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Mar 31, 2012

The forward-thinking Benitez

Arguably Liverpool's most successful manager of the last two decades owes more to Silicon Valley than Bill Shankly. Then again, he always did. Rafa Benitez is famously fond of facts, and a glimpse of his modus operandi shows the importance of technology to store the statistics. The Spaniard was an early enthusiast. "When I was coaching the youth teams of Real Madrid, I was using Commodore 64, Spectrum, all these things," he said. "I had Visual Basic, I was creating my own programmes and I had all the information there. I was doing technical tests for my players and, at the end of the season, they improved around 30%. We scored 114 goals and conceded 14. My strength is on the pitch but, with that computer, I could manage all the information."

He has moved with the times. Benitez, in the manner of many an aspiring entrepreneur, has devised an iPad application to advertise his skills. And yet while a technophobe like Harry Redknapp, who cannot send an email, is the favourite for the England job, the paradox is that this most modern of managers seems a man out of time. Benitez is finding ways of busying himself, of keeping a high profile, but the reality remains that he has been unemployed for 15 months since Internazionale sacked him.

There have been offers, some probably lucrative, including the chance of a short-term stint with Chelsea, but nothing that may be commensurate with his status as a Champions League and La Liga-winning manager. An unfulfilled figure wants a project, preferably an all-encompassing post, a chance to put plans in place and to run a club. As he displayed flow charts of the two managerial models - the continental, where the head coach is subservient to the sporting director, and the English, where the power of men such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger is greater - it is clear where his preference lies.

The strategist wants to be responsible for everything. "The manager has to have knowledge about business, the economy and the squad," Benitez said at SoccerEx in Manchester. "The economic crisis around the world will be really, really important." He is keen to stress his own financial credentials, highlighting Liverpool's turnover: £91.5 million in their final season under Gerard Houllier, £184.1 million in his last year in charge. "That means stability and progress," he added.

The numbers are a constant, providing explanation and justification. Training sessions last 60 to 90 minutes, 80% of them with the ball; 70% are pre-planned, 30% dictated by the opposition of the team's specific needs that week. A graphic illustrates the distance players cover in a game: 5,468m on average in the 1950s and 1960s, 11,523m for the Liverpool team of 2005-10. It necessitates rotation, he argues. Players are shown charts of their physical performance: if they are in the red zone, they need to take a rest.

"You need to know as much as you can about your players," the Spaniard said. To some, it is a quest for knowledge; to others, a thirst for control. He is part technocrat, part teacher. "I am a professor. The way I coach is teaching. They will learn and they will learn forever," Benitez explained. It can make him sound dogmatic, but he has always been a blend of the obdurate and the amiable, a man with few airs and graces but a professional perfectionist with up-to-the-minute methods. "Part of my idea is to try and improve everything," he said. "If you give a DVD to a player about movements, positive and negative, if he wants to watch it, after a year he will be a better player."

The demanding approach is epitomised by the phrase displayed behind Benitez on a projector. "A winning manager has to have the mentality that victory is normal, not exceptional. The manager is eternally dissatisfied."

It has led to suggestions that he is cold, the dispassionate analyst always eyeing room for improvement. Benitez is rarely deemed a man-manager. He disagrees. "[Fernando] Torres with belief, with confidence, is a top-class player," he said, having helped his countryman become officially one of the world's top three players. "Without that, he is missing something." The Spaniard's sidekick was another to benefit from Benitez's meddling. "When we came to Liverpool, [Steven] Gerrard plays in the middle and scores ten goals a season," he said. "When he plays on the right or behind the striker, he scores more than 20 goals."

Yet the captain's redeployment was controversial. So is much else Benitez has done or espoused: the rotation policy, the focus on net spend, the list of "facts" that became known as 'Rafa's Rant', the supposed attempt to take on Ferguson at mind games (interestingly, Benitez said: "When I was in Extremadura, bottom of the league, a small team, I was not going in to fight against any manager."). Mere mention of his name prompts many to rehash old arguments, for and against. He remains weighed down by the baggage of the past, perhaps a reason a man with futuristic techniques appears unfashionable.

Hence, perhaps, Benitez's PR offensive. The Wirral's most notable immigrant can appear inflexible, but he made an effort to adapt to life in England. "From the first day, I was saying, 'Give me English coaches because they will know the culture of the club and they will help me'," he recalled. Computer programmes serve their purpose, but there is always a need for the human touch. Persuading people he is the right man may be the hardest part for Benitez if he is to resume a coaching career that has included some extraordinary highs. There is no piece of software that can bring his exile to an end.

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