To say that Alfredo Di Stefano’s legacy as a player is secured is something of an obvious statement. A footballing prodigy from a young age, a historically controversial transfer and a career blazed with glory and goals up until his retirement in 1966 means the Argentine enjoyed one of world football’s most storied careers.
However, Di Stefano’s tale in football doesn’t end with the conclusion of his playing days. The Madrid legend spent a further 24 years in football, managing teams across the world including a famed return to the Bernabeu in the early 1980s. His time on the touchlines, particularly with Los Blancos, was filled with ups and downs and leaves far from the cut and dry legacy Di Stefano left as a player, demonstrated by how little is actually written about Di Stefano, the manager. This article hopes to fill that void, reflecting on Di Stefano;s successes and failures in the Real Madrid dugout.
Before diving into that section of his career, however, its worth looking at Di Stefano’s managerial career before Madrid came calling. Di Stefano first job in management was Elche in 1967-68 where he lasted just half a season due to board upheaval and just three wins in 14 games.
Following a year hiatus, Di Stefano returned to Argentina to manage River Plate rivals Boca Juniors. Under the Blanco legend, Boca won the league in his debut season playing a style of football one Argentine columnist described as “more accustomed to River Plate fans’ taste.”
Innovative and attractive to watch, Di Stefano’s stock quickly rose thanks to his time in Valencia. Having recruited well in the summer, Di Stefano instilled a pragamatic gameplan something quite at odds with the football Los Che were used to, but one that yielded excellent results. Valencia won the league in Di Stefano first season off the back of a brilliant defence, conceding just 19 goals. Los Che also reached a Copa del Rey final which they lost to Barcelona.
Valencia were unable to retain the title in Di Stefano second season and lost a second successive Copa final, this time to Atletico Madrid. By 1974, Di Stefano was looking for work again. A move to Sporting Lisbon materialised in 1974, however it was a disaster. Sporting apparently never paid FDi Stefano a penny and sacked him before the end of the year just as his team were boarding a flight for Algarve.
Success duly followed as Di Stefano won the UEFA Cup Winners Cup against Arsenal. He left that summer for a return to Argentina, winning the championship once again, this time with his former team River Plate.
That summer, Di Stefano got his dream job, returning to Real Madrid as a manager. His arrival was greeted with fanfare unseen for a manager at the club and his first training session in charge attracted 20,000 fans.
Returning to Madrid, two things were true about Alfredo Di Stefano approach. Firstly, he had an eye for youth talent. His biggest success at Elche was the promotion of two youth players that would become integral to the team soon after Di Stefano was sacked. He spent much of his weekends in Argentina watching the youth teams and, as Madrid would soon find out, Di Stefano readiness to give youth a chance would drastically change the fortunes of the club towards the end of the decade.
The second surety about Di Stefano the manager was that he was nothing like Di Stefano the player. Coming into the Real Madrid job, Di Stefano decided to build on what made him successful at Valencia. He made few personnel changes that summer and built a team focused on defensively solidity.
Di Stefano made few changes in his first season at the club with six of the starting eleven from the 1981 European Cup loss to Liverpool surviving through the Di Stefano era. The Argentine brought in three starters that summer, two centre backs in the shape of Francisco Bonnet and Johannes Metgod as well as Juan Jose at right back.
Its difficult to figure out specific tactics from Di Stefano’s Madrid, largely cause the era he managed in wasn’t really that innovative and because Madrid changed shape depending on where the ball was. Without the ball, Madrid played a 5-4-1 formation with extremely deep sitting midfielders, wingers tucked in and the striker playing just behind the opposition defensive line.
In attack, the full backs would charge forward and Madrid midfield would go wide in an attempt to create overloads. Di Stefano liked to keep three men at the back, so one of the midfielders would often stay behind (generally this was Stielike or Angel). Juanito was given alot of attacking license in this Madrid team so though he appears on the wing, he would pop up across the front three.
This is generally how Madrid would approach matches, however, don’t take these shapes as gospel. In my experience, football tactics in the 1980s was hugely dependent on personnel and it would be fair to say that Di Stefano was something of a champion of that approach For instance, Real Madrid back-up 5, Fraille, had a tendency to run with the ball more than Bonnet did and Di Stefano was happy to allow that given that he was quite good with the ball at his feet. In these situations, Steilike often sat alot deeper.
