Welcome! First impressions?
RB: “Really pleased, really good. The city is nice, the food is nice, the seafood is very good. [The Dalian kitchen staff] are trying to adapt, because the players eat pasta and things like that. The weather has been fine apart from the typhoon, but that was not too strong here. Normally it’s quite hot, sunny, and the city is clean. We come early in the morning, so we don’t have too much traffic. At the moment it’s really nice.”
Is the seafood better than in Valencia?
RB: “It’s different! In Valencia you have paella, and that is amazing, and here the seafood in general is quite good.”
What did you know of the CSL before coming to Dalian?
RB: “Quite a lot, because I have some friends here. Gregorio Manzano was coaching here, [Juan Ramon] Lopez Caro, [Bernd] Schuster, and then I have some friends in Chongqing who were telling me about what was going on, Jordi Cruyff is over there, Luis Garcia also, so a lot of friends were here and we were talking. I had offers in the past from the Chinese league, big offers, but I decided to stay at Newcastle, but then this time was the right time and the right moment.”
How did the move to Dalian come about? It’s quite a departure from your previous roles…
RB: “To be fair, we were waiting for a solution at Newcastle which was not forthcoming, so we had to choose between staying at home and doing nothing, or accepting the best offer possible. The Dalian Yifang project was quite interesting. Obviously there’s a big investment, but at the same time, they want to do something – a new training ground, bringing [through] new players to compete. They have a lot of kids with the Wanda project in Spain, so it’s all-round an interesting thing, and we will see what happens. They were pushing really hard to get me and my staff, and we are really pleased because they showed so much interest.”
Did you have other offers on the table?
RB: “This time, we were waiting, we had some [options], but we were waiting for Newcastle until the last minute, and when we had to decide, it was a very simple decision because it was the best option we had. Normally you wait, because you want to be close to your family, and you wait for offers around Europe, but in the top six of the Premier League, there was no chance.
“I always said I don’t want to be fighting for survival in the Premier League, I would like to do something more. So when that was not an option, because [offers] were not coming at the right time, then we had to choose the best one. People were saying it was big money, and it was a big investment that they made, they showed a lot of interest, and we are really pleased because they showed us a project that they want to build something different.”
You mentioned your family briefly. Do they still live on Merseyside?
RB: “Yes, and I’ll be going to see them this week. That was one of the arguments when we were going through the different options, and I said, “Listen, we cannot be waiting forever.” My family were really pleased with the Geordie situation and really happy, so we have Liverpool and Newcastle really in the heart, but we couldn’t wait any more and had to make a decision, because it’s not just me, it’s also my staff and their families, so everybody has to get a job and you have to accept the best offer possible.”
Talking about Dalian Wanda’s investment in youth, how significant a factor was that to attract you to the club?
RB: “I am a professional and I want to win, but at the same time I want to build something, and in this case leave a legacy, if we can, so we know how football is going on, and the priority is to do well with the first team, make sure we improve the first team, but like I said before, the training ground and the project with the youth system is amazing. In reality, I am a manager. The title is head coach, but I am a manager because we are in charge of the academy. From the U-23s below, we control everything. This year, we are creating [football] schools for 6-10 year olds, bringing in coaches from Spain, so we will organise everything in terms of academy and youth system.
“At the same time, we are working with the scouting department, creating searches for China and abroad, and we are changing a lot of departments, trying to do things in a professional way, in the way that we used to do it in England. So we are managing all these situations and growing, but that’s football. You have to win with the first team. We have been really lucky because when we came, we were 13th [in the CSL], then we went to sixth and we were in the semifinal of the cup, so on the pitch we are doing well, but it’s not a priority. The president told me that this year, we want to be in the top eight, and try to build from that.”
You’ve signed a two-and-a-half year deal. Looking into the future, can you win the CSL at the end of those two-and-a-half years?
RB: “I’ve been telling [the players], the main thing we have to create is a winning mentality. A winning mentality means that the next game is the most important – one game at a time. If you can do that, you can compete against anyone, so we have done this this year. Even in the last month and a half [since Benitez joined Dalian], we have been competing, so then what we want is to be sure that when we go to the pitch, the team has the belief that they can win, and if we do that, we will see what happens next year.
“So if we reach the target and finish in the top eight, maybe next year it’s top six. That doesn’t mean we’re not ambitious – we will try to do better and better, but at the same time, you know there is a big difference between the top sides now and our team. You know, if you have been here in China, that the Chinese players make the difference, because there are eight of them on the pitch. The foreign players can win some games, but you have to be sure that the other players keep you in the game. So for us, finding better Chinese players is a challenge, and then you can go and try to find the best foreign players, but the key is to have very good Chinese players with the right mentality, and we are trying to build that.”
Looking at your previous clubs, you seem to place a lot of emphasis on being defensively organised above all else. Is this how you are looking to proceed tactically at Dalian as well?
RB: “It’s not the priority. Here you have Carrasco who has been scoring goals, Boateng who has been scoring goals, and now you have Rondon, so they can score goals and they know what they have to do, but the main thing is to find the balance. In almost every CSL game all the teams score and concede goals. This means that the games are too open, you are attacking and you are exposing your defence and you are conceding, so the best teams score more goals and win more games.
