Benitez on tough love, working in China and desire to return to the UK

Maybe even Stevie agrees I wasn’t barking mad now! Former Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez on tough love as a manager, the chances of Liverpool repeating his side’s Istanbul miracle and how he is desperate to return to the Premier League

  • Rafa Benitez has been without a job since January after returning from China  
  • The Spaniard is keen on a return to management, with England his ‘priority’   
  • The ex-Liverpool boss spoke about working in China at the start of the pandemic 
  • Benitez also discussed his strict approach and why he was tough on his players

There’s a new, additional TV room at Rafa Benitez’s house in West Kirby which has been installed at the insistence of Montse, his wife. Most days you will find Benitez holed up in there with his new coaching protégé, daughter, Agata, 18, watching football. As many partners without an interest in football will testify, there really is a game on every night in this most-bizarre pandemic season.

‘We have another TV for games because my wife is complaining that I am watching even more games than in the past,’ says Benitez, smiling across the Zoom call as he chats on Friday afternoon. 

‘Because you cannot go out, I am watching three or four games on a Saturday, three or four on a Sunday and on Friday or Monday. Montse is saying: “Another game! But today is Friday?” But there is the Premier League, Champions League, Europa League, German League, Spanish League….’

Former Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has spoken about his time in lockdown, his short spell in China and his desire to get back to management 

The ex-Liverpool boss says he has been gorging on football at home, to the dismay of his wife

The problem is a familiar one in any household divided between those who love football and those for whom the game isn’t an obsession. Benitez though has an additional reason to devote his time to games. It’s precious father-daughter time, something he was deprived of in his most recent job in China.

‘My daughter now likes to watch football. She plays Fantasy Football and FIFA and she’s interested in the players. I’m watching games and stopping the tapes and saying: “Go back, see this movement, do you see there is four at the back, now do you see there is three up front, now two…”

‘When I want to disconnect, I just watch the game. I say: “OK, I will not analyse this one.” But when it is a Premier League game, you always analyse. How can you stop them? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each team? I try to watch as many as I can and then take clips and share them with my staff.

‘I try to explain about tactics [with Agata] but she’s not very interested. She wants [a team] to win or she wants the players to score goals and assists. But sometimes I stop and say: “Now, tell me the difference: if they have two strikers, then the full backs will be free, or if they play with three and go to press then they will be late in pressing the wing backs.” Just simple things to be fair….’

Benitez left Dalian Professional over concerns for his family amid the coronavirus pandemic 

Clearly, an evening watching the football with dad is a little more intense in the Benitez household than your average home. But it is still a release from what has been an extraordinary and difficult year. 

Benitez of course was planning to return to China to coach Dalian Pro when coronavirus emerged in Wuhan as a global threat in January 2020. He and his squad were then stuck in limbo on training camp in Spain for two months while the Chinese authorities attempted to reorganise the season but weren’t allowing incoming travel.

Even when they did finally get back, Benitez, as a foreigner, had to undergo quarantine. With multiple trips between China and the UK, he has undergone four bouts of quarantine this year. At one stage he was stuck in Hong Kong for 50 days, a month of which was under strict quarantine in a hotel room.

‘It was not a quarantine like when I came to England and was at home. No, it was a quarantine when you are in one hotel room, they knock on your door at seven in the morning, at 1pm, at seven in the evening and they give you the food with all the [PPE] equipment. You have the bracelet [tag] and you cannot leave the room because you are under control. That is the way. It is totally different.

‘I was watching games, reading, walking around the room. In Hong Kong, my first room was 70 steps, so I could walk round. The second one was 50. You walk around, walk around, do some gym and some exercises. The majority of the TV channels are Chinese. You are watching international TV when you can for news and at other times watch the games on your computer.’

He endured a tough spell in the Chinese Super League as he attempted to coach the team at the start of the pandemic

At one stage, he was unable to enter China because his visa had expired, though his staff, whose visas had been approved at a later date, were still there. So, Benitez was overseeing training via video links in his Hong Kong hotel room. It was, he says ‘too long… too hard.’

More painfully, like so many others, he has been affected by the pandemic. A close friend, Richard, is currently on a ventilator being treated for the virus, with Benitez and his friends supporting his immediate family.

Amidst it all, like most of us, he has tried to focus on the small upsides. Football watching aside, he now has time with his family, rather than being 5000 miles away on the other side of the world. 

‘I walk the dog sometimes, I go walking with my wife, I spend more time with my family. But when there is a game I say: “Look this is my job.” And I watch, take notes and after I go to the computer and cut some clips. The rest of the time I enjoy with the family.’

