Rafael Benitez: Why I will never forget the camaraderie of working with my old friend Vincente Del Bosque

Vicente's philosophy was that we should coach the youth players on how to use the ball

Rafael Benitez
Tuesday 03 July 2012 11:16

As you say in England, there is plenty more where that came from! The next generations of young Spanish players have seen what was achieved in Kiev on Sunday night and are now waiting and hoping for their chance to bring triumph back to the country. Look out especially for Thiago Alcantara and his brother Rafa, adoptive Spaniards who are both at Barcelona. They are the sons of Mazinho, who you might remember from the Brazil team that won the 1994 World Cup in the US. Also keep your eye on Suso, the Liverpool player who will now be playing for Spain Under-19s at their European Championship. I tell you, he has promise.

Everyone is talking now about how Spain has discovered the way of playing and developing players like these in the last four years. But I know that Spain's coach Vicente del Bosque won't see it that way because he has been talking about it – and doing it – for more than 25 years, right back to the days when he and I were working together at Real Madrid.

We had some very good times working together and the 1993-94 season is maybe the one we remember. Real's chairman, Ramon Mendoza, sacked the manager, Benito Flora, midway through the season and when Vicente was appointed the temporary manager, to steady the ship, he appointed me as his assistant for those four months.

For me it was a first introduction to the pressures that come with management. The plan was always for us two to go back to our jobs at the end of the season – Vicente was then academy technical director and I managed the second team – but we worked well and even managed a cup out of that season. They called it the Copa Iberia and we beat Cesar Luis Menotti's Boca Juniors in the final.

One of Vicente's qualities was his quiet, relaxed way with players. He is very comprehensive in his approach to games – as Sunday's 4-0 win over Italy showed – but he tries to give players confidence and his staff responsibility.

I don't think I have known a camaraderie quite like those days and an image I've always kept of a team made up of Real coaching staff from that time shows how strong those bonds remain. It's a who's who of the coaching staff behind the Euro 2012 success: I am second from right on the back row; on my left shoulder is Antonio (Toni) Grande, Vicente's assistant with the national side, and below him is Paco Jimenez, the squad's chief scout, who is also a coach.

My path continued to criss-cross with Vicente's after I had decided it was time to leave the Bernabeu and find my way outside of the club – initially at Real Vallodolid. Vicente was in the middle of the incredible coaching period in which he delivered Real Madrid two European Cups and two league titles when that team of his – with Ronaldo, Figo and Raul in it – came up against our Valencia side and lost the league title to us. I don't think Vicente will ever be able to forget the way Real sacked him a year later, despite all the success he had brought to them. That was a club he had been with since a 17-year-old, remember. I take it as a sign of his calmness and his inner confidence that he has been able to work on from that disappointment to this new achievement, which is as great as any Spaniard could ask for.

Vicente's philosophy is one which I have always shared. His idea was that we should coach the youth players, as much as we can, on how to use the ball. When you are working in the training sessions, 80 per cent of the work is with the ball. Back in that brief half-season managing Madrid with Vicente, our players included Fernando Hierro, Michel, Chendo and Emilio Butragueño. The philosophy was just the same when I managed Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard at Liverpool. Work with the ball: lots of it.

The point for England as they look for a bit of what Spain have is that the country cannot make the changes in one year, or maybe even five years. It takes far longer to reach the level we have seen from Spain in the last four years – a level, by the way, which they have reached by a mixture of having the right philosophy and being able to work with players whose quality is particularly high. But you can still start putting the right things in place now. We've already talked on these pages about having a plan, coaching the coaches in that philosophy and then bringing the right players for those coaches to work with. Of course, it's very competitive in the Premier League, where survival is so important, and it might not always be possible to keep the philosophy in every way. But you can still do things the right way and be progressive.

Another aspect England can also learn from is the standard of competition that exists at youth level for Spanish players.

Spain is very, very different from England in the way that it brings together the best players in each region to form teams which play each other. They have had to change the selection system to make sure no more than four players are selected per regional team – because the local Madrid federation was selecting eight from Real and the Catalan federation called up many from Barcelona, who were equally unhappy (as a player at Real, I sometimes found myself missing out on club training to be with the regional side).

But the region versus region games allow the Under-16 national coach to see who are the best players in the country while here, in England's academy system, you can't assess those players. Perhaps there are two good ones from the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, but you only see them when they play for the national team. The Spanish system also allows the most gifted players to be together, play against each other; to know each other very early.

We must look at how Spain won Sunday's game, too, of course. Everyone is talking about the attacking side of their game, but I know the game plan was to stop Andrea Pirlo. Cesc Fabregas was given that task, but even Xavi and Andres Iniesta joined in. Xabi Alonso worked to help Sergio Busquets stop the Italians' penetrating passes, which made a shape more like 4-2-3-1 than 4-3-3 for Spain. Long passes to Andrea Cassano and Mario Balotelli were almost totally stifled and, when Italy tried to find Federico Balzaretti in the wide area, Alvaro Arbeloa shut him off. Italy played a little too high and their decision to play a four-man defence made it easier for Spain in midfield. Andres Iniesta was the extraordinary player: the one who was changing the pace, playing more vertically, doing profound things. I said on Saturday that Torres had been strong in training. There was a memory of him at his Liverpool best in his goal and assist.

So, I congratulate the old friends of mine who together have helped make this win possible – Vicente, Toni, Paco, fitness coach Javier Miñano and goalkeeping coach Jose Manuel Ochotorena. Vicente, the quiet man from Salamanca, becomes the most distinguished coach in football history and to any who aspire to match what he has achieved, I say: "Go right back to the philosophies he had from the start." The solutions are not so very complicated.

'Champions League Dreams' by Rafael Benitez, is published in September by Headline Books. Rafael's website, rafabenitez.com, provides more football analysis.

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