Rafa Benitez is a great manager: How does he compare with other top coaches?

May 11, 2009
Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez had demonstrated considerable managerial skills this year, as his Liverpool team began to fulfil its potential. But how do you evaluate a coach’s leadership qualities? And will he be remembered more for a few outbursts in the media?

Popular culture results in distorted stories of individuals as heroes and villains. Incidents become important elements fixing a personality in our mind. Rafa Benitez was once labelled for his obsessive team rotation. More recently it was for public announcements directed against bitter rivals Manchester United which were dismissed as pale imitations of the mind games played by United’s manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

This strereotyping ignores his other leadership qualities. In this correct that strictly on trophies won, Liverpool FC have had another disappointing season. However, the team has if anything been playing better recently since the public outbursts of Benitez. This in part can be attributed to a return to fitness of key players Gerard and Torres. So how much can be attributed to Rafa’s leadership qualities?

Aren’t managers easy to compare?

Not really. Take the current magnificent four in the Premier League. The top four teams on results have remained the same for over a decade, namely Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. I have listed the clubs in alphabetical order so as not to distract those who have strong views on the historical and current status of teams. There is little to argue that they have been the most consistently successful Premiership teams since the competition started.

Each of these teams has an outstanding manager. I argue this not just on recent results. The retention of football managers operates on a Darwinian process of survival of the fittest. Survival depends on various factors within the manager, and the external circumstances in which he finds himself. Results are important for survival, but there are further unpredictable factors which need to be considered such as the power relationship between the owner and manager, the financial circumstances of the club, injuries to players, even maybe a single decision in an important game by a linesman or referee.

Sir Alex Ferguson is widely attributed as the architect of much of Man U’s great successes since his arrival. Arsene Wenger has experienced successes with Arsenal, and has a track record of finding and developing great young talent. Gus Hiddink came to Chelsea, the team which can afford any coach available in the market place. His track record elsewhere is impressive, and he seems to have started well. Then there’s Rafa, who has built a Liverpool team for the club which had for several decades been the most successful English team in Europe.

What’s the point of all this?

My main point is how to assess leadership qualities. One way is to try to link recent information with established beliefs of a wider kind. Yes, I’m talking about bringing a little theory into practical affairs. For leadership, over a century of attempts to pin down the qualities of leaders were eventually thrown into disarray. The demise of The Great Man theories had begun. One difficulty was a failure to pin down ‘the essence of greatness’ possessed by the greatest leaders. There seemed to be too much variety.

You can see where I’m coming from for that sub-set of leaders known as football coaches.

All is not lost

That does not mean we should stop trying to understand leadership. There are ways of examining the process which offer more reliability. One such study (on international football managers) is underway and I hope to report on results when they become available.

Asking the right questions

In such a study, it is important to ask questions which offer promise of getting somewhere worthwhile. This is sometimes called finding the research question. Much popular discussion of leadership does not focus on particularly powerful research questions. For me, the questions of sporting leadership would have more value if they were to throw light on how future leaders might act to become more effective. ‘What can we learn from the leadership actions of Rafa Benitez’? What can be learned by ‘comparing and contrasting’ Rafa’s actions with those of other leaders in similar (but not identical) contexts?

‘Facts’ alone are not enough. Which, by coincidence, was a point demonstrated in one of those controversial episodes recently when Rafa read out a series of ‘facts’ about Liverpool and Manchester United to a bemused press audience.