He doesn’t regret his Chinese experience and it was hugely well paid. But the pandemic and a change to funding rules imposed by the Chinese FA last year meant that the project he was hired to oversee didn’t really exist anymore. For all parties, it was best to end it, though Benitez remains in touch with the bosses at Dalian, offering informal advice.

He is eyeing a move back to the Premier League now but won’t be returning to Newcastle 

He holds iconic status at St James’ Park but would not be willing to work with Mike Ashley  

However, he won’t be globe trotting again for a while. Doubtless, he will work soon, but this time, he hopes, in England, though it is unlikely to be at Newcastle, despite his iconic status at the club. 

The existential disconnect between manager and owner Mike Ashley came to dominate his three years at St James’s Park, where fans adored him, while Ashley and his executives appear to endure him, at best. Benitez loves the club, but there is no prospect of a return at present with Ashley in charge. 

And there is no likelihood of an imminent takeover, despite the legal action Ashley is taking against the Premier League to challenge their ‘fit and proper owners’ procedure, which caused Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund to withdraw their offer to buy.

‘It was an amazing time for me and an amazing experience and I suffered with the fans because they deserved more. Some people, some pundits say: “Oh, they [Newcastle fans] ask for too much.” No, they are a city behind the team, so they deserve something. I wish them all the best and I want them to stay up. I said so many times, they have to be united, even at this difficult time, it is the only way to stay up.’

The Spaniard still lives in England and his priority would be to take a job in the top flight

Celtic is another club with which Benitez is constantly linked, though it is clear he sees his future in the Premier League or one of the major European leagues. ‘The priority is England because obviously I like the Premier League and my family is here. But I want to compete. Or to have a project which will allow you to go closer and then try to compete.

‘I want to win. It is not easy to win but at least do the right things to be sure that your team can compete against anyone. There are games where you are not better than the other team but of you have the right plan and everybody follows the idea, then you can compete against anyone.

‘If not I would like to stay in Europe, Spain is difficult, Italy is not easy. Go to Germany, but sometimes they want you to speak German, so it’s not easy. I can speak French, so France. In Spain the clubs don’t have the money to compete against Real Madrid and Barcelona. So priority would be England and after that Europe.’ Offers have come in from the United Arab Emirates, USA, Brazil and China.

‘But I want to stay in Europe and I want to stay in England. If it’s the right one in England, we can do it tomorrow. But which is the right one? The project, the competitive team, it’s not there at the moment so we have to wait. I would like to wait for one or two months to find for the right one. But I don’t want to stay without working. I want to be on the pitch as soon as possible.’

With as much money as you could ever want, a CV which boasts trophies in the Champions League, La Liga, the World Club Cup, the Europa League, UEFA Cup, FA Cup, Coppa Italia and Championship, you might be tempted to enjoy life and take the foot off the pedal. But Benitez, 60, is aghast at the idea. 

Benitez takes pride in his former players like Steven Gerrard who have become managers

Probably he won’t rest until he’s added a Premier League title to that list. Ironically, given their rivalry, he cites Sir Alex Ferguson as well as Jupp Heynckes, who won the treble at 68 with Bayern Munich, and Mircea Lucescu, still managing Dynamo Kiev at 75, as role models.

Might he consider being a Director of Football? ‘No!’ he says instinctively. ‘Maybe after ten years I will retire and be a director of football a pundit, a journalist. Whatever you want!’ 

Not now, however, though he relishes the idea of working with a technical director to nurture the academy structure at a club. And he is a coach first and foremost. ‘I want to coach players, I like to be on the pitch. I like to train players and make sure they improve.

‘I play chess with my daughter and with my wife during this time and they say: “Oh, you don’t allow us to win!” I say: ‘No, because winning is a state of mind.’ You are always competing and trying to win every game. In the training sessions, you’re trying to improve people and little details can make the difference. Everyone says: “Rafa is obsessed by the details.” Yes, because that’s the way you get the best from players.

He admits he was tough on players like Gerrard, but feels his approached benefited them 

‘I want to be sure that I continue improving players and competing with a chance to win. I know that you cannot win with Newcastle against Manchester City. You play ten games, you will lose normally nine. But I want to be sure I can win this one, if we do the right things. I want to be sure I can see the players improving.’

He takes pride in all his protégés, none more so than Steven Gerrard, enjoying his first league title win as a manager at Rangers. ‘Firstly, congratulations Steve! He has done really well this season. He is in the right path to be a good manager. 

‘Now he has to be consistent, to deliver in a future and from what I can hear from him, his interviews and comments he is doing well. He will have difficult times and good times, the way that he reacts will be the key to his future success.’

Benitez was famously hard on Gerrard as a manager but only, he always maintained, because he knew Gerrard had extra special talent. Gerrard recently conceded that he now as he is a manager he better understood Benitez’s perspective, which pleases Benitez immensely.

