flashy signing that may have disrupted the flow of the team, then how in the world will Zidane manage Madrid, a squad of several superstars that might not positively affect the balance of the team when started.

Fast forward to this season, and on face value, it looks like Zidane has sorted things out. Castilla seems like they are well on their way to qualification and it looks like all of Zidane’s work is starting to pay off. But as our very own Bozz (who follows Castilla quite diligently) has pointed out on numerous occasions, Zidane has been bailed out by star players (Mariano and Mayoral) time and time again, bringing rise to the query of who is actually the reason for the team’s success. In addition to this, the team has lacked a clear identity all season, making it difficult for their offense to create any real chances. Furthermore, Castilla have also been horrible on set-pieces, bringing forth the reality that Zidane’s tactical ability and defensive organization are questionable (at best), and not even comparable to the smarts of Pep Guardiola.

Zidane is one for the future, not the present

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Zidane won’t make a great manager in the future. According to –FourFourTwo, Zidane already has an aptitude for one-on-one management, having helped several Castilla members and even Benzema in hyper-specific situations. In addition to this he seems to have an intuition about the feeling of the squad, making him a good motivator and a good judge of the general direction in which he should proceed. Such signs are encouraging, but having good intuition, being a good motivator, and having a general understanding of what to do with the squad are qualities more suited for a specific coaching role or assistant manager. As of now he lacks the tactical ability, squad understanding, and sophisticated philosophy to push this team forward to success.

Mentality is everything

There is also another thing. Earlier, I briefly touched upon how important mentality is to being a Madrid manager. Without the ability to handle the pressure, the squad, the president, and the fans, you will crumble in months. While Zidane has the natural ability to handle the squad, serious question marks remain over whether he can handle the pressure of everything else. Zidane is known to be a natural introvert and has attended almost no press conferences as Castilla manager. This lack of transparency has led for the press to simply speculate about everything Zidane does or will do in the future. Such speculation when Zidane is manager of the first team, is highly dangerous and if Zidane cannot handle the media and cleverly maneuver tricky questions, he will be eaten alive.

The media has already started building up Zidane as the Guardiola-esque manager who will bring Madrid eternal glory.

If he fails or begins to stumble, the media will stab him in the back without remorse and will joyfully bring down the man they worked so hard to build up. The fans will follow suit mindlessly, citing unjustifiably how Madrid’s glorious past gives them the right to insult Zidane and sully his reputation.

While all this happens, I will sit in the background waiting for the inevitable moment when Zidane is asked to step down, feeling immense frustration at the fickleness of this institution…

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