Rafa Benitez; Philosophy, Tactics and Methods

Rafa Benítez: technician, tactician, perfectionist. Benítez boasts no ordinary CV. The Spaniard can count on twelve trophies including the coveted Champions League with Liverpool in a 2005 final that has gone down in folklore. It includes trophies in three different countries – Spain, Italy and England.

And yet Benítez is a character that divides many. With his glasses and oversized suits, he is even a target of ridicule in certain quarters. But Benítez is as attentive to tactical intricacies as he is oblivious to human ones. On his first date with his now wife Montse he beguiled her with an explanation of the 4-4-2 system, mapping out its particulars on a pizzeria tablecloth. He spent part of his honeymoon watching Milan train. It’s fair to say his interpersonal skills are modest at best.

Benítez now finds himself confronting what is perhaps the biggest challenge of his managerial career after succeeding Steve McClaren at Newcastle United last month. With three crucial games remaining in this Premier League Season @nufctactics seek to explore the philosophy, tactics and methods of a manager that Newcastle United fans have already taken to heart.


“I’ll leave the philosophy stuff to Plato and do my work on the field”.

A coaching philosophy should give an insight into the manager both as a person – and as a coach; a collection of ideas that determine everything they do, from how they handle man-management to how their team trains and plays. Put simply Rafa’s philosophy revolves around disciple, hard work and a sincerity towards the beautiful game itself. These core values outline how he expects his team to behave.

Born in a working-class district of Madrid, a young Benítez spent almost every waking hour playing sports. He played basketball, did handball and thoroughly enjoyed judo – but he loved football. At thirteen, Benítez won a place at Real Madrid’s academy. Starting out as a winger, Benítez ended up occupying the sweeper role, not blessed with pace – his position necessitated a level of tactical intelligence and a sharp head. He progressed steadily through the club’s youth set-up, before reaching Real Madrid C in Spain’s amateur Third Division. “I would have been an average First Division player,” he admitted to the Guardian in 2011, “but I wasn’t good enough for Madrid.” Unfortunately, he never got the chance to find out, suffering a knee ligament injury at the World Student Games in Mexico in 1979, his professional career was effectively over at the age of 20.

Benítez however, even as a player was clearly made out for coaching. His father still has sketchbooks that Rafa kept from the tender age of 13, full to the brim of comprehensive notes on teammates, tactical analysis and marks out of 10. On the field, no one could shut him up. “When I played, they said I talked too much but I couldn’t help it,” Benítez admits. “If I saw a problem I tried to correct it.”

Benítez continues to be meticulous in preparation and analysis; relentlessly studying strengths and weaknesses of players, his own and opponents. Benítez’s Wirral home contains a basement library dedicated to analysis. Thousands of DVD’s of match footage, all categorised, numbered and linked to his own computer. Training session reports dating back to his time at Castilla, details of his tactical systems at Tenerife and Extremadura. More still reside in his parent’s Madrid attic. As this quote from Steven Gerrard in 2009 serves to highlight, Benítez is a manager obsessed with detail:

“I can have a good game – tell you what, I’ll be big-headed, say I’ve had a fantastic game – we’ve won 2-1 in the last minute and I’ve scored both. I come back into the dressing-room and I’m buzzing, bouncing off the walls, thinking “I feel good today”, that is when Rafa comes up and starts talking about a throw-in when they changed the play and I pressed far too late. He’ll say: “If you want, we’ll go out there and I’ll show you.

Or you’ll have a run of 10 games when you’re in form and flying and he’ll pop you a DVD of your recent play and it’s broken up into sections good and bad. And you’re thinking, “Hang on, bad? I didn’t do anything wrong”. But you’ll watch it and you’re out of position in one match, or you pressed late or you let a man go at a set-piece. You wonder when the guy sleeps.”

Rafa Benítez is one of football’s great technicians – in particular he understands the need for balance and control of games. Indeed “balance” is the word he often uses himself to describe how his sides should play. Balance: an even distribution between attack and defence. It’s a concept that isn’t revolutionary. Yet in the Premier League, defensive security is often neglected in the pursuit of goals. It’s one reason that Premier League sides have struggled in Europe of late.

Benítez has undoubtedly brought a certain degree of organisation to what was a fairly anarchic Newcastle XI. In his own words:

“The first priority is to improve defensive tactical play because this is less complicated than the attacking side and is important for success. The most important thing for me is to be organised. I work a lot on patterns of play and, of course, as the statistics prove, counter-attacks and set-plays are very important”.