‘It’s like David Albeda [now manager at Atzeneta Unio Esportiva] and Ruben Baraja [manager at Real Zaragoza],’ he says. They have recently been in touch and were reminiscing over their title-winning seasons under Benitez at Valencia, where they broke the Madrid-Barcelona duopoly. 

Benitez has stressed the importance of a solid academy and the development of young talent

‘They thought Rafa was too hard once upon a time but now they think he is great! Stevie the same. Xisco [manager] at Watford, was my player at Valencia when we won the league and he was very keen and very positive in talking about me when we were talking. I like to see my players, my coaches learning, improving.

‘I have had many players who at the time were complaining but after they became coaches, they say: “Oh Rafa was teaching me that, Rafa was telling me that.” They don’t realise when they are young why you are pushing. Then after they realise. 

‘You will always remember the teachers who were pushing you, not the teachers who were very nice. The nice teachers are fine but if you want to win, you need teachers who will give you something and that means that sometimes it has to be difficult.’

He also sees a future where his coaching and club building skills will be in demand. Without money to spend, most clubs will need an educator to work with the squads that they have. ‘The way football is going, producing your own players will be more important than ever. 

‘Creating a good academy and developing something …. if I can see that in a project (I will be interested) or I will be looking for a competitive team. A competitive team that allows you to challenge for trophies, or a project that allows you to improve and grow and do better.

His greatest success arguably came with his Champions League run with Liverpool in 2005

‘I am sure I can do well because I was producing players in the academy at Real Madrid and at Liverpool I started the system in the academy with Pep Segura who after went to Barcelona.’ 

He lists a long line of coaches they employed at Melwood including Steve Cooper, now Swansea manager, Mike Marsh, Cooper’s assistant and Michael Beale and Tommy Culshaw, now assisting Gerrard at Rangers.

As we speak, the Champions League draw comes through. The final is in Istanbul, Liverpool are struggling in the Premier League but seemingly finding their level in Europe and they face the possibility of Chelsea in the semi finals. It’s clearly destiny that Benitez’s most-famous triumph of 2005 in the Turkish capital, probably the greatest Champions League final, is about to repeated. Could there be an Istanbul Mark II?

‘For sure,’ says Benitez. ‘Liverpool has the potential and the manager, it’s not a problem. People talk about Istanbul, like we were lucky. But we were not lucky to win the Champions League because we played against Juventus [in the quarter finals], that was a top side and they played 5-3-2.’ What follows is a detailed breakdown of the ins and outs of that game sixteen years on; like old campaigners, managers never forget their battles.

He has tipped Liverpool to win the Champions League again this summer in ‘Istanbul Mark II’

‘I put Xabi Alonso with Antonio Nunez, so imagine with Luis Garcia and Milan Baros. What we did was change the system because they were playing with Zlatan Ibrahimovich and Alessandro Del Piero up front and Pavel Nedved behind. So, we put the three centre backs and the two wings back and we played 5-3-1-1 against a 5-3-2.

‘Tactically we had to adapt to a very difficult opponent and then, because we did well, the confidence was growing and growing. And we played Chelsea, at this time it was the best team maybe in Europe for sure in England [but] our team had so much confidence that tactically we could manage. We were a team with belief.

‘I think Liverpool can do the same and go to the final obviously. AC Milan was great team [in the final] but the team was growing in confidence because, in these knock-out competition we could do it. 

‘The Evertonians, when they talk about this year, [Everton finished fourth and Liverpool fifth] that season we played the final of the Carling Cup in February, then your team is focussed on a final and then you lose the focus on the league.

‘And after you are focused on Juventus and then Chelsea. And I remember I was really, really upset when we lost against Birmingham [in February] when Everton lost and we were pushing the team and we couldn’t manage. 

The Spaniard is itching to be involved in football again but will wait for the right project

‘We lost this game. Ah, I cannot believe it! And we lost the top four position. Everton had a great season and it’s because we were distracted. I can understand a team that is not doing so well, [that] you can have this distraction.’

Romance aside, pragmatism says this will finally be Manchester City’s year. ‘I think Man City for me are still favourites to win. Liverpool-Real Madrid it depends on the moment. Both teams they can be good because Liverpool they have the quality, structure and players coming back from injuries. They can compete against Real Madrid, no doubt.’ 

Yet he issues a word of warning gleaned from his time as Real Madrid manager, an indication of the priorities of that club. One of the club captains told him not to worry too much about the league form in the first half of the season. 

‘We have to be ready in February for the Champions League,’ the player said. The implication was clear: the real business starts now. And Benitez is itching to be involved again.

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