Madrid 0 – 4 Barcelona
After Madrid’s humiliating 0-4 defeat at home to Barcelona, Benitez has been given the “full support” of Madrid president Florentino Perez – never a good sign for a football manager. Even without Messi, Barcelona had already beaten Madrid comfortably with Suarez and Neymar running riot, and Andres Iniesta majestic behind them.
Benitez opted for surprise with his formation – an attacking line-up featuring Modric and Kroos as the deep-lying midfielders, with an attacking diamond ahead of them consisting of James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Even his own players were surprised, allegedly learning of the line-up just hours before kick-off. Casemiro, a young defensive midfielder who might have expected to start his first Clasico, was forced to look on from the bench.
After each goal, the cameras cut to an increasingly distraught Ronaldo, as Barcelona’s attackers overran an unbalanced Madrid team time and time again. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that those 6 players are simply not meant to play together, that the need to incorporate the president’s star signings is perhaps eclipsing the need to put out a balanced, competitive side. As the match drew to its conclusion, Madrid’s fans called for the president to go.
Makelele and the Galacticos
Galacticos 1.0 had Claude Makelele for that balance. With Roberto Carlos bombing down the wing past him and a truly disgusting amount of attacking talent ahead of him in Zidane, Figo, Raul, Ronaldo and Morientes, Makelele was the glue that held the giant, gold-plated behemoth together. That behemoth was the brainchild of Perez.
He arrived in 2000 and for 4 years in a row, Madrid had made headlines with blockbuster transfers. Madrid bought Figo in 2000 for a then-world record £42 million, Zidane in 2001 for £51 million, Ronaldo in 2002 for £32 million and Beckham in 2003 for £26 million. In the 3 years in which Madrid bought Zidane, Ronaldo and Beckham, they did not sign a single other player.
2003 was the summer that bought the team to a grinding halt. Fernando Hierro – one of the finest centre backs of his generation – was entering his twilight years and left at the end of his contract. Makelele was sold to new kids on the block Chelsea after a contract dispute with Perez. A supremely intelligent player, Makelele didn’t possess glittering technique, strength or athleticism.
His game relied quietly being right in the space opposition players wanted to run into, making sure the centre backs don’t get dragged out of position, covering attacking full backs, making interceptions and playing simple balls out. Perez wouldn’t budge, and Makelele went on to help Chelsea win back-to-back titles during Mourinho’s first spell at the club.
Fast forward 12 years, from 2003 to 2015, and not much has changed for Madrid. They are several years into a Perez presidency, who left in 2006 only to return in 2009 to implement his vision once more. They have the world’s two most expensive players in their squad. They have a wealth of other attacking talents which they struggle to fit into a cohesive team.
In 2003 Luis Figo played centrally to accommodate Beckham, this time around they have simply forgone a defensive midfielder to accommodate James. They lack a proven defensive midfielder, yet lost one the summer before over a pay dispute, after failing to agree terms with Khedira as they did Makelele. In Casemiro, also, they have a promising talent in that position, just as they did with a young Esteban Cambiasso in 2003, who left on a free just a year later.
That defensive midfield position is essential to the modern game. Without the cover of a defensive player, the attacking talents of the fullbacks are suppressed, as they can’t roam forward at will. For Madrid, Marcelo, possibly the best attacking left back in the world over the last few years, and Danilo, this year’s blockbuster signing, are shackled. The lack of a true defensive midfield player forces both central players – Kroos and Modric – back a bit to cover.
Against weaker opposition this is a strength – Madrid expect to be called upon to break down an opponent, meaning that having two high-calibre distributors in the centre helps them. The sheer quality of Madrid’s attack overwhelms defences, with the fullbacks sucked into the game by deep defending, allowing them to show their talents. Against world class opposition, it is no strength at all. Required to defend much more, not only do their defensive limitations show, but their attacking talents are wasted.
Most importantly, having both central midfielders and both fullbacks pinned back creates a huge gulf of space between them and the attacking quartet, making it extremely difficult to move the ball up the field efficiently. When Madrid are barely defending and teams are sitting back, the problem of bringing the ball out of defence is reduced – they don’t have to do it so much, and teams essentially let them bring it up to the halfway line. Against high pressing teams like Barcelona, the defence is forced backwards, creating an even bigger gap between the attacking quartet and the rest.
The contrast with Barcelona could not be starker. For years, Sergio Busquets has quietly filled that defensive midfield role, giving the attacking talent around him the freedom to shine. Ahead of him, Rakitic and Iniesta have the freedom to move forward at will, and beside him Alba and Alves do the same. Those 4 players are then free to unleash possibly the best frontline ever seen, but without Busquets, none of it could happen.
Benitez and the future
That Rafa’s team is struggling shouldn’t really be a surprise – he hardly has a 5-star CV. The one standout achievement – that Champion’s League win – came with a team largely built by another manager, and relied on many a moment of magic from Gerrard, while Liverpool were generally disappointing in the league under Benitez, never truly threatening the title race. Gerrard’s penchant for the spectacular could win a cup tie, but over 38 games he needed more help.
Benitez went on to have forgettable time at Inter; a few months after taking over a treble winning side, he demanded money for transfers and in response was dismissed before he even reached his first window. Then there was a caretaker gig at Chelsea, where he lead them to an unspectacular but solid 3rd place, followed by a fairly ordinary 2 years at Napoli, where he failed to mount a title challenge despite a strong squad featuring the likes of Higuain and Hamsik, the club captain and talisman who was woefully mismanaged by the Spaniard.
His appointment was certainly not ambitious – he is neither an exciting young coach nor one with a stellar track record a la Louis van Gaal. It seems more as though Benitez has been picked as a safe pair of hands to implement the will of the president, than as a coach valued for his own ideas, while Perez waits for the man he really wants. It all leaves Benitez looking a bit like a supply teacher, unable to control pupils who know they aren’t going to have to deal with him next week.
This is why the protests are against Perez, more than Benitez. Perez was the man who fired Ancelotti, the manager who had delivered a Champion’s League win not 12 months earlier. Perez is perceived to be the one who wants to crowbar all manner of attacking riches into a single line-up, and the one who hired a coach who would perhaps let him do that. As dissatisfaction builds, all that can reduce it now is results – and they don’t look like coming. Could this be the end for Galacticos 2.0?