In succeeding Carlo Ancelotti as manager of Real Madrid on June 3, Rafa Benitez finally achieved a remarkable personal homecoming.
Having graduated from their youth system, Benitez spent the majority of his short playing career representing Real Madrid Castilla; the club’s reserve side that competes in the third division.
He subsequently began his managerial career there; taking the reigns between 1993 and 1995 after a spell as assistant coach.
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For many Real fans, however, the enthusiasm is muted. A portion of the fan base remain unconvinced by the case for sacking Ancelotti, and doubts have been cast on what Benitez can bring to the squad to improve it.
Now, a partial answer to that question has been provided in the shape of Benitez’s first real signing: Lucas Vazquez.
Not an inspiring signing
A 24-year-old winger who spent last season at Espanyol on loan from Castilla; his performances convinced Espanyol to take up their option of purchasing the player, at a cost of two million euros.
No sooner had Espanyol bought him, however, than Real waded back in; exercising a buy-back clause running to 2017.
As a player who had been at Real since he was 16, playing over 100 matches for their youth sides, Vazquez qualifies as that rare thing: a player that Real Madrid fans can call ‘one of their own’.
Looking at it from a wider perspective, however, this transfer could be seen as a worrying forecast for Benitez’s reign.
Vazquez played 33 times for Espanyol last season; scoring three goals. He is a diligent winger; adept at tracking back defensively, but that hardly represents the level of performance required by both Real’s endlessly demanding hierarchy and fans.
Benitez is in charge of a club in which the first XI picks itself; in a team full of ‘Galacticos', in which the two most recent holders of the title ‘most expensive player in world football’ are deployed on either wing, a relative unknown of commendable but limited powers seems unlikely to make a great impact.
The manager is a known proponent of squad rotation, and Vazquez may be emblematic of this; filling Benitez’s need for a wider pool of players to draw from. With the well known battle of egos that any Real coach has to contend with, having a fresh player who stands as ‘his man’ will be invaluable.
This is a Real team, however, in which Jese, a player who grew up in the academy, beloved by fans, faces a serious struggle for game time. Dani Carvajal, a ten year academy veteran, had to spend a year in Germany having been sold to Bayer Leverkusen before performing strongly enough to convince Real to buy him back. Even a player of the sublime talent of Isco is far from guaranteed a start.
Benitez only at Real Madrid temporarily?
A regular influx of the world’s biggest stars blocks the pathway to the first team for almost all others. This transfer might well be Benitez’s attempt to respond to the suggestion that he is incapable of improving this team, but it carries a hint of desperation.
Real is not a club that will take so kindly to any rotation policy: it is a club run with commercial concerns equally as much as winning ones, in which image rights are as important as injuries.
If Benitez is insistent on pursuing the kind of policy that Vazquez represents, it may end up a matter of time before the strength of his position is tested, and he is unlikely to emerge triumphant from any ensuing battle.
Ultimately, this move may lead to whispers of Benitez being a stop-gap appointment, someone who took over largely because he was available, taking on a life of their own. If he isn’t careful, it could end up putting club and manager on an unfortunate early collision course.