Rafa Benitez faces a big challenge as Real Madrid's new manager
In many ways, it would be easier to assess Rafa Benitez's prospects at Real Madrid if the last two years at Napoli had never happened. When you get a set of data that is so radically different from the rest of your available information, you need to weigh whether it's indicative of real change or whether it's just "noise," an error in measurement.
Benitez takes over at the Bernabeu after two seasons that were unlike any other in his career, not so much in terms of results, but in terms of how those results came to pass. There's not much of his "fingerprints" here; it's as if another guy had dressed up in a Rafa suit and tricked Aurelio De Laurentiis into letting him run Napoli while the real Rafa was somewhere else, maybe hiding near Liverpool, where his family still live.
First, his results, since this is precisely what seems to be so important at the Bernabeu. He took over a team that finished second in 2012-13 and followed it up with a third place finish two seasons ago and a fifth place this season. (Though if Gonzalo Higuain converted his late penalty on the final day of the season, Napoli may well have finished third again.)
Benitez won a Coppa Italia in his first year. In Europe, he was knocked out of the Champions League group stage in 2013-14 and was ousted in the qualifying round the following season. In both campaigns, Napoli dropped into the Europa League, advancing to the round of 16 one year and to the semifinals the next.
If you view this from the vantage point of net spending, it doesn't make for pretty reading. Over the two years, Napoli had the second highest net spending in Serie A ($42.2 million) -- behind Inter ($47.8 million) but well ahead of everybody else. And because he took over a second-place team, the excuse that it needed a massive overhaul doesn't quite fly: The talent, presumably, was there.
At the same time, Napoli only had the fourth-highest wage bill in the league, behind Juventus, Roma and Milan, so you can argue that to some degree, he outperformed his wage bill.
Benitez supporters will argue that Napoli played the best football in Serie A at times, and that is a direct function of the manager. His 4-2-3-1 was a stark departure from his safety-first predecessor, Walter Mazzarri, and Benitez needs to be credited for that philosophical change. Napoli racked up some big and thoroughly convincing wins during his tenure, including victories over Juventus in the Super Cup, then high-flying Roma in Serie A and Wolfsburg in the Europa League (4-1).
On the other hand, he also suffered some stunning setbacks, mostly against inferior teams. A lot of the harm was self-inflicted, most notably that Champions League playoff against Athletic Bilbao, when some shocking defending cost Napoli a place in the group stage, and in the Europa League semifinal semifinal against Dnipro, when they simply collapsed in Kiev.
Results have their place, but a better reflection of a manager's work is how they came about. The synonym for Napoli under Rafa has been "inconsistency," which is the opposite of what got him this far in his career. Chelsea brought him in as a mid-season fix precisely because he was a reliable, safe pair of hands. His Liverpool sides were solid and functional; they rarely let you down. His time at Valencia was also the definition of steady progress.
Rafa's Napoli, on the other, was a crystal vase: beautiful, mesmerizing, but prone to shattering at the slightest knock. And, most of all, incredibly vulnerable defensively. Napoli conceded 54 goals this season, making them the 11th best (or ninth-worst) defense in Serie A. In his six campaigns at Liverpool, by contrast, they were always in the top five in terms of goals allowed.
Obviously, Rafa didn't decide to tell his teams to concede more goals, but it does signify a shift in priorities. When you attack more, you tend to concede more; it's the oldest rule in the football book.
Another shift came in his approach toward the team's veterans. Whereas at Liverpool guys like Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, two homegrown stars he inherited, were embraced and made central to his project, Rafa was more circumspect with holdovers like Marek Hamsik and Gokhan Inler. President De Laurentiis gave him power (more so than previous Napoli bosses) and he used it as he thought best.
So does this offer any clues for what may happen in Madrid?
To some degree, yes. Rafa showed he can play attacking (and occasionally mesmerizing) football of the kind Florentino Perez craves. He's also not shy about rotating his squad, and that was one of the accusations pointed at his predecessor, Carlo Ancelotti: not enough rotation, which meant the team was physically spent.
