Stars can’t save Benitez as whistles fill Bernabeu night
Supporters' impatience with Rafa Benitez rises after humiliating home Clasico defeat
Pressure grows on Real Madrid manager Rafael Benitez following 4-0 Clasico defeat Photograph: Sergio Perez/Reuters
Rafa Benitez died with someone else’s boots, surrounded by a sea of white hankies, that classic Spanish symbol of disgust. When his team left the field at half-time in the clasico, there were whistles; when they came out for the second half, there were whistles; and at the end of a humiliating 4-0 defeat, there were whistles.
The PA system was turned to full volume but they could still be heard through Las Mocitas Madrilenas. So could chants for Real Madrid’s president, Florentino Perez, to resign. And when fans point at presidents, presidents tend to point at managers.
For much of the game the Santiago Bernabeu had stood silent, barely reacting, a reflection of their team. When they did, it was to express their disgust. Even the ovation for Andres Iniesta was partly punishment for their own players; likewise the applause for Isco, on as a substitute and off for hacking Neymar. At least someone cares, they seemed to be saying. At the end, their protests competed with a PA system acting as an aural shield but the panolada, the hanky wave, with its whistling, could not be hidden.
Amid the din, Luka Modric was stopped by the touchline and asked what had gone wrong.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“I think we weren’t on the pitch. We have to be a team; when we’re a team we are very good but when, like today, we are not it is difficult.”
Madrid did not have a team but they did have a starting XI and, when it was revealed, James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo were included. Almost €350m in transfer fees, yet none had the slightest impact. Questioned on his lineup, Benitez said: “It didn’t go well.”
Benitez has been defensive about accusations that he is defensive. Here was the lineup to prove it; the problem was that it did not really feel like a lineup he believed in. Besides, the idea is one thing, its application another. Benitez said here that the idea had been to attack and pressure high, but there was no pressure: not high, not low, not anywhere. Barcelona played at ease. “We gave them too much space,” said Modric.
The formation was supposed to be a 4-2-3-1 but looked more like 6-0-4, if there was a formation. There was certainly no midfield, none of the balance and organisation that defines Benitez. There was an emotional and physical disconnect, even if Marcelo did call a journalist “stupid” for suggesting Madrid had an attitude problem. A gigantic gap existed between the back four plus Modric and Toni Kroos and the front four. The second goal was an example, an apparently individual mistake that was a systematic one, a collective failing: Modric, unassisted, unaware and unwarned that Suarez was coming up behind him.
This was not what Benitez wanted. But it was easy enough to imagine him thinking: “This is what you wanted and now look.” He left out Casemiro, the man he had praised as giving his team balance, and included all the stars he could. This did not feel like his team but theirs: press, president, players. It did not feel like a team at all. In defeat, intentionally or otherwise, perhaps a point had been made. The cost may be heavy, though. The long-term plan has been to promote Zinedine Zidane to the first team, so there is a ready-made replacement, but the truth is that Perez is not entirely enamoured with him either.
Benitez was not the club’s first choice; he was not even the first manager they offered the job to and he inherited a club where there were crises in waiting and where players still resented the sacking of Carlo Ancelotti. In pre-season at least one senior player was already complaining about Benitez and others have joined in. The pressure had built and the fault lines had become increasingly clear. The truth is that Madrid have been awful lately. It is hard to recall an outstanding performance against a decent side, and defeat here was always likely to be damaging.
Chants for the president to resign showed that many fans think this is not just about Benitez, or maybe not even about him. There are not enough leaders in the team and too many individuals, men whose personal performances have been as poor as their attitude. Players are played out position: some because they want to, some because that’s the only way to crowbar them into the team. Saturday night showed that.
When Benitez was asked why he had chosen this team, apparently out of character, a pointed question that implied presidential prerogative, he noted: “We are all responsible.” If there was a message there, it will not have helped him. Nor did choosing this starting XI.