Rafael Benítez on coaching: Mentality, education, luck

On the anniversary of the first of his three major European triumphs, Rafael Benítez talks us through his passion for coaching, his inspirations and what it takes to be a winner.

Rafael Benítez is now coaching in China
Rafael Benítez is now coaching in China Imaginechina via AFP

Since winning the UEFA Cup with Valencia on this day in 2004, Rafael Benítez has cemented his status as one of the cutest tacticians in European football.

The Spaniard led Liverpool to UEFA Champions League and UEFA Super Cup success in 2005, won the FIFA Club World Cup with Inter in 2010 and steered Chelsea to UEFA Europa League glory in 2013.

Looking back at his managerial career – from a budding teenage interest to winning European silverware – Rafa discusses his philosophy, competitive mentality, coaching education and fondness for Merseyside.

Real Madrid's winning mentality

Sergio Ramos hugs Rafael Benítez, Real Madrid coach from 2015-16
Sergio Ramos hugs Rafael Benítez, Real Madrid coach from 2015-16 Getty Images

I've been a Real Madrid supporter since I was born. I started to play for Real Madrid when I was 13. Up until I got injured and I was sent out on loan, I always had to win, I always had to compete to stay in the team and we always had to lift the trophy, no matter what competition it was.

Back then, there was [José Antonio] Camacho, [Vicente] Del Bosque, [Mariano] García Remón, Luis Molowny, who was the general manager. Then [Alfredo] Di Stéfano came on board with the senior team. All these people were used to competing and winning. So this instils you with a certain mindset. The mentality that [...] you need to win every important game.

I remember when I was playing with the academy side; we always played against Barcelona, Sevilla, Athletic Club, Atlético Madrid and Valencia, which were strong teams, and winning was virtually mandatory. That's something that becomes part of your genes, of your DNA, and you end up being very competitive and, as they say, a winner. That's something you already have, but it grows as long as you're in an institution like Real Madrid.

Coaching education

Rafael Benítez celebrates Valencia winning the UEFA Cup in 2004
Rafael Benítez celebrates Valencia winning the UEFA Cup in 2004 Popperfoto via Getty Images

At the same time [as playing for Real Madrid's youth team], I was, of course, at school and then at university. I studied physical education and those studies were a great help for me. Even the slightest detail made the difference. Beating a record, to be a tenth of a second faster, or a second faster in a race depends on many details. Those kinds of things that you learn, the importance of physiology, for example, and of being well-prepared physically, warming up well, of the breaks between competitions. Those are the details you learn at university and then you put them into practice during the games.

I always use an expression from Luis Molowny [former Real Madrid manager]. He said, "Take it easy. Take it easy." Don't rush before making a decision and make sure it's the right decision. I employed this strategy later on and, as you grow older, you learn those things. I always say that experience is not what happens to you, but what you make with what happens to you. You learn from your mistakes. Of course, at this stage [playing for Real Madrid B], being young, I made a lot of mistakes.

I travelled to Italy a lot. I went to France, to the Netherlands, even to training camps in the United States and England. You learn a little bit from all of them. The truth is that you learn from everyone. My idol as a coach was Arrigo Sacchi, so I liked to go and talk to him in Italy when I had the chance, or Francisco Maturana when he came to Spain. I've always been someone who wanted to learn a lot. I spent many hours at the training centre talking with Vicente del Bosque. We talked a lot about what was happening, the youth players; I recall talking about Guti and whether he had cut his hair or not.

Toni Grande, Vicente del Bosque, García Remón, José Antonio Camacho – they were the people who were with me the most [at Real Madrid]. I learned a lot because they had such a huge experience on the pitch, and with my university education I tried to combine both things. You learned every day without noticing.

Thinking like a coach

Rafael Benítez won the FIFA Club World Cup and Italian Super Cup with Inter in 2010
Rafael Benítez won the FIFA Club World Cup and Italian Super Cup with Inter in 2010AFP via Getty Images

When I was 13, I noted down the starting XI of my team. When the game ended, as a good journalist [would do], I gave out some marks. I always had a good mark, of course.

When I was 16, at the team I played with during the summer, I had a player-manager role. When I joined the INEF [the Faculty of Sciences for Physical Activity and Sport in Madrid)], I was a coach and a player.

So I'm always thinking as a coach. For example, I used MS-DOS [1980s operating system] – many people won't even know what that is – Visual Basic and then Windows came along. At that time I already had a system, with particular software to monitor the activity of each of my players.

In fact, I have the data of my current assistants, Antonio [Gómez Pérez] and Mikel [Antía], and what they did when they were 16 and I was their coach. I had every training session, every detail. I always looked for exercises; I went to Italy and to the [Italian Football] Federation in Coverciano, and I photocopied every magazine, every exercise and I analysed them.

I'd seen maybe 20 games from Sacchi's AC Milan and I noted down every single thing that happened, so I could take out the guidelines that I would later teach my players. For example, we played a pressing zone in the youth ranks of Real Madrid when no one else was playing a pressing zone yet. We almost always won, of course, because we had the best players. But, on top of that, they were crushing wins, so they were much more attractive.

