A sizeable proportion of Real Madrid supporters are unhappy with Rafael Benitez. The local media have been heavily critical of the former Liverpool and Chelsea boss ever since his appointment in the summer, and Cristiano Ronaldo supposedly made his own feelings known to president Florentino Perez during the international break, with reports emerging on Monday that the Portuguese superstar had told the galactico-gatherer: “With this coach we will win nothing.”
Few rushed to the rooftops to celebrate Benitez being made Blancos boss in June but, in many ways, the recent condemnation of the 55-year-old is a little unfair. Madrid have lost only one game in all competitions this season, a 3-2 defeat at Sevilla in their last outing. They sit top of a Champions League group featuring Paris Saint-Germain and Shakhtar Donetsk, and are just three points behind Barcelona at the summit of La Liga. In total, 33 goals have been scored and only seven conceded.
But Madrid’s performances, rather than their results, have been the cause of the ire. Benitez is a naturally cautious and reactive coach, something that hasn't gone down particularly well at the Santiago Bernabeu, where spectators expect to be entertained and see their side dominate.
Benitez thus finds himself under pressure ahead of Saturday’s Clasico against Barcelona, with defeat guaranteed to make matters worse for the former Castilla defender. The general frustration with Benitez seems to have manifested itself in a single issue in the build-up to the weekend’s big clash in the capital: will playmaker James Rodriguez begin the game on the pitch or on the substitutes’ bench?
Technical to physical
After a fabulous World Cup in which he should arguably have won the Golden Ball award given to the tournament’s best player, Rodriguez impressed in his debut campaign at Madrid in 2014/15. His acquisition brought about a slight change of direction for the club: having won the Champions League the previous year with a very athletic style of play based largely on the speed and power of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Angel Di Maria, Madrid’s game the following season became more about subtlety and guile.
It is unlikely that such considerations were taken into account at the time by Perez, who was likely concerned only with capturing the man who he considered the planet’s next superstar. But the move towards a more technical approach was certainly one of the consequences – intended or not – of Rodriguez’s transfer.
The last three months have suggested that Benitez wants to reverse that process. Casemiro, the midfield anchor who rarely strays beyond the halfway line, has now established himself in the team, bringing bite and force in the engine room.
Toni Kroos, previously used as the holder by Carlo Ancelotti, has been moved forward slightly alongside Luka Modric, while speedy wingers Jese and Lucas Vazquez have shared some of the attacking berths with Isco and Rodriguez; even though injuries have played a part in that decision, it is clear that Benitez feels most comfortable with a physical side that does much of its damage on the counter-attack.
While that in itself is not seen as a problem – hitting quickly on the break can make for some thrilling football – the Spaniard’s safety-first mentality has not exactly endeared him to Madrid's fanbase. Indeed, it could be argued that Benitez is simply not suited to the very biggest clubs, and is instead a better fit at places like Valencia and Liverpool, where it is far easier to foster an underdog identity.
Star at Sevilla
It's within this context that the Rodriguez issue has become such a talking point ahead of the first Clasico of the campaign. The Colombia international seemed to take a dig at Benitez last week, insisting back in South America that he was “totally fine… and yet some people keep saying I'm not fit” – comments that were widely interpreted as a response to his manager’s insistence that Rodriguez was not ready to start the encounter with Sevilla 10 days ago.
The 24-year-old did all he could to rescue a point for his side at the Sanchez Pizjuan after being brought on in the 63rd minute, with Madrid trailing 2-1. The Colombian's lovely scooped ball to Ronaldo almost brought an equaliser soon after his introduction, before an incisive pass put Bale through on goal, only for the Welshman to take the ball too wide with his first touch and allow Sevilla defenders to get back and clear the danger.
Rodriguez was bright and purposeful for the remainder of the game, drifting infield from the right flank to help knit play together, offer a passing option in pockets of space between the lines and take shots at goal from outside the box.
He generally made the right decisions in possession, completing the vast majority of his passes and dictating Madrid’s attacks, as well as creating more chances from open play in 30 minutes than Isco, the man he replaced, had managed in over an hour.
Rodriguez's fine strike in injury time was further evidence of his sublime ability, though the goal ultimately proved to be nothing more than a consolation after Fernando Llorente had extended Sevilla’s lead to 3-1 in the 74th minute.
Who misses out?
It was a terrific cameo, and yet Benitez was still reluctant to praise Rodriguez after the game, telling reporters that he still “has a long way to go to get back to his best”. It felt like a warning aimed at those who expect him to go straight back into the team against Barcelona; with Karim Benzema set to return and Ronaldo and Bale undroppable, the only obvious way to fit the former Monaco man in is to shift to a 4-2-3-1 and drop Kroos or Casemiro, something that appears extremely unlikely.
The former’s passing from deeper in the pitch is likely to be essential against Barça, while Benitez would surely not demote the Brazilian shield for the visit of Luis Enrique’s table-toppers after fielding him in far easier encounters with Las Palmas, Levante and Espanyol.
It is often said that football is a results business, and although their disgruntlement has been present despite a positive points tally so far this season, Madrid fans are unlikely to be discussing Benitez’s methods in too much detail if they have three points to celebrate on Saturday evening.
In the longer term, however, the 55-year-old’s approach is likely to cause further problems, particularly if Rodriguez – a favourite of both Ancelotti and the Santiago Bernabeu faithful – continues to be sidelined.
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