You might remember that, following Sam Allardyce’s departure as West Ham manager in 2015, Rafael Benitez, who had just resigned from the top post at Napoli, was seriously linked with the Hammers hotseat.
His final season in Italy saw a fifth place finish in Serie A, and semi-finals in the Coppa Italia and Europa League. The deal to sign the Spaniard was reportedly only a matter of hours away. David Sullivan revealed that the contract had been agreed and all that remained was for Rafa’s signature to be penned, before Real Madrid swooped.
With the Hammers set to face Newcastle in August, the team he has managed since March 2016, the question is how could he have performed had the tables turned and Benitez was at the helm for West Ham instead of Real Madrid, and subsequently the Magpies?
It’s difficult to compare Real Madrid and West Ham (surprisingly!) but what we can do is to hypothetically transfer the skills and ideas that Rafa could bring to the table and just imagine how well it could have worked for the Hammers. In terms of man-management, his style is at the opposite end of the spectrum to Slaven Bilic, a man who is warm and encouraging to his players.
There’s not necessarily anything wrong with having a ‘colder’ style to management, but I find personality and relationships with players highly important qualities, especially in times of egos and money-grabbers.
Although, the quest for perfection is tough in English football and it’s undoubtedly something that the Spanish man strives for. Can you be a perfectionist and get along with your players on a personal level?
I don’t know, but I’m sure if we were to ask any of Manchester City’s or Chelsea’s employees now, they’d be able to tell us what life is really like on the training ground. Although West Ham managed to bridge that gap a little between the ‘top clubs’ two seasons ago, last season showed signs of requiring perhaps someone a little fussier in charge.
On the pitch there’s no doubt that Rafa has a tactical style and knows how to stick to it, something that has become a trait of his throughout his career. He is a firm believer of strengthening both attack and defence, understanding the interdependence of both elements of a game. It seems hard to argue that any team in the Premier League couldn’t benefit from such an ethos.
Coming off the back of the 14/15 season, the benefits of Benitez’s philosophy could’ve shaken up the club and provided a boost. I think we can all agree, reluctantly or not, that the feats Bilic achieved in the 15/16 season were more than expected. Of course, time travel doesn’t exist, but you’d have to believe that Rafa could and would have achieved the positive goal difference and run of results that the Croatian was able to eke out of the side.
Over the years, his formation has evolved from a 4-4-2 system with an emphasis on zonal marking, to a 4-2-3-1 formation. When you break it down, it’s a structure that most teams could adapt to but only if the lone striker is proven. I guess this brings us nicely on to transfers, doesn’t it?
West Ham fans have experienced the ‘one up front’ scenario to varying degrees of success. To be able to make this system work, a consistent, fit striker is required. Generally speaking, wingers have served us well in multiple combinations, but having a manager who knows what he wants and won’t compromise could have been a positive.
Rafa has been a busy man in transfer windows gone by. He wasn’t afraid to spend money at Liverpool and of course, he had the means to spend plenty at Chelsea. We know that modern football has given less power to managers and more to owners, so a manager with a plan could have been key to West Ham attracting significant players in the transfer market and luring them with realistic aims.
Whether Rafa would have been given freer reign than Slaven, we’ll never know. His temperament, however, has seen him in high profile spats with the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, Liverpool owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks, Jose Mourinho and Sam Allardyce. Did we really want to add Davids Gold and Sullivan into the mix?
Bilic is an agreeable man, which may be to his detriment at times, but there’s a lot to be said for someone who’s understated. This club has had enough negative publicity over the years so keeping managerial fallouts to a minimum is favourable. The West Ham co-owners seem to know what they want and to be a manager under such scrutiny, often with a lack of authority in transfers, is difficult, especially for someone with a bit of a short fuse.
Benitez’s strive to build a faultless, unbeatable team had lost him the dressing room at Madrid and his sacking came seven months after his arrival following fan jeers and protests. Benitez is a man with integrity and is a perfectionist by nature, but that’s not to say this job was the perfect fit for him. He has so many qualities that a club like West Ham could benefit from but was the timing right for Rafa to become the Hammers’ boss in 2015? No, probably not.
I’m glad that we had Bilic to see us through the last season at Upton Park and the wonderful memories he brought. I can’t see anyone, including Benitez, having improved upon results and league position given the resources available in this time frame.