Competitiveness is key

2005 Champions League final highlights
2005 Champions League final highlights

That competitive gene allows you to take on any activity. Be that cards or playing Ludo with your daughters, you want to win. Having that in football is key, and I was fortunate. A lot of people who don't know me remember [Liverpool's Champions League success in] Istanbul in 2005 and forget Valencia [UEFA Cup winners in 2004], or Chelsea [UEFA Europa League winners in 2013] or Napoli.

They also forget about something very important, and that is that you don't just judge managers on their ability to win trophies with big teams. Me and my team – I have a group I work with, it's not just me – we got Tenerife promoted, we got Extremadura promoted, and then also we got Newcastle United promoted. We've won trophies in three different countries.

So, what does that mean? Well, that the group you work with, your way of working, your methods, your style of play, it's all competitive. It allows you to win, it allows you to adapt. The English mentality is very competitive. They like to train with intensity. There are some things they can do better, like certain tactical strategies or when to slow the game down, which is something the Italians do well.

You can look at many of the teams where I've worked and those teams don't have that many players who are better than their opponents, but they've got that winning mentality, that competitive gene which is contagious. That allows you to compete and have a team that is more than the sum of its individual parts. When you have that [competitive mindset], and you're organised and balanced, you have a winning team. A team that wins matches and wins trophies.

Adapting to life in England

Steven Gerrard and Rafael Benítez celebrate winning the UEFA Champions League in 2005
Steven Gerrard and Rafael Benítez celebrate winning the UEFA Champions League in 2005Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images

I studied French at school but then while I was studying English, I had the Red and Blue albums by The Beatles, so I read the lyrics. At that time, I thought to myself, "This is English?" They just spoke with Scouse accents; it was different.

I remember the first night when I went with my wife [to England], there was a terrible storm and I was thinking, "What are we doing here?" We were coming from Valencia where the weather was wonderful. But after a while, everything was all right. From the very first moment, people were great; they treated us fantastically. The language side of things was a bit easier for me because, although it was difficult, we spoke about football.

[One windy day at training] we were doing set pieces. Stevie Gerrard was shooting at goal and it was too windy. I said, "Be careful with the 'wine.'" They started to laugh. So I was like, "What's going on?" Instead of saying the "wind", I said the "wine".

People usually don't get how important those details are. When you have to give a speech, at half-time, you have to keep the intense mood and their attention, and also tell the players what to do. As soon as you mispronounce a word or say something that doesn't quite sound right, you lose their focus.

I have another story with [Peter] Crouch. It was a friendly against Olympiacos. I was explaining something on the board with my notes. I had Alex Miller as an assistant, who was Scottish, and he wrote down what I was going to say.

I had "press when losing" written down in my notes, so I asked Crouch, who was starting that year, "What should we do when we lose the ball?" And he says, "Close it down." So I say, "No." Then I ask Dietmar Hamann, who obviously has very good English, "Didi, if we lose the ball?" He says, "Close it down." And I say, "No." Then I ask [Djibril] Cissé, who speaks French and English like me and he says, "Press when losing." And I say, "Right."

Everyone started laughing because as you know "close it down" is more or less the same as "press when losing". But I didn't know that, I had to learn on the go. That's why I always let people know how hard it is to give a speech at half-time in any game, but especially when you're losing.

What makes Liverpool special?

Rafael Benítez is unveiled as Liverpool's manager in 2004
Rafael Benítez is unveiled as Liverpool's manager in 2004AFP via Getty Images

I think Scousers are hard-working people, people who are thankful to those who make a commitment and give their best. And I've always faced tough situations.

Scousers […] come together to be stronger as a group. There's an atmosphere which results from that, the passion for football, their hopes for their team and the pride they feel when they see their team play. I think those things are passed down from fathers to sons and that creates a special situation in the stadium, in the city, in general. Everton fans share that same passion.

But Liverpool, specifically, welcomed me from the get-go. I saw they had an amazing passion for football from the start; they have high hopes when it comes to competing – they're very competitive, they want to win and that is infectious. People want to win, they all come together. They work hard and commit to each other. They stand up for each other. I think the hard times a working-class and professional city like Liverpool has been through makes them stronger and makes them live the good times more intensely.

The harder you work, the luckier you become

I think that there's a luck factor that we can't neglect, but if you train and work hard [you will be successful]. I'm going to refer back to the example of the Istanbul final. The following year we won the FA Cup by adopting the same approach with Pepe Reina on the penalties, and why was that? Because we'd spent a year analysing information on penalty takers. If you're your team's penalty taker, you can pick one spot to place it today and another spot on another day etc.

When you're not a regular penalty taker, but you step up to take a penalty, no matter what the circumstances are, when it's in a final you pick the spot that you're most comfortable with. Of the penalty takers, we knew who four of the five were and this gave our goalkeeper a big advantage. That's why I believe it's true that the harder you work, the luckier you become.