In prioritising defensive play, Benítez is regularly accused of being a ‘defensive coach’ with little time for flair. And to an extent this may be true. His title winning 01/02 Valencia side despatched a mere 51 League goals – which only contributed to Rafa’s reputation for caution. Craig Bellamy, brought to Liverpool in 2006, in a typically forthright autobiography hailed Benítez’s tactical intelligence – “defensively, Rafa was exceptional” – with players coached to military precision. Yet Bellamy loathed the rigidness of Benítez’s forward coaching: patterns of play and predetermined moves were drilled at the expense of encouraging individual intuition.


“Chess is all about controlling the middle of the board… Just like football”.

Away from football, the young Benítez was obsessed with board games. A keen chess player to this day – but his competitive instincts were honed playing the military board game Stratego against his friends and brothers. Simulating a military encounter, each player has 40 pieces representing individual soldiers in an army. To win, one player must block all of the opponent’s pieces or capture their flag. Rafa loathed defeat.

He recounts in his 2012 book Champions League Dreams an obsession for analysis and detail at a young age that have served him well in subsequent years: “for one day and one night, I analysed the game, considering each piece, its strengths and weaknesses, how it could best be used”. Rafa meticulously drew up a strategy to defeat all comers. “The basic principle was to toy with what my opponent expected me to do, to move the pieces in such a way that they would mistakenly assume certain characters were in certain places, and to keep some pieces back, so that you did not risk losing by finding your forces suddenly depleted. All of my work did not go to waste. My brother and my friends never beat me again.” To this day, ahead of big games Benítez works twelve to fourteen hours a day. Opposition scouting reports are compiled into dossiers that often run beyond thirty pages. Players are all pieces in his grand strategy.

So, if such a thing exists, how can we begin to characterise the typical Benítez setup? A good place to start is to look at his influences. When asked in 2005 Benítez wasted no time in naming wise Italian tactician Arrigo Sacchi’s great AC Milan side as his inspiration: “that team of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten was one which caught my eye and fired my imagination as a young coach”. Sacchi’s revolutionary AC Milan side had lifted the European cup in 1989 and 1990 (the last team to lift back to back European cups); using a compact 4-4-2 with zonal marking and an aggressive offside trap. Taking charge of Castilla, Real Madrid’s reserve team in 1993, he immediately sought to implement their principles, parroting messages about maintaining a compact team structure and a focus on movement. This adherence to Sacchi has underpinned much of Benítez’s tactical choices, post-Valencia he has rarely deviated from his trusted 4-2-3-1. Replacing Walter Mazzarri at Napoli, promptly abolished the 3-5-2 that the players had been accustomed to for years.


It is impossible to say who invented the 4-2-3-1 formation, but it is possible to place its development as happening at sometime in the late nineties. In Spain, John Toshack’s 1999-2000 Real Madrid side are often credited as pioneers of the system, although some would point to the Manchester United side of 1994 as a forerunner. The difficulty of course in describing these shapes is that they were all born out of 4-4-2: holding midfielders, advanced wingers and a forward dropping off into ‘the hole’. Many variations in formation are in the eye of the beholder.

Nevertheless, Rafa Benítez Valencia side is perhaps the best exponent of the 4-2-3-1, clearly lining up in four bands with a ‘three’ behind a lone front man. Rafa uses the 4-2-3-1 to suit his own tactical preferences and micro-management style –  indeed, the self-conscious symmetry of the formation allows for an been easy division of labour. Executed perfectly, it gives allows him control of the match – in both phases, with enough players in every area of the pitch.

The key to Benítez’s 4-2-3-1 system is its ability to create a cohesive defensive shape and transform effortlessly into an attacking unit. At Valencia, Ruben Baraja and David Albelda featured in a double pivot, in what is perhaps the most underrated midfield partnership of the last decade. Baraja, a mobile runner who covered space and linked play complemented the more industrious Albelda perfectly. The use of two holding midfielders allowed for an easy transition into a defensive block, while the two wingers act as a means of pushing opponents inside.


