Real Madrid fired Rafa Benitez on Monday, something that feels like it's been a long time coming. It might seem harsh on the surface -- Madrid are third in La Liga, just four points behind Barcelona and holding a Champions League spot by a five-point cushion -- but that's not really the point. Benitez was fired because he never should have been hired in the first place, and Madrid president Florentino Perez just needed an excuse to get rid of him. Now, Madrid legend Zinedine Zidane has been handed the reigns.
Drawing a match on the road against Valencia, like Los Merengues did on Sunday, is not usually a sackable offense. Many great Madrid managers and teams have lost at the Mestalla, and they actually did OK to get a point after Mateo Kovacic picked up a silly red card. The reason this result got Benitez fired is because it happened less than a month after a loss to Villarreal, and less than two months after both an embarrassing El Clásico loss and elimination from Copa del Rey by way of disqualification.
Perez is notorious for firing managers too quickly, and is regularly criticized for it. This time around, he's not catching much criticism at all, except for the decision he made this summer. It was obvious from the start that Benitez at Madrid was going to go horribly wrong.
The players didn't want Carlo Ancelotti fired
Before Perez decided to part ways with Ancelotti, Cristiano Ronaldo tweeted that he hoped he got to work with Ancelotti again this season. Once he was fired, Madrid's key players -- Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, James Rodriguez, Marcelo and Toni Kroos, in particular -- all publicly stated their gratitude towards Ancelotti in a way that's uncommon for players to speak about fired managers. After getting rid of a popular coach that delivered La Decima to Madrid, Perez needed to make a home-run hire. Instead, he hired Benitez.
Zidane was always waiting in the wings
Last spring, Castilla manager Zinedine Zidane was touted as the man to replace Ancelotti. It doesn't matter that he said he wasn't quite ready for the job back in June. Zidane was widely viewed as a lock to become Madrid manager someday, and he was at the club, coaching the club's top young players. Benitez looked like a placeholder from the start. That's a difficult environment for anyone to work in.
Benitez was probably hired to be a yes-man
Perez paid a world record fee to sign Gareth Bale, who had an average second season with Los Merengues and was linked to a transfer back to England. Not willing to give up on his Galactico so easily, Perez wanted a coach who would be willing to make Bale a focal point of the team. A better coach with a better resume would probably be unwilling to take a job where the team president wanted some say over team selection.
Benitez played Bale in the middle at the expense of Isco and James Rodriguez early in the season, before poor play and injuries derailed that plan. Bale's actually looked great at right forward in recent games, but his return to excellent form hasn't been good enough to save Benitez.
Cristiano Ronaldo was already yelling at Benitez in July
It's a bad sign when your biggest superstar isn't getting along with the coach in preseason. During a crossbar challenge training game in the United States, Ronaldo yelled "It's meant to go in the net, not this s--t." That outburst led to constant rumors about Ronaldo and Benitez's poor relationship, including a reported ultimatum given to Perez by Ronaldo, despite Ronaldo publicly supporting his manager.
El Clásico was an unmitigated disaster
Benitez has been an inconsistent manager over the course of his career, but his failings usually come down to a stubborn commitment to his Plan A, leading to lots of draws and one-goal losses that should have been wins against mediocre opposition. When it comes to big games, he usually has a very solid plan.
Instead, Barcelona laid a 4-0 beating on Madrid, who didn't look particularly bothered about getting destroyed. They did a lot of standing around. Ronaldo was practically invisible. It was one of the worst performances in the club's history.
"Benitez mira Twitter"
Real Madrid defeated Cadiz in the Copa del Rey on December 2, but that's not what the record book says. No one told Benitez that Denis Cheryshev was ineligible for the game due to a suspension picked up while at Villarreal last season, so Benitez picked him. Cadiz's supporters were apparently much more well-informed than Benitez and sang for him to take a look at Twitter, where journalists and Barcelona players alike were taking the piss out of him.
— Gerard Piqué (@3gerardpique) December 2, 2015
No one told Benitez in the locker room at halftime, either. He made no changes to start the second half, then was informed of the problem and subbed off Cheryshev immediately. It was too late, though, and Madrid were disqualified.
Villarreal loss the beginning of the end
Former Real Madrid youth star Roberto Soldado put his old team to the sword on December 13, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win for Villarreal.
"Madrid offered little value, and rather than being tired, it's arguable that the players were simply being lazy," wrote Marc Craig at Managing Madrid after the loss. He continued, ""the players did genuinely try in the second half, which is what we should expect in every minute of the game, not just for half of it."
The Villarreal game also featured another fight between Benitez and a player. He reportedly asked Jese -- usually a winger or forward -- to play left back, and Jese refused. Instead, Perez's golden boy Bale was moved into defense to replace Marcelo.
Mateo Kovacic seals Benitez's fate
In a tough away game, Benitez made the understandable choice to pick Kovacic over Isco and James. While Kovacic doesn't have the stylish tricks that fans love, he's much better at defending and keeping possession than the two men he beat out for a place. In the first 67 minutes against Valencia, he was fantastic in every way. And then he did this.
Credit: user camaradona on r/soccer
Bale tried to rescue the result for Madrid, but they couldn't hold on with 10 men. Paco Alcacer made it 2-2 in the 82nd minute, and goalkeeper Keylor Navas had to come up with some stoppage time heroics just to rescue a point for Madrid. Los Merengues finished the game with more shots than Valencia, but more blocked and fewer from inside the box. It was not an unlucky result.
How does Zinedine Zidane right the ship at Madrid?
The very simple and frustrating answer is that we don't know. Even Madrid insiders and ardent youth team followers don't know. Zidane's Castilla side have been better this season than last, but aren't exactly being hailed as spectacular. He got in trouble last year for coaching Castilla without the required coaching badges, and just recently got his UEFA Pro license in May. No one knows what kind of senior team tactician he'll be.
The good news is that Zidane will have the respect of the Madrid squad out of the gate, on account of being one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. This is something that Benitez notably lacks.
e.g Modric reportedly couldn't stand him because Rafa kept nagging to not pass the ball with the outside of his foot, which annoyed Luka.— Nando Calrissian (@nandorvila) January 4, 2016
The bad news is that his man management skills appear to be a bit questionable. The world's most famous teenage wonderkid, Martin Ødegaard, has been complaining about not being a part of the first team and seeking a loan instead of looking at playing under Zidane as a chance to learn and improve his game. It certainly doesn't help that Zidane has regularly picked his son Enzo ahead of Ødegaard in the No. 10 position.
It does not inspire confidence that Zidane didn't take any questions at Monday's announcement. A great hire should be ready to speak for themselves, but Perez and Zidane apparently need a day to get their message straight. Whatever that message is, it will likely be meant to distract supporters and media from harping on about Perez having a coherent plan for building a club that's as successful as Bayern Munich or Barcelona.