I say all that having been an admirer since I used to visit friends in Valencia when he was manager there. I took in several games at the Mestalla, where he broke the stranglehold of the Spanish big two. In three years there between 2001-4, he won two La Ligas and a UEFA Cup. In those days before he was snapped up by Liverpool, I fancied him as a worthy successor to Bobby Robson when he retired. Thanks largely to Robson we were big club in the Champion’s League and getting a manager of Benítez’s calibre as a successor was not a unreasonable expectation in those days. However, I certainly couldn’t have predicted him coming twelve years later under the current circumstances. An obsessive analyst since his days as a young footballer, when he meticulously analysed his own play, he is so scrupulous and methodical, if he hadn’t had so much success as a manager, he might well have been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
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Over the years Newcastle United fans have been subjected to lots of vague, emotive talk about body parts such as big hearts, guts and so on from previous managers as if that was enough in itself, even though Newcastle United’s trophy cabinet has always proved otherwise. On the other hand with Benitez we get (just to select one example): “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.” That is typical Benitez for he is a Victor Maslov or a Valeriy Lobanovskyi, the legendary Dynamo Kyiv managers who were the pioneers of modern football science. Lobanovskyi, who saw the game in terms of mathematics and cybernetics, once described the game in its most basic form as “a system of 22 elements – two sub-systems of 11 elements – moving within a defined area [the pitch] and subject to a series of restrictions (the laws of the game). If the two sub-systems were equal, the outcome would be a draw. If one were stronger, it would win.” The team is a machine which must be tuned to run at maximum efficiency to achieve the highest percentage of success.
However the man Benítez himself has acknowledged as one of his greatest influences is another great thinker of the game, Arrigo Sacchi, the manager of the great Milan team of the late 80s which redefined football in Italy. Benitez even left his honeymoon to study Sacchi’s training methods at Milanello (Milan’s training ground). He also described Sacchi as “the greatest coach of the modern era,” and after all this time, we can still see echoes of the Sacchi’s 4-4-2 machine today with Atletico Madrid in Spain, and Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City in England. In the mutual appreciation society between the two, Sacchi once said of Benitez: “He is an encyclopaedia. He reminds me of myself when I was young.” He also said of Benítez before his incredible Champion’s League win against Milan in 2005, “Liverpool know all the secrets of football because their coach knows them all.”
Newcastle United’s fans have always had passion in abundance, and that is a good thing, but for too long on Tyneside, the word “passion,” (or lack of it) has been an empty word which disguises a lack of method which has always left us crashing into the buffers in the end, for passion is nothing without method. Benítez will certainly apply the method and it’s about time.