Pep Guardiola is the Spaniard who identifies as a Catalan. Rafa Benitez is the Spaniard who can seem more of an Italian. When two Champions League-winning Spanish managers meet on Sunday, it will be a clash of philosophies and identities.
There is a case that Guardiola, and his iconic Barcelona team in particular, made many of his early contemporaries look outdated, from Sir Alex Ferguson to Jose Mourinho. He redefined Spanish football to a wider audience, making possession a religion, leading everyone to want their own Guardiola, bringing employment opportunities for many others who seemed to share some of his ethos.
And the Spanish manager in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals made the Spanish manager in the 2005 and 2007 Champions League finals feel distinctly unSpanish. As Spanish football became more fashionable, Benitez arguably became more unfashionable. He has had elite jobs since then – Inter Milan, Chelsea, Real Madrid – without shaking off the impression that he is losing the battle of ideas, that the biggest and most ambitious clubs want someone and something else.
Benitez’s defining influence is Arrigo Sacchi; his teams, much like the AC Milan of three decades ago, will often defend in two blocks of four and with an emphasis on remaining compact. Tactically, he can feel more Italian than Spanish. Tactically, Guardiola may have initially been more Dutch than Spanish, given his status as a disciple of Johan Cruyff, but in the process he gave Spanish football an identity. If Guardiola has also learnt from Sacchi, it is altogether harder to detect many Cruyffian principles in Benitezball. Or, indeed, to detect much of Benitez’s thinking in Spain’s golden age, despite the presence of Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres, Alvaro Arbeloa and Pepe Reina in the team or on the bench. It is hard to imagine Xavi and Andres Iniesta in his midfield.
Spain won the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 by playing almost exclusively with the ball, with a cadre of diminutive passers, sometimes with a false nine. They used possession as a defensive strategy. Benitez uses defending as a defensive ploy.
When Manchester City host Everton, it feels a case of theories colliding. They can be seen as the idealist and the pragmatist. Guardiola operates with the ball, Benitez without it. City have the highest share of possession this season, Everton the fourth lowest. Rewind three seasons and Benitez’s Newcastle beat City with just 23 per cent of possession. Benitez can drill a defence to operate in a low block. Guardiola prefers a high pressing game to regain the ball as far from goal as possible.
Benitez is a famously stubborn man and it can seem as though he carried on his way, regardless of the Guardiola-led developments in the game. Ian Holloway has been influenced by tiki-taka; Benitez has not. Perhaps he concluded he could not play that way. Certainly, he has never tried to. Maybe it is because his formative years came at the wrong Spanish superclub.
Because Barcelona have captured the imagination and he is a Real man; Vicente del Bosque and Zinedine Zidane won Champions Leagues in the Spanish capital, but their doctrines revolved around winning. Yet the classic Real managers feel more instinctively attacking than Benitez and better at massaging the egos of the superstars. He repeatedly rejected Real in his prime and they then ejected him when he returned.
But it is remarkable that, apart from his ill-fated and brief spell at the Bernabeu, he has not worked in his homeland since winning his second La Liga title in three seasons with Valencia. Only Benitez and Diego Simeone, another deemed much more defensive than Guardiola, have broken the duopoly of Barcelona and Real since 2000.
But since leaving Liverpool, he has been football’s restless wanderer, associated with a brand of football that – along with his old adversary Mourinho’s – seemed at its most successful in the 2000s, before Guardiola’s passing revolution altered the footballing landscape. It left Benitez looking a man out of time, displaced from his own country’s footballing ideology trust by the dominance of a rival school of thought, doggedly defending whenever he encountered the passers. Pep against Rafa is the Spanish culture clash in England’s north-west.
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