By Steve Graves
“The difference between players is not always the quality but their mentality” - Rafael Benítez
“I just told him to tell Pavlyuchenko to fucking run around a bit” - Harry Redknapp
WHEN Internazionale took on Tottenham in Champions League encounters either side of Halloween 2010, the casual fan was treated to more than the kind of routine group-stage encounters which might have been expected.
In the beginning there was Inter, with a 45-minute display of precision, verve and power matched by few teams this season to date. Four goals up after little more than half an hour, Inter’s blend of extreme experience (Javier Zanetti) and youthful promise (Philippe Coutinho), pivoting around the lethal technician Samuel Eto’o, reached for footballing perfection. Zanetti’s opening goal felt like a slap in the face to Tottenham’s pretensions to performing at this level.
That first game at the San Siro had the feel of a public execution, a drawn-out torture sequence for anyone loyal to Spurs. Then came Gareth Bale, seizing the final three quarters of the 180 minutes, crashing in a hat-trick in Milan and electrifying the return leg at White Hart Lane with his direct running and crisp, angular grace.
Bale has rarely reached such heights since, and only in the fevered minds of Sky Sports analysts is Bale (seven league goals and one assist this season) comparable to Lionel Messi (25 league goals, 15 assists). But the Welshman’s performance in Milan to help Spurs defy footballing gravity was a stunning example of a player given licence to play, freed from tactical considerations and capitalising on exceptional circumstances to devastating effect.
If the first half was won by a well-drilled unit and dominated by the more cerebral collection of footballers, the second was very nearly salvaged by a nascent talent given free rein to express itself.
The best football matches often result from a clash of styles, and in this regard the figures in the respective dugouts could hardly be more different.
Benítez - mentality, mentality, mentality
Then-Nerazzuri manager Benítez has throughout his career placed an emphasis on tactical nous and on acquiring players with the professional mentality and wherewithal to function within his systems.
At Valencia Benítez quickly identified Mista and Rufete, two unglamorous but diligent and adaptable players, as key additions to a squad which had come close to greatness but fallen short. Alongside the canny remodelling of the side’s defensive approach, the new players were key to creating the ‘crushing machine’ which won two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup in three seasons.
Mista had worked under Benítez at Tenerife, as had Luis Garcia, who became one of the first players to join him on taking over at Liverpool in 2004. Garcia was signed alongside Xabi Alonso, perhaps the archetypal Benítez player. Urbane and self-effacing, a fan of the Coen Brothers and The Wire, Alonso’s thoughtful and enquiring personality was matched by intelligent midfield play and an ability to read the game which made him one of the Premier League’s pre-eminent performers.
Throughout his career Benítez has nurtured Mistas and Alonsos, finding in the likes of Jose Reina or Fernando Torres players whose primary focus is to be successful footballers rather than to enjoy the fleeting appeal of the trappings of that success.
At Anfield, when sticking with those principles Benítez enjoyed success in the transfer market. Identifying players with the mentality to help Liverpool succeed was never a problem, but giving the side an air of mystique and unpredictability proved to be an insurmountable hurdle for the Spaniard.
Media critics of Benítez like to cite the likes of Jermaine Pennant or Ryan Babel as evidence of his supposed lack of transfer market nous. It is clear that Benítez appears to have struggled to harness difficult personalities such as Pennant, whose chaotic private life could well have influenced his journey from teenage prodigy to journeyman winger.
After his departure from Inter Samuel Eto’o, whose form under Benítez had been astonishing, said elements of the dressing room had turned against the manager. Eto’o was keen to stress he was not among them, and it is evident he and Benítez enjoyed a positive working relationship.
In his modern classic Inverting the Pyramid, the incomparable Jonathan Wilson recounts a meeting with Samuel Eto’o. The great striker, on waiting to be interviewed, was watching a low-profile game from a far-flung corner of the world. He explained to Wilson he liked to see ‘the patterns’ in the game, seeking to develop his understanding of football’s rythms, ebbs and flows in a way many players would barely comprehed.
Often journalists who are close to modern players, particularly in the Premier League, note that the likes of Jamie Carragher who will hungrily devour games at any level are rare. Many will watch significantly less football than the average armchair fan with a Sky subscription.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t follow football’
A stark reminder of this fact came when recently William Gallas admitted not following football. It’s no coincidence that Gallas, one of the most impressive yet occasionally unreliable defenders of the past decade, should be playing for Redknapp at Spurs.
Gallas spent a turbulent spell at Arsenal under Arsène Wenger, whose philosophy on temperament is much closer to that of Benítez. Many felt his attitude problems at the Emirates had made it unlikely he would be given a shot by a top Premier League team. Redknapp saw beyond those difficulties, focusing instead on the player’s innate ability and proven track record.