Benítez is incredibly rigid in his requirements of his midfield duo. Balance here is of the upmost importance – with players predominantly selected based on attributes; so that it exposes no holes or deficiencies throughout the team. The aim is that one of the two should always provide diversity to their midfield partner. Benítez believes that a midfield pairing too similar in attributes and style will quickly become ‘broken’, with the side unable to function in or out of possession. Rafa will therefore look to selects players in the midfielder unit that can provide tactical diversity and maintain balance simultaneously. Most often in his career, Benítez has constructed sides containing a player with vision and a range of passing to connect the team from deep. This player typically remains deeper, allowing a partner either to act as a ‘shuttler’ or remain focused on breaking up oppositions play. Should the passer be more accustomed to the ‘regista’ role – playing creative passes all over the pitch (see Shelvey), then the partner should be a more capable mobile ball winner, able to providing defensive cover in terms of positioning. Based on these preferences, it is quite easy to spot who may emerge as Benítez’s preferred pairs at Newcastle. However, should the Spaniard continue to be in charge in summer and not find the options at his disposal to be satisfactory pairs, we should expect transfer activity.

His title winning Valencia side of 2001/02 recorded a return of just 51 goals in 38 games – an astonishing total for a Championship winning side; but as we have come to expect from Rafa sides, they were incredibly well organised and disciplined. Rarely losing possession, and then they did, they quickly transitioned into a compact 4-4-1-1 with nine men behind the ball. Defensively Rafa’s sides stay compact: both vertically and horizontally, playing a medium block and pressing aggressively in the middle third – particularly against teams who like to build from the back. The key is intensity, every player has to move together and control space. Arrigo Sacchi trained his player to use four reference points when shifting and pressing to prevent any gaps opening up:

“Our players had four reference points: the ball, the space, the opponent and his own teammates. Every movement had to happen in relation to these reference points. Each player had to decide which of these reference points should determine his movements.”

Crucially pressing here is not about intensity or working hard in itself; but about effectively controlling space. Already at Newcastle, Benítez has asked his players to press zonally – predominantly in wide areas, in groups of two or three. In possession, Benítez will instruct the team to make the pitch big, move the ball quickly and maintain a good shape to take advantage of emerging space between the lines. The 4-2-3-1 creates natural passing triangles, which enable players to pass the ball into open spaces and circumnavigate opponents.


Still in his (hopefully) primitive weeks at Newcastle, it should be noted that at Liverpool it took Rafa a number of years to acquire the players necessary to play his preferred style. Only having signed Fernando Torres in July of 2007 to play the lone striker role did Liverpool use the formation to the best of its ability. Papiss Cissé’s selection over Aleksandar Mitrović against Swansea may have raised eyebrows on the terraces, but in order to effectively play the 4-2-3-1 which Rafa is stubbornly loyal to, a mobile striker is required. The system demands not only a natural finisher, but one who can intelligently participate in build-up-play and can press the opposition from the front.

Elsewhere Benítez’s name, particularly within England, is often synonymous with zonal marking. The concept of zonal marking, utilised by the majority of Benítez’s teams is not as revolutionary as many Match of the Day ‘experts’ would have you believe. The innovations modern day origins can be traced back to Zezé Moreira’s 1954 Brazilian World Cup side. It was subsequently adopted by Dutch Legend Rinus Michels in the 1970’s before being successfully implemented by – you guessed it, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan side. Advocates of the system, of which Benítez is one, suggest that advances in game intelligence and athleticism have led to the dying out of man-marking; with players stronger and more organised as a defensive team.


Indeed, Benítez’s Valencia had conceded the least goals in each of the three previous La Liga seasons – and critically, they seldom conceded from set plays, which speaks directly to the use of zonal marking. At the helm of Liverpool Benítez was constantly criticised for the use of the zonal marking, frequently forced to justify the system at press conferences and otherwise painted as a stubborn ideologue. Rafa however was quick to respond with Opta data illustrating that his side were twice the best in the Premier League at preventing goals from set pieces. With just a matter of weeks remaining before the conclusion of this Premier League campaign it seems unlikely Benítez will seek to implement his flexible zonal system. But the manner in which Newcastle conceded at both Norwich and Leicester will certainly give cause to concern.


“The essential part of winning games for a coach is the work done on the field, helping players to deal with the systems thrown at them”.