Di Stefano kicked off his Real Madrid tenure with a 2-2 draw at home to Real Valladolid. He didn’t suffer his first defeat in charge until November, a 2-0 loss to Barcelona. In that time, Madrid had dispensed with the reigning champions Real Sociedad 4-0 at home and were joint top of the table with Athletic Bilbao. Following the Clasico defeat, Los Blancos travelled to the San Mames and dispensed with their closest challengers 4-2.
In the cup competitions, Real Madrid reached the final of the European Cup Winners Cup, the Copa del Rey and the now defunct Copa de Liga (Spain’s equivalent of the league cup). “It was almost the perfect season” Di Stefano would later reflect, in the end, however, Madrid completely unravelled. Having topped the league for 25 of the 34 gameweeks, Madrid choked the title on the final day with a 1-0 defeat to Valencia allowing Athletic Bilbao to snatch the crown.
Three days later, Madrid lost to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final following that up with an 2-1 extra time defeat to Aberdeen in the Cup Winners Cup before rounding off the season with a league cup loss to Barcelona as well.
Pinpointing exactly where things went wrong for Madrid is difficult, especially for someone reviewing it now. The last league game of Madrid’s 1982/83 season is gameweek 30 while watching every league game Madrid played that season online would take weeks. However, from my viewing of Di Stefano’s Madrid, some weaknesses do stand out.
First and foremost, Real Madrid really struggled up front. Despite some big wins, Madrid had just the fourth best attack in LaLiga in 82/83 and had only one player (Pineda) finish with double digits. The starting pairing of Juanito and Santillana failed to break past the nine goal mark for the second season in a row with Santillana clearly lacking confidence in the games I watched.
Unlike the Madrid of today, Di Stefano’s Madrid struggled to score goals because they struggled to make clear cut chances. Di Stefano’s style of play entailed a slow, patient possession game with overloads in wide areas. The approach lacked urgency and made Madrid quite easy to defend against.
Di Stefano prioritised defensively solidity and clearly asked all 11 of his starters to defend when they lost the ball. This made Madrid hard to break down, but there wasn’t a counter attacking plan for when Madrid won the ball back. Di Stefano, instead, relied on the individual quality of his players to transition the ball from Madrid’s half to the opponents. This worked sometimes:
Largely, however, this approach resulted in Madrid losing the ball in dangerous places
Francisco Bonnet through the course of the 1982-83 picked up 15 yellow cards and discipline remained a real issue within Madrid due to players often finding themselves in these sort of situations.
In the end, as talented as this Madrid team was, they simply weren’t good enough to win sliverware. They lacked the firepower and urgency you need to take control of games in crucial moments and the better sides found it easy to rob Madrid of control of matches and to hold onto that control.
Di Stefano survived the summer and once again made few changes to start the 1983-84 campaign. Three defeats in four, including a first round exit from the UEFA Cup and a 6-2 defeat to Malaga, however, forced Di Stefano to look for alternatives, “When you’re weak you look behind, at the kids coming through, I saw the kids were doing well and put them in, that’s all”.
During the 1983-84, Di Stefano gave debuts to all five of the Quinta Del Buitre, he made Manolo Sanchis and Martin Vazquez starters. He also trusted Chendo with the starting right back spot. His gamble paid off as results began to improve, however, the poor start to the campaign and a failure to beat the champions meant Madrid lost the title on head to head and Athletic Bilbao retained the championship.
Di Stefano’s last game in charge was a 3-2 defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Copa de Liga, like his first job, the Argentine true contribution to the club was only realised after he left.
Di Stefano rounded out his journeyman career by briefly revisiting Boca Juniors in 1985, before spending three seasons at Valencia whom he won promotion back into the Primera division.He quoted saying about management that ”Apart from [the compensation of] working with the young,it’s the most horrible profession that could exist,” by 1988, the Argentine was sick of it and retired at the end of the 1987-88 season.
Three years later, he was briefly called out of retirement to take the reigns of Real Madrid following the sacking of John Toshack. It was in this foray that Di Stefano finally won a trophy with Real Madrid, lifting the Spanish Supercup via a 5-1 aggregate victory over Barcelona.
Following the 1982/83, Di Stefano was nicknamed Alfredo the Second having finished runner up in five competitions. However, looking at his career as whole its an unjust nickname. Di Stefano won enough to believe he was a good manager and where he failed to lift sliverware, his track record with youth meant he always left a lasting legacy, something Madrid learned all to well after he left.
He will forever be Alfredo Di Stefano the player, however, Alfredo Di Stefano the manager should not be slept on.