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

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.

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

  1. Paul McDonald says:

    I love the old Henry Ford quote of “Whether you think that you can or that you can’t, you’re usually right” and I suspect Benitez is a good example of this.

    In the previous few seasons, Liverpool have frankly over-achieved in Europe, where Benitez clearly feels comfortable standing shoulder to shoulder with other managers. Who though, comes into the Premiership and considers themselves worthy of competing with the great Alex Ferguson in his own back yard? Jose Mourinho for one, and of course, he did compete.

    I think Benitez on the other hand, has only this season achieved any real belief that he can compete with the great man, a belief which has surfaced in his media outbursts against Ferguson and Utd, and that has instilled itself into his players, particularly around that same point of the season, improving their performances on the field.

    It would take a disaster from Utd now to see the title move to Liverpool this season but come next season, I fully expect a tasty battle between Benitez and Ferguson, mirrored on the field by their players. I’m looking forward to it.

  2. Tudor says:

    Thanks Paul

    Next season will be interesting. I wonder how much those ‘special circumstances’ will become important.
    Will Manchester City be able to ‘do a Chelsea?’

    Don’t suppose you (or anyone out there) have a reference for the Henry Ford quote? I have ‘borrowed’ it from time to time, without knowing where it came from.

    Another point: Benitez is a bit younger than he looks, and the youngest of the big four.

    Best wishes


  3. paul d says:

    Another interesting blog. I hope the research manages to get good access to the managers in question and that it does indeed capture some quality information regarding their leadership characteritics and methods. It seems that much of what is written in the leadership literature within football is based upon what we see on match of the day (not withstanding S.A. Ferguson’s ongoing spat with the BBC) and the Saturday news bulletins. I have often wondered how accurate a picture is being painted by these heavily edited sound bites. Are we really getting an insight into there leadership style?

    I look forward to some well designed research in this area.

  4. Tudor says:

    Thanks Paul. Someone closely connected with LWD who has a hand in the research whispers it has statistical comparisons of leadership impact using
    leader/team culture difference as the differentiating variable. So the work is indirectly not directly connected with leadership style. [Publication later this year if we can get it LWD].


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