New Real Madrid coach Rafa Benitez is many things to many men. Lauded as a highly organised tactical genius with a remarkable attention to detail and loathed as an employer of robotic, controlling football who rarely lets his players off the leash. Whether you see those characteristics as a positive or a negative depends on which side of footballing philosophy you fall on.
If your view is unfavourable it could be seen as a contradiction to allow freedom to any player; let alone the type whose essence relies on improvisation and off-the-cuff play. In this sense it would seem a fantasista would be incompatible with any Benitez team.
There is room for both, though, and Benitez is known to be an advocate of relying on playmakers – no matter how contradictory that sounds.
Wherever the Spanish coach has gone he’s always shown a preference of employing a Number 10 in their natural role; usually behind a lone striker, with strong wing-forwards on either side and a physical, solid midfield base allowing his playmaker freedom of expression; able to fully flourish.
This was demonstrated at Valencia with the mercurial Argentine Pablo Aimar pulling all strings in a side that won two Spanish Championships and a UEFA Cup in the space of just three seasons.
At Liverpool FC, Rafa immediately brought in Luis Garcia – previously operating as a wing-forward at Barcelona – and placed him in the Number 10 role (more often than not) when he first arrived on Merseyside.
In later years Benitez would move club icon Steven Gerrard to the role, where he struck up a fantastic partnership with frontman Fernando Torres which almost garnered the Premier League title.
Benitez was able to call on the services of Wesley Sneijder during his brief spell at Inter, whilst at Chelsea his use of Juan Mata in a favoured central role behind a striker coincided with some of the player’s most settled and consistent run of club form.
More recently at Napoli, the Spanish coach could rely on the established talents of Marek Hamsik in the trequartista role which the Partenopei team had been built around during recent successful seasons.
Real Madrid’s new coach now has more attacking talent to choose from than at any point in his managerial career and whilst the Spanish giants have historically not tended to line up with a No.10 as their focal point, Benitez’s sides traditionally do.
Key to his plans in this role is James Rodriguez, who Marca claim was one of the first names mentioned during initial meetings between the new coach and the club’s directors.
The Colombian playmaker is said to be one the players on which a new project will be built around – a ‘non-negotiable’ element of the new Madrid who ticks all on-field attributes in terms of quality, goals, assists and work ethic, as well as in off-the-pitch commercial terms, which Florentino Pérez’s galactico model always looks to leverage.
James has already shown what he can do when a team uses him as the attacking focal point on the biggest stage of all – with Colombia in the 2014 World Cup – which led to his arrival in the Spanish capital.
Cristiano Ronaldo may always demand his monstrous abilities take precedence and dictate how a gameplan be formulated, as they often have with good reason, however Benitez has shown he’s most definitely his own man when setting up a team, and will not kowtow to any player, regardless of standing or feelings, if he feels the team will benefit to the contrary – remember Steven Gerrard being held to a right-sided role in the Spaniard’s first couple of seasons at Liverpool, against his club captain’s apparent will?
Therefore Cristiano, whether placed on the wing or played as more of an authentic striker, may find his influence on the team’s style start to slowly decrease, whilst James becomes Real’s undisputed creative protagonist.
Benitez’s preference to include an authentic No.10 role in his formation may also be of benefit to Isco, who favours a more central position and whose work ethic has surprised many. The former European Golden Boy will be a very capable deputy in the absence of James but will need to increase his goal threat if trusted to play further forward than he has been.
Often (and perhaps unfairly) seen as the antithesis of encouraging attacking play, Bentitez now has an abundance of creative talent at his disposal. One thing he has always relied upon in his most trusted formation, is his N0.10.