How Rafa Benitez’s subs have shot Real Madrid to the top
“Así, así, así gana el Madrid!” Real Madrid were two goals up, and Celta had gone a man down, when the familiar chant of “that’s the way Madrid win” – which typically accompanies the capital outfit enjoying a favourable refereeing decision – broke out around Balaidos.
The home supporters weren’t impressed with referee Carlos Clos Gomez’s decision to send off Gustavo Cabral. As it turned out later, the Madrid fans weren’t impressed with the way Rafael Benitez’s team had won. They did not like what they‘d seen.
Lately they haven’t cared much for the way Madrid have been winning. Going top of La Liga with the densely plotted 3-1 victory on Saturday should have been greeted like a triumph, but it wasn’t.
Even if los Blancos are still unbeaten, boasting the league’s stingiest defence, some are unconvinced with the way they are consistently failing to keep their opponents at arm’s length. Others are alarmed Keylor Navas remains the reason they’ve been watertight this season.
“The questions raised by Madrid’s visit to Celta were whether a side are actually playing well when their best player is the goalkeeper,” began the match report in AS. “The best player was the whole team,” Benitez responded. It sounds cliched, while the answer to the issue – however inflated – doesn’t really satisfy.
But here the boss was right: one player alone was not deserving of the recognition. Neither has any single player dominated their season. In the context of an injury-laden campaign, the contributions of the collective, on the other hand, have taken on new levels of significance.
Navas has graduated from bit-part player to protagonist and illuminated Madrid’s season, but he isn’t the only one. Lucas Vazquez starred on the afternoon. Jese Rodriguez and Casemiro did so too. Just like the rest of this season, it hasn’t been all about Cristiano Ronaldo.
Warnings from Carlo Ancelotti’s doomed reign, when the starting XI basically picked itself, echo through time
It was Vazquez who played in Madrid’s all-time top scorer for another goal at the weekend, laying on for the Portuguese just one year after his boyhood club appeared to lay him off. Sent on loan to Espanyol and subsequently snapped up at the end of last term, Vazquez was granted a surprise recall when Benitez exercised his buyback clause in the summer. Initially treated with suspicion by fans, Vazquez has instead won over with his application and effort. He leads the club’s assists charts this term, weighing in with four in all competitions.
The 24-year-old winger is willing to stay wide to run at opponents to beat them, and offers the side something different – as does Casemiro. The ex-Porto loanee – a lynchpin in their climb to the Champions League quarter-finals last term – isn’t a mere midfield corporal but one whose primary role is still to foul and be fouled. He may not be Madrid’s most gifted player, but he is becoming one of their most important.
The 23-year-old does his job well and in doing so allows others to do theirs better too. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric have profited from the freedom he has given them to roam from position. When one is not present, the Brazilian has filled in admirably.
“Casemiro puts in a lot of work to give the side balance. He recovers possession, tackles, he lends balance and helps to keep attacks going,” Benitez praised. “When I was in Italy I watched Real Madrid games, and there was always talk that the side needed a midfielder like him.”
Those who ignore history are almost certainly bound to repeat its mistakes. Warnings from Carlo Ancelotti’s doomed reign, when the starting XI basically picked itself, echo through time. Benitez moved quickly in the transfer market to address the squad’s shortcomings when he took over from his predecessor in June. There is more variety at the Bernabeu now; depth too. The likes of Vazquez and Casemiro, though not purchased with a view of playing games like the Champions League final, have still been useful and added value when called upon. Right now, they are proving to be decisive.
Addressing the ailments
The way his players have responded in the initial stages of his tenure has left onlookers feeling like there is no such thing as a substitute among them
Counting on performances of such magnitude from the bench was perhaps what Ancelotti missed most, with the Italian leaving Asier Illarramendi, Jese and Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez out to dry. For a manager regarded as cold in some quarters, Benitez has managed to make everybody feel involved. The 55-year-old has exhibited a warm openness that has not compromised his seniority over the squad.
The way his players have responded in the initial stages of his tenure has left onlookers feeling like there is no such thing as a substitute among them – or, at least, that no one plays like he is one. Their form is coming because of, not in spite of, him. Importantly, there is the desire at the club to start afresh following a disastrous finish to last season. Quantity has a quality of its own, and the collective is prevailing.
Early scrutiny into his relationship with Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos felt exaggerated, but if there were grounds for the reports of tension then the weight of positive results gradually could see the senior statesmen come to be won over, too. Facing an adept opponent like Celta was the sort of test Madrid may have lacked the depth and self-assurance to come through last term. The second game they played in the space of 65 hours after a crucial trip to face PSG in the Champions League, and with an injury list including Benzema, Gareth Bale and Dani Carvajal, they rose to the task expertly.
The manner of victory may not have been as comprehensive as the 6-0 scoreline against Getafe earlier in the campaign, but it was possibly more impressive. Under Benitez, they have yet to concede first.
“We held out against a great opponent. It’s good for the whole group to know that we can win games despite being made to suffer,” the Spaniard said, now aware of what his side are made of. “After our game against PSG, we were able to hold on against a Celta who have seen off many big names recently.”
Lasting the distance
In spite of his more prestigious yet endlessly more thankless job, the coach has navigated the minefield of whims and politics around the club
Sceptics awaiting a Barcelona-esque collapse from his men were left empty-handed. Held up against each other, it is clear which of the title front-runners’ benches have produced the greater moments of significance until now.
And though the Catalans’ position in the table – level at the top despite operating under the limitations of a transfer ban – relative to Madrid’s is used as a stick with which to beat Benitez’s side, there is a strong sense still as to which squad is better equipped to last the distance.
Expectations that Luis Enrique’s treble winners would have collapsed at the first sign of a challenge to their treble and allowed Madrid to roar ahead are perhaps symptomatic of an impatient Bernabeu world. Granted, dropping points to Sporting Gijon and Malaga may be something they come to regret later.
Equally, heading into November’s Clasico on even footing with Barcelona is still excellent evidence of the progress Rafa has made made. In spite of his more prestigious yet endlessly more thankless job, the coach has navigated the minefield of whims and politics around the club marvellously.
It is thanks to the habitual contributions of Navas, Vazquez and Casemiro, along with the rest of the squad, that Madrid top La Liga, and Benitez can look at his time there so far with satisfaction. That their football at the moment is gritty, and not very pretty, is a problem he can live with.