What will Rafa Benitez’s demise at Real Madrid mean for Florentino Perez?

A penny for your thoughts Rafa. Understanding what’s going on in the now ex-Real Madrid coach’s head at the moment would be fascinating.

If nothing else, Benitez has given the impression throughout his career that he knows his own mind. Often his strength of opinion has ultimately been to the detriment of his job security: his desire to do things his way often rubs people up the wrong way, as his messy departure from Valencia and his grapples with internal politics at Inter showed. He doesn’t like having someone above him, telling him what to do, yet in the summer he finally took the job which has been seen as an inevitable embellishment to his CV, even though it meant working under the most manipulative football figure outside the halls of FIFA.

Florentino Perez is the sort of figure that draws derision from British fans: the club president with no football background who claims he knows more about the game than the professionals, and puts his money where his mouth is by essentially appointing himself Director of Football.

Benitez’s desire to return to Real clearly overwhelmed the logical part of his brain when he agreed to work under Perez. Perhaps he’s been able to win battles against Directors of Football in the past, although they ultimately tended to be pyrrhic victories, damaging him in the long term. However, here was a battle he couldn’t possibly win.

He lasted just seven months, but he looked like a lame duck for at least half that time. Some might argue, with justification, that he was a dead man walking the moment he was appointed, with sections of the afición and the press on tenterhooks, waiting for things to go wrong.

It might be argued that Benitez would have lost the job earlier if Perez had not positioned his coach between himself and the firing squad, his survival underpinned not by a desire to give him a chance, but Perez’s realisation that giving him the shove would expose him.


The defeat to Barcelona, humiliating as it was, felt like a point of no return even though the fact is that the sides were only separated by two points when Benitez took the fall. It wasn’t just the disjointed tactical mess which Real laid before their fans which made it feel significant though: it was those fans’ reaction. They didn’t turn on hate figure Rafa. They turned on his boss. That meant something had to happen.

Initially it seemed that the consequence was Perez using Benitez as a human shield. Benitez would inevitably go in the Summer, but if he could deflect criticism from Perez he might still be of use. However, the atmosphere has merely become even more poisonous. For heaven’s sake, Real scored ten goals in their penultimate home game, but no-one seemed terribly happy about it. Even the goodwill banked by scoring eight in their previous home game didn’t count for much. If that isn’t a definition of an unhealthy club, then what is?

Or let’s put it another way.  Rafa Benitez has been sacked after a run of seven wins in nine games. Since losing to Barsa, their only failures have been an admittedly weak showing at Villarreal and Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Valencia. That would be a draw away to one of the biggest clubs in Europe, unbeaten at home in the league since 2014, in which Real were generally the better side and were winning with seven minutes left despite having been down to ten men with half the second half still to play. Those are high standards. Impossibly high standards, perhaps.

There have been unsatisfactory themes running through that pretty successful run of results, of course. The officials certainly helped the last two home wins, Ronaldo is clearly not the player he was, and then there was the Copa del Rey fiasco. Yet surely only the mediocre showings against Rayo and Real Sociedad could be traced back to Benitez, and the ugly manoeuvring of Ronaldo towards the exit, setting him up to look bad in the way Mesut Özil was treated, is all the president’s work. There are mutterings that James Rodriguez might be getting the same treatment.

Marcelo Bielsa said when you look into the eyes of your new boss, remember that he will be the man who sacks you one day. Just sayin'
Marcelo Bielsa said when you look into the eyes of your new boss, remember that he will be the man who sacks you one day. Just sayin’

Perez recently imposed some comically prohibitive conditions on prospective challengers to his presidency. He seems untouchable, but so did Sepp Blatter. Even Machiavelli was removed, tortured and exiled by the Medicis in the end. Perez has now discarded his human shield and appointed a legend of the game who, nevertheless, only has coaching experience at a very low level. It sounds like another bad decision. Could he possibly have exposed himself at last?

Is Levante’s Pretty-Ugly Fairy Tale Finally Over?

Never ever give up
Inspirational jackets can’t save Levante now

As I watch Levante crash to a 4-0 defeat at home to Real Sociedad, a performance described by the Revista podcast as the worst by any team in La Liga so far this season, a kid sits in front of my wearing a coat bearing the slogan “Never EVER give up.” He left before the end.

To be fair, an awful lot of the faithful did, and those that didn’t only hung around to show their side the contents of their pockets as they left the pitch.