Benítez’s training sessions are conditioned by his principles of play – and always have a technical/tactical element. Benítez is a worker and places a great emphasis on his training philosophy; believing that the most efficient breakdown of training time is to spend 80% of the session dedicated to working with the ball and the remaining 20% concentrating on essential fitness and muscular conditioning. This approach is underpinned by research which highlights the need for footballers to have a strong capacity for aerobic endurance. Aerobic training is designed to improve oxygen transport in the body to working muscles in order to minimise the risk of fatigue and increase the capability to sustain exercise at high intensity for longer periods. The days of players running continuous laps around the pitch are long gone. Although this approach will be blatantly obvious to any sports scientists – and indeed, many coaches have long questioned the value of training without the ball for much of the week. But it’s worth noting that under previous manager Alan Pardew, Newcastle players did just that. In order to be successful with this approach it is critical to stimulate match conditions to physically and mentally challenge players. Benítez has used this method at various clubs including Real Madrid, Liverpool and Inter Milan – and obviously believes in its success.

A second area of emphasis within training surrounds the need to minimise the risk of injuries. Darsley Park over the last decade has been overflowing with the walking wounded and Newcastle have regularly topped ‘Injury League Tables’. Alarmingly a high percentage of recent injuries have concerned the reoccurrence of soft tissue injuries, with hamstring pulls and calf strains all too common. Upon taking over at Inter, Rafa’s backroom staff found that there was a high percentage of injury recurrences – over 80% of injuries having occurred in the same muscle group in the previous two seasons. Rafa states that a “good working methodology and co-operation between the medical and technical staff is fundamental to reducing the number of injuries”. Certainly, Francisco de Míguel Moreno, who has worked with Benítez for many years is a specialist in the prevention and rehabilitation of injuries will be looking to shake up the rather hapless Newcastle medical department.

Benítez has always been an avid user of technology in sport, even before home computers were commonplace he composed training sessions digitally on his trusty Commodore 64 and later a ZX Spectrum. Alberto Toril who played under Benítez for Castilla told Diario AS that “even at youth level Benítez would study our rivals… and would gather an incredible amount of information on our opponents”. Although no longer directly involved he was instrumental in the commissioning and development of Globall Coach, a visual coaching tool that allows managers to communicate ideas to players clearly and quickly. The devil is in the detail for the Spaniard, who once labelled himself “a loner with a laptop”:

“He [Rafa] analyses everything, including runs and long passes, studying them on his computer. If he tells you to keep your position a couple of metres from the penalty spot, you listen because he shows you that the extra space will make the difference between a goal and a missed chance.” Fernando Torres.

Not everyone who has worked under Benítez heaps such high praise on his methodology. Craig Bellamy described training sessions under the Spaniard as “monotonous” with the team working on “specific moves over and over again”. On the training pitch, Benítez wanted particular patterns of play to unfold when a ball reached a certain area – “it was a bit like American Football in that respect”. After training concluded, Benítez even took the unusual step of removing all the balls so that nobody could do extra work. There is undoubtedly a sense that he places little trust in his players – epitomised in his policy of naming the starting line-up just an hour before kick-off, “if they bump into a friend from the opposing side before the game—or receive a message from him – they might inadvertently let slip who is playing where” Benítez explains. Perhaps this thinking dates back to Benítez study of Stratego all those years ago – never risk handing your secrets away.

Football is a game of fine details and Benítez is careful to leave nothing to chance. In Champions League Dreams he discusses the role of a manager even during rest-breaks at hotels before away games. Sometimes meddling in player’s room arrangements to that a right-back for example, may share a hotel room with the right-winger, “so that they would have they chance to talk about how they might combine to the best effect.”

Final Thoughts

An astute mind, a student and teacher of the game. Football is everything to Benítez. His life revolves around it. During a recent spell outside of the professional game manage he took it upon himself to manage a local boys team on the Wirral. “It was hilarious,” his wife, Montse, recalled. “He stood there on the touchline and shouted at them as if it was the first division, waving his arms around.” Not being in football management does not suit him one bit.

Benítez in many ways is the perfect Newcastle United manager, a football obsessive, a man that will relish living in the footballing ‘goldfish bowl’ and the pressure the role brings. Newcastle have been crying out for a manager of Rafa Benítez caliber for more than a decade, a man to carry out a root and branch review of the club and inject some pride back into the city – and yet his spell on Tyneside may well be cut short.

Would Benítez be open to managing Newcastle United in the Championship? A manager of his caliber will undoubtedly will be on the receiving end of a string of more exciting opportunities than presiding over a Newcastle team that could visit Burton Albion next season. With family firmly settled in England the thoughts of Rafa’s long suffering wife, Montse, will undoubtedly feature in his decision making. Maybe, just maybe this is the long term project he is after.

A guest piece by NUFCTactics, for more analytic and tactical musings follow them on Twitter here.




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