(Though, in Ancelotti's defense, his past shows that he isn't philosophically averse to rotation, either. If he didn't do it at Madrid, it may well have been because he didn't have the players to do it or because he felt the president didn't want to see his stars on the bench.)
It's equally true, though, that Rafa won't likely have the licence to overhaul the side like he did in Naples, when he brought in 18 players over two years. Perez hasn't been shy in the past about spending for a new manager, but other than adding depth, it's hard to see wiggle room for major changes.
Danilo is already in the bag at right-back. We may see a goalkeeper arrive (David De Gea?), though that would mean negotiating Iker Casillas' exit or, harder still, handling his retention.
You may see a central defender, possibly the holding midfielder whom Ancelotti cried out for and perhaps another striker (though, again, that would mean either shifting Karim Benzema or managing two top center-forwards). Beyond that, Benitez won't be able to bring in "his guys."
And that brings us to another huge question mark: How will he handle Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo? As devastating as the pair are offensively, they contribute little off the ball. Ancelotti got away with this for much of the season because others (Benzema, James Rodriguez, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric) picked up the slack and ran themselves into the ground. Would Benitez be so accommodating toward wide men who don't track back and leave their full-backs exposed?
Pre-Napoli, the answer would have been an emphatic no. Benitez was all about the collective and getting his front men to contribute. After seeing how his 4-2-3-1 often left an under-manned back four exposed this season, you wonder if that has changed.
Then there's the personality aspect. Conventional wisdom holds that you don't really coach veteran superstars; you simply manage them and motivate them to do their thing. It's a study in diplomacy, something at which Ancelotti excelled but which, historically, hasn't been Rafa's strong suit. It's hard to imagine him substituting an under-performing Ronaldo at half-time against the league leaders, like he did with Gonzalo Higuain against Juventus ten days ago, and surviving the fallout when things go wrong.
His detractors will also point to the fact that Benitez has taken on the most political managerial job in football but is hardly a diplomat or a politician. Indeed, his history is littered with examples of fall-outs dictated precisely by his stubborn ways: at Valencia (with the club), at Liverpool (with the owners and both his assistants, Paco Herrera and Pako Ayestaran) and at Inter (with the club and some players).
On the other hand, his last two jobs -- both primed powder kegs -- ended with him coming and going with minimal controversy. His interim stint at Chelsea saw him buckle down and get on with the job in difficult circumstances and, even at Naples with a volatile president like De Laurentiis, he avoided internal squabbles.
To some degree, it may be a function of knowing that Chelsea was just an interim gig and Napoli a stepping stone. But it may also signal that, now that Benitez is older, he's also become somewhat more diplomatic, tolerant and aware. That would be a tick in his favor when it comes to the Madrid job, as is the fact that he's going in with both eyes wide open. He knows what awaits and he knows what he'll need to do.
Talk to coaches at the biggest clubs with the biggest brand-name superstars and they'll tell you that the balance of power, apart from outlier cases like Arsene Wenger at Arsenal or Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, rests with the superstars. You need to know how to handle them to maintain power.
And here it's appropriate to go back and paraphrase Niccolo Machiavelli's Prince, still the seminal text when it comes to running anything. Machiavelli argues that ideally, you would be both feared and loved at the same time, but it's very hard for a ruler to achieve that (then again, Machiavelli was writing this before Sir Alex ...). And so it's better to be feared than loved (though being loved is obviously better than being hated).
Benitez won't have enough power at Madrid to be feared. That part is not in question; he'll either be loved or hated and at this stage of his career, he understands the benefits of the former. The challenge will be being loved while, at the same time, conjuring up a scheme that keeps his stars happy and delivers consistent, rational results.
It's a tall order. To do it, he'll have to take elements of early Rafa and combine them with the guy in the Rafa suit who managed Napoli these last two years, minus the Keystone Kops defending. And he'll have to do it with less power and clout than he enjoyed in all his previous jobs, with the exception of Chelsea.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.