Whte hankies at the final whistle
White hankies at the final whistle

The progressive reaction to the four goals followed the classic stages of football depression:

Goal 1: Shock.

Goal 2: Anger.

Goal 3: Early departure.

Goal 4: Ironic applause of the opponents.

And soon afterwards coach Lucas Alcaraz had paid with his job. You could never criticise him for a lack of effort as his touchline gurning and gesticulating makes Jurgen Klopp look like Niles Crane. A cruel critic might have asked whether there was anything behind his exhortations for hard work. If his preparation for this match had amounted to something more than hanging that kid’s jacket on the changing room wall and chanting “Never EVER give up.” at his team until their ears bled it didn’t show against La Real.

So does this mark the end of Levante’s gritty fairy tale? Sid Lowe wrote evocatively of the side’s glorious flirtation with the top of the table four years ago, dubbing their collection of gnarled journeymen “The Expendables” as they battled their way to the top of the table. They held on well enough to finish sixth and enjoy an unlikely European adventure the following season. And now it looks like they have come full circle.

In the week after Lowe’s article Levante actually took outright top spot in the league, ironically beating Real Sociedad 3-2. Just one day off the anniversary, La Real delivered the coup which cost Alcaraz his job and leaves the Granotes looking green around the gills. (I know frogs don’t have gills, but it’s so close to a good metaphor I had to follow it through).

By the end of the weekend, there was an even more poignant illustration of Levante’s decline. In a separate piece Lowe wrote of Raimon the groundsman, who arranges the SPanish teams’ flags in order of their league position on the flagpoles that run down the side of the pitch. It was a happy task four years ago; it will have been rather different this week as Raimon shifted Levante’s pennant to the last position on the right side of the stand.

The flags of the Liga sides, always arranged in league position. Levante ended up at the end of the row after this one.
The flags of the Liga sides, always arranged in league position. Levante ended up at the end of the row after this one.

So what has gone wrong? To put things in context, over-achieving is always a fragile business. Surviving in a league where the TV money doesn’t trickle down on crowds of between ten and fourteen thousand isn’t easy. Once you fail to get the fundamentals right, deterioration can set in fast, and three key factors have gone against Levante this year.

JIM announces his candidacy for the Valladolid job
JIM announces his candidacy for the Valladolid job

Firstly, their success has been on the back of some excellent coaching. The trouble is, when you show your quality at Levante the natural next step is to move on. Luis Garcia established the side in the top division in impressive style, and his predecessor, the much loved Juan Ignacio Martínez, took his work a step further. After a couple of sure-footed managerial appointments, the club’s luck was always likely to run out though – show me a club that have made three consecutive good choices of coach – and Levante haven’t bucked the trend. If Rubi, the new man, is a gem, then they might have a chance, but my money’s on him not being in the hot seat by the end of the campaign. Rubi’s credentials – a spell on the staff at Barsa and an isolated, albeit impressive, successful campaign at Girona in fifteen years of coaching, leave him feeling like a punt more than a sure thing. But then Levante were never in a position to draft in a sure thing, were they?

Rubi: just happy to be here
Rubi: just happy to be here

Secondly, any good players Levante might uncover are always going to snapped up by someone with more cash. From Felipe Caicedo through Arouna Koné to Kaylor Navas, players have moved on to bigger and better things. It’s hard to constantly dig up diamonds in the rough, so there’s bound to be an inevitable creep downwards in quality. If you want a graphic illustration of this point: consider this. Navas, on current form for Real Madrid, might just be the best keeper in the world. They’ve replaced him with Rubén, whose most memorable contribution to a Levante match was this, when he was a Málaga player. Clearly he stuck in the Levante scouts’ minds!

So who have Levante lined up as their latest find, to groom and sell on? Deyverson is an interesting striker, but there’s work to be done if he’s to make a step up from here: a blunt performance against Real was prematurely ended by a red card for diving, which summed up his and his team’s day.

A red for Deyverson
A red for Deyverson

And then what do you have? Nabil Ghilas is fun to watch if you’re a neutral and enjoy seeing a chunky lad put himself about a bit, show flashes of quality, and threaten to do something decisive without ever quite managing it. He’s probably not so much fun to watch if you’re relying on him to pull something out of the fire for your team, and he’s not even Levante’s if they wanted to turn a profit on him.

