Rafa Benítez has a reputation that can never be pinned down by general consensus. Depending on the person asked or the time of year it is, opinion of him can range from being a maverick tactical genius all the way down to a clueless, corpulent charlatan – and everything in between.
If there is one thing his detractors and defenders can agree on though, it’s that his man-management skills are not the greatest. Gauging the mood of his players and reacting accordingly has never been one of his strong points.
He hasn’t even taken charge of a competitive match with Real Madrid yet and it seems he may already be in Cristiano Ronaldo’s bad books.
When asked this past week whether Ronaldo is the best player in the world (a leading question if ever there was one), Benítez’s response was, shall we say, non-committal:
“To say that he is one of the best in the world, I believe, is sufficient.”
No Rafa, it’s really not. Anything other than “of course he is, what a stupid question” is not sufficient when you are the new Real Madrid manager and Ronaldo is definitely going to see that clip.
As if to enrage our Portuguese hero further, the manager later had the sheer temerity, the wanton disregard for Ronaldo’s human rights and emotions, to disallow one of his goals in training.
Not upsetting Cristiano is the first and most important rule for any new Real Madrid boss, and will remain so as long as he remains their best player. Ronaldo is essentially the King Joffrey of the Bernabéu – despite his obnoxious personality, he is the one who has to be appeased and that’s just the way it is.
It’s also well documented that Ronaldo did not want previous boss Carlo Ancelotti to be fired, even going so far as to post a picture on his Twitter account back in May with the caption: “Great coach and amazing person. Hope we work together next season.”
Yeah, about that…
While Ronaldo’s ego may be a hindrance to Benítez’s attempts to exude an air of authority with the squad of players, it could also work in his favour. Ronaldo has an on-pitch mentality that borders at times on sociopathic – his primary concern – arguably his only concern – is his own performance. He is generally not one to down tools because his pursuit of individual perfection simply will not allow it.
Ronaldo has turned himself into the superstar is today through sheer dedication and while his teammates have benefitted from his contribution in the form of La Liga and Champions League medals, he would arguably throw every one of those players under the bus if it meant beating Lionel Messi to another Ballon d’Or trophy. That sheer bloody-mindedness though is not necessarily a flaw – it’s what has made him one of the best players the game has ever seen.
It is one of the reasons why his occasional bouts of petulance are so tolerated – he never stops trying because he loves the limelight and adulation too much. If it leads to more titles for the club, then so be it.
It is a trait, however, that is unlikely to go down well with Benítez. At his previous clubs, the new manager had a reputation for being a tactically-rigid disciplinarian who rarely deviated too much from his preferred systems.
Trying to accommodate a vital but ultimately self-serving player will be either the making or undoing of Rafa at Real, in the short term at least, because Ronaldo is certainly not going to alter his own game. Here we have a man who apparently threw a strop because Gareth Bale cost more than he did – for better or worse he simply doesn’t have the humility to become more team-centric and selfless in his play.
Benítez’s arrival was not universally welcomed, by either the Real Madrid fanbase or the footballing public in general. His appointment and the events since do though indicate an interesting new direction being taken by Florentino Pérez. The departure of Iker Casillas and doubts surrounding the future of Sergio Ramos would suggest that the long-standing power players are being rooted out of the club, leaving Ronaldo as something as an isolated figure at the top of the dressing room ladder of influence.
Benítez is widely regarded as being a disciplinarian with scant regard for ego so this could fit into the overall Pérez master plan for European dominance. It will not be pretty (Rafa’s tactics rarely are), it may not even be successful in the short term, but the change in tack from aesthetic to pragmatic is one that Real desperately need to make as all the former was doing was creating relative failure that just happened to look pretty.
The power dynamic between manager and player can be a complex one, especially when both have such diverse ideas on how the game should be played. To be an effective combination, somewhere down the line a compromise is going to have to be reached between the two men.
Ultimately, Benítez has seen his reputation unfairly tarnished in England – he remains one of the most successful managers of the modern era and is quite capable of delivering Champions League success to Real Madrid. Ronaldo, for his part, will have to get over the fact that Ancelotti is gone and respect his new manager.
Spats between the pair, small or otherwise, are not going to help the cause. They are a needless distraction from the main objectives of the club, not to mention the fact that it leads to baseless speculation about the player’s future.
For now, this minor dispute appears to be under control. But this is Real Madrid after all, so it’s a depressing inevitability that the next one will be just around the corner.