Under Redknapp Gallas has played some of his best football, belying his advancing years. Would Redknapp be concerned about a player who admitted to not following the game, or indeed to playing solely for money?
It appears he would not, and looking at the current Spurs squad there are is clear evidence that Redknapp has chosen to look beyond drawbacks in players which would see the likes of Benítez or Wenger run a mile.
The squad at White Hart Lane is almost entirely made up of players who’ve had personal problems, injury difficulties or major losses of form during their careers to date. Bale himself, seemingly a model professional, managed to play 24 league matches for Spurs before being on the winning side.
In assembling a squad of misfits and players who’d been condemned as also-rans, Redknapp’s approach is actually close to the Moneyball philosophy pioneered in baseball by Billy Bean.
It is difficult to imagine Benítez getting the kinds of results from these players which Redknapp has consistently achieved. Yet while the Spaniard’s teams have sometimes sacrificed spontaneity in the name of collective industry, there is a nagging suspicion that the Redknapp approach leaves his teams with a glass jaw.
While Spurs can play festival football at times, they remain prone to jarring setbacks such as the recent defeat at Blackpool which undermine their prospects of long-term success. Some will point to their most recent result at the San Siro as evidence this particular worm could be turning, but the reality could be that squads built around certain character types, at either end of the spectrum, might never quite have enough to enjoy long-term success.
Ferguson - individuality within the collective
One of football’s great ‘what if?s’ surrounds the efforts of Alex Ferguson to lure Paul Gascoigne from Newcastle United to Old Trafford in the summer of 1988. The deal had at one stage appeared certain to go through, yet the midfielder ended up joining Spurs.
The accepted logic runs that had Ferguson been successful, he might have been firm enough to harness the young Gascoigne’s prodigious talent and subdue his extra-curricular appetites. It’s tantalising to imagine what might have been, but an analysis along these lines could well be flawed.
Had Gascoigne signed for United and seen out his career at Old Trafford, it is admittedly hard to imagine he would have been appearing at the scene of a police stakeout to offer a fugitive killer beer and chicken. However, to see the 1988 decision as necessarily pivotal is to misjudge Ferguson’s approach to man-management.
Throughout his career as a manager Ferguson has proved adept at identifying players with the character to perform consistently. The like of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes appear as grounded as it’s possible to be while earning fabulous riches and enjoying the adulation of millions. Scholes in particular is so painfully averse to publicity it is hard to imagine he inhabits the same professional world as Jermaine Pennant.
Yet Ferguson has always found a place in his best sides for the mercurial, the unpredictable and the egotistical. From Cantona to Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s clear that if the talent is there, the Scotsman can work around the personality - at least for a time.
It is telling that many of the players who’ve burned brightest for Ferguson at Old Trafford have done so for a comparatively short amount of time. Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ince, Beckham have come and gone, all outlasted by Giggs and Scholes. At the first sign of a player losing some element of their competitive edge, Ferguson has never been afraid to let them go.
While Ronaldo and Beckham went on to rediscover their hunger for the game at Real Madrid, Ince was never quite the same player as he had been at Old Trafford. Those who were shocked when Ferguson sold the Londoner to Inter Milan were left in no doubt over the manager’s ruthlessness.
Ferguson has throughout his career found a way to manage both the dependable and the flighty, blending in the latter to add spice to his stock mixture of the former.
In the case of Gascoigne we may have seen more great moments and his decline may have been slowed somewhat. But it’s hard to imagine Ferguson persevering too long with a man so seemingly unable to exercise willpower or cut ties to figures in his personal life who facilitated his self-destructive tendencies.
Had Gascoigne joined United, things might have been different. But one look at the career of Lee Sharpe illustrates the point that Ferguson’s patience wears thin pretty quickly when a player’s personal life has an impact on their performance.
The challenge for Benítez, at whichever club next employs a manager with such rich gifts, will be to take on the challenge of channelling a Gascoigne or a Bale, of unearthing a rough diamond who can bring the long-term success he so narrowly missed out on at Anfield.
Redknapp may conclude that at the age of 63 he is beyond radical changes to his management style. But he must also sense that Spurs offers him the opportunity of a lifetime, the chance to be remembered as something more than ‘Arry, a canny transfer market operative with plenty of friends in the press.
To secure a tangible legacy Redknapp may need to seek out more players in the vein of Luka Modric, whose adaptability on the pitch and professionalism in recovering so well from serious injury have been a revelation. If he is able to recruit and marshal more players of his standard and temperament, Redknapp could yet secure his legacy.