Following Carlo Ancelotti’s sacking, one has to question the expectations Perez has of his managers. Despite guiding the Spanish giants to a UEFA Champions League triumph as recently as last May, Ancelotti was ruthlessly axed by Perez after a single season without a trophy. Real Madrid finished second only to Barcelona in La Liga this season, a mere two points behind their Catalan rivals.
The problems Perez had with Ancelotti’s reign were not based on the European performance of the Italian’s side, as Ancelotti finally ended Madrid’s long wait for La Decima last year. Instead, Real Madrid’s domestic form has been the downfall of the club since Perez took over as club president for the second time in 2009. Los Blancos have only captured one league title in six seasons, a poor return for a club with the financial muscle of Madrid. If Florentino Perez’s habit of consistently sacking and replacing managers results from unsatisfactory league performance, then his choice of replacement may be ill-advised.
Benitez’s track record
Whilst the managerial credentials of Rafael Benitez cannot be argued, the Spaniard appears to flourish in European competition, an area in which Madrid’s problems do not lie. Throughout his years as a manager Benitez has a win rate of 58% in Europe, a record that has seen him win the UEFA Champions League with Liverpool in 2005, as well as the Europa League with Chelsea in 2013. Despite this, Benitez has enjoyed as little domestic success, with an overall win percentage in league football of 48.79%, showing that Benitez is a stronger manager in European fixtures as opposed to regular League games.
Although he has a relatively low win percentage in leagues compared to the elite managers in Europe (In terms of overall win rates in leagues throughout their managerial careers, Guardiola has won 72.22% of games, Mourinho has won 67.03% of games and Carlo Ancelotti has won 58.25% of his games), Benitez is a two-time winner of La Liga nonetheless, the most recent triumph coming in the 2003/04 season with Valencia. As tremendous an accomplishment winning La Liga with underdogs Valencia was, managing a club that expects league titles is an entirely different proposition, with a widely different skill set required.
An argument can be made that at large clubs that expect year on year success, Benitez does not perform as well as he does in an underdog position. In 2010 Benitez succeeded Jose Mourinho at the San Siro as Inter Milan manager; just months after they had won the UEFA Champions League. It was a team that would have expected to win the league. It did not take long for Benitez’s side to flop, finding themselves 13 points adrift from the top of the table in 6th place as soon as December. This resulted in Benitez being sacked later in the month, an example of Benitez failing under the pressure of a club with title-winning expectations.
For the previous two seasons Benitez has been with Serie A side Napoli, an ambitious club that has risen through the ranks once again in Italy over recent years, with decent funding to back them. This job was yet another example of Benitez being put in a role with high expectations, with Napoli spending over 100 Million Euros in Benitez’s first transfer window at the club. Nonetheless, Napoli failed to advance their position under the Spaniard, with a third place finish in 2013/14 being followed by a fifth place finish in 2014/15, showing the club to have regressed during Benitez’s spell in Italy.
This is not to say Benitez fails to be an effective manager, rather he seems to excel when presented with a situation where his team is the underdog. His only league triumphs came with Valencia, who overcame the mighty Barcelona as well as Real Madrid themselves on two separate occasions. His greatest triumph happened during his time with Liverpool, with his side pulling off the famous ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ to defeat AC Milan to claim the UEFA Champions League. Benitez’s most successful project, he took Liverpool to heights unseen for decades by the club. With Florentino Perez needing to improve Real Madrid’s league record; it is a questionable decision to hire a manager who excels as an underdog or in European competition.
Appointing Benitez is unlikely to satisfy many of Real Madrid’s fans, to whom Ancelotti was a hero after completing La Decima. It remains to be seen if Rafael Benitez is still within the top tier of managers with the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti himself. There is no doubt that Benitez is an exceptional manager, although he is yet to prove that he can succeed in an environment where anything less than a league title is acceptable. Replacing Carlo Ancelotti with Rafael Benitez is a dangerous gamble taken by Florentino Perez which could prove costly. For now, it is impossible to know if this was the correct decision. Real Madrid’s future remains uncertain.