And then there’s Roger, who runs about a lot.

nabil_ghilas

Ghilas is fun to watch if you’re a neutral and enjoy seeing a chunky lad put himself about a bit

The third issue is hard to define, never mind to address. The quality of players haemorrhaging out is one thing; their character is quite another. Losing leaders like Sergio Ballesteros is not an issue which is easy to address. Juanfran remains, but his half time substitution against Real Sociedad illustrated the danger of relying on a 39-year old to hold your defence together and provide character. Juanfran has been a fine player and a great servant to the Expendables,  but there comes a time when even their value expires.

The cruel thing about it all is that while the dismissal of Alcaraz was inevitable, the Real defeat really did illustrate one of the classic patterns of football, played out throughout the ages. There were signs of promise in the last couple of weeks. Okay, they’d lost five of the last seven, which is relegation form in anyone’s book. But some of those performances offered up hope. Obviously there was the derby win over Villarreal, a terrific victory against a side tilting at top spot and in fine form.


Admittedly the Yellow Submarine had a player dismissed in the first half but still, the way a usually progressive side retreated so completely into their shell said something about how Levante imposed themselves on the game. Anyone who saw José Luis Morales and Toño ripping down the flanks and delivering a stream of crosses into the box would have thought this was a side with something about it.


The following week Levante arrived at El Bernabéu and showed plenty of cojones in a 3-0 defeat which saw them stretch their former keeper Navas when the result had yet to be cemented. They’d also shown heart to fight back from two down to claim a draw against Eibar, La Liga’s feistiest side.

But that’s how football goes, isn’t it? Teams start to show promise, often exhibiting fight in defeat against superior opponents, and you hope that level of performance will be sustained and lead to an improvement in results. But once they come up against beatable opposition, all that promise melts away and the cold facts of six points from nine games is all that’s left. The street smarts of Garcia, the quality of Navas, the heart of Ballesteos were all gone. So what’s left for Levante?

Vicente Iborra (Levante)

Scouting isn’t rocket science! Every time a Premier League side signs a good foreign player the nation goes crazy. Who is this mystery guy? Where did he come from? Anyone with a decent knowledge of the game outside the UK would have known that the likes of Santi Cazorla, Oscar and Papisse Demba Cissé were likely to succeed, and there are plenty more of them out there. So who’s the next “secret” star to watch out for? Who is the next Cabaye?

Rumour has it Vicente Iborra is high up on Brendan Rodgers’ wanted list for the January transfer window. We all know that Rodgers is more Football Manager devotee than Harry Redknapp-style punter, with a very clear idea of the attributes he requires from players in each position. So which of Brendan’s boxes does Iborra tick?

Well, he’s a solid midfielder with some similar attributes to Joe Allen, able to break play up and use the ball but inclined to sit in rather than press with the sort of energy Rodgers likes.

An upright, tall midfielder, his strengths lie in breaking up play and maintaining the side’s shape when they haven’t got the ball, as you might expect from a Levante player: their success has been built on defensive solidity and an ability to break effectively.

Iborra doesn’t tend to join in the counter attacks, but he can be an important attacking weapon. He’s often the springboard of a swift attack and has a good range of passing: although he’s right footed he can pass accurately over distance with his left as well. He has good vision and is able to play long, accurate balls down the channels for the likes of Obafemi Martins to run onto: Luis Suarez would enjoy that sort of service!

This rather eclectic video I found on youtube offers some idea of his strengths, particularly the first section, where he spreads some languid passes around, and the latter clip of a Villarreal attack which he covers without making a challenge, slotting into Zone 14 to reduce space.

The last match Iborra played in probably didn’t offer the best opportunity to judge his strengths: Levante’s home game against Barcelona required an even more solid defensive set-up than usual from Juan Ignacio Jiminez. As a result, Iborra’s role in the central midfield duo of a 4-2-3-1 required him to stand on the toes of the centre backs and ensure there was no space between the lines for Lionel Messi and his pals to roam. As a result, he didn’t get to touch the ball until 10 minutes and 48 seconds into the match!

However, the game did show certain key attributes. He was certainly tactically disciplined, never straying from his post, and he showcased his ability to read play and intercept, nipping in ahead of Barcelona players as he read passes swiftly.


So would he fit into the Rodgers way? Yes, but whether he’s a wise January target is a different matter. Looking at the Liverpool squad, you’d think he’d be used in rotation rather than be a first choice, with Allen and Nuri Sahin ahead of him in the pecking order. One would assume Rodgers will be looking for upgrades in the transfer window: squad depth can wait until the Summer. Waiting until the close season and then seeing first whether a deal could be cut for Sahin,  a player with a much broader passing range, seems a more obvious course of action.