“If you want to compete against them and have an opportunity to win something – and I’m not talking about one game, I’m talking about challenging for trophies – you need to find the balance. At Newcastle, you could attack and be too open and lose 5-0. You could have a go, but you’ve lost the game already. It’s the same here. When we are attacking, sometimes we are exposed. So you need to find the balance, and it’s easier to coach one player how to defend than how to score goals. Why? It’s very simple. The goal is 732mm x 244mm and you have to score there, and a defender has to clear the ball and maybe does a great job. So it’s easier to work in defence, and give the defenders more knowledge and more focus and more tips, than to the strikers, that they have to go there [on the pitch] with defenders around. So you have to start with the basement, and after that, continue building.”
As for that win against Spurs, yes Steve Bruce deserves SOME credit, but that performance was down to Rafa Benitez. It was his formation, his style of play & his type of victory.
If Bruce can carry that on, great. But Rafa’s logic is obviously still ingrained into the players.
— John Potts #NUFC (@johnpottm) August 26, 2019
You’ve been here for a month and a half now. Is that what you’ve been focusing on?
RB: “As I said before, we have Carrasco and Boateng scoring goals, Rondon came in and is already scoring goals, so with the strikers, they know you and they know how you want them to play, and it’s easier. The most difficult thing is to pass your message to the Chinese players, because you need a translator, you have to express things in a way that they will understand you. Our translator is doing really well, but at the same time, they have to understand that, so it’s another culture, it’s another way to think about football. That is the most difficult thing.”
This is the first time you’re working in a country where you don’t speak the language and you have to rely on translators. How difficult is that, when you can’t talk directly to your players?
RB: “You work here and you know how difficult it is. When I came to China, the only thing I could say was “Ni hao”, and that’s it. Now I try to manage and try to say some words, but obviously it’s not the same, and you need someone who has to pass the message. What we do is we sit down beforehand, we talk about the ideas, and it’s easier for him to pass the ideas [along to the players]. But still, when you want to say something quickly, you need some time. We are trying to manage, and I think we are doing well because the majority of the players are fine. The foreign players, they speak English or Spanish, so it’s quite easy, but with the Chinese players, you have to go little by little, and I think they understand. I’ve tried to learn some words that you have to use in games.”
You’re teaming up again with your former players Salomon Rondon and Marek Hamsik. Is it nice to have them back in your team again?
“Yeah of course, and with Carrasco, Rondon and Boateng, all of them speak Spanish, and Hamsik can understand Spanish because he speaks Italian very well. For me, it’s good to have players who know quickly what you are looking for, why you want to do this or that. You can explain to them, they can help with the movements to the Chinese players, and my staff is the same staff, so there are a lot of positive things. We are also lucky because the medical department is from Spain, and they understand the way that we want to do things. Now our idea is, as I said at the beginning, to leave a legacy, to show our methodology and our way of doing things. We are doing things in the Spanish way with some English influence, and at the same time, we want to teach them, we want to coach them, we want to be sure that they understand our way. We are trying to make them think about the reason why, and in the future they can use the same methodology.”
Are you looking to Carrasco, Hamsik and Rondon to lead the young players coming through?
“Yeah, for sure. I think the culture is different, and the senior players have to be an influence and have to push young players, but at the same time you have to support them, so the foreign players understand this idea, and the coaches try to do that. We talk with them all the time, trying to make sure that they are trying [new] things and not worried about making a mistake. It’s a question of time, but we are going in this direction.”
Salomon Rondon made a double to lead Dalian Yifang to beat Chongqing 3:1. 3 goals in 3 appearances (all started from bench) for the Venezuelan striker. Rafa Benitez’s 1st month in China: 4W 1D 1L. As Chinese fans comment ‘the only deficiency of an expensive item is its price.’ pic.twitter.com/TgVZHE6zTa
— Titan Sports Plus (@titan_plus) August 2, 2019
You responded to Mike Ashley’s comments about you only coming to China for the money. Did you enjoy your time at Newcastle? You obviously saw out your contract despite the rumored problems behind the scenes.
“When I went there, it was a challenge for me. I could see a massive club in a massive city. The fans were amazing from the start, you could see that. I had this feeling at Valencia and Liverpool, where the connection with the fans was good. So we were happy, we were fighting together. We knew that it was going to be difficult, but the fans know better than me because they have experienced 12 years with the same owner, and everything that was going on, but I have to do my job, I have to be professional, and I did it. I did it because of the affection and the support from the fans, so the staff and everybody was just working together, and we could see that we were not moving forward at the speed that this club could do it, but at the end, I have to try to do my best.
“I was not happy when they were talking about [leaving Newcastle because of] the money, because I was in the Championship [with Newcastle], and I decided to stay because of the fans, the city and the potential. I said no to very, very big offers, and even last year, I was saying no to big offers, so I’m really pleased that everything has finished now, in terms of talking too much. I don’t want to talk too much about that, because I want to support Newcastle United, Steve Bruce, the fans and the players, and hopefully they will do well, but what I want is to be in the top ten. I couldn’t be waiting to see who would invest. Believe me, I want to finish with that. Hopefully they will do well, hopefully the fans will be behind the manager, because he will need the support of the fans, and I will try to enjoy [myself] here and keep an eye on them and wish them all the best.”
What needs to happen for them to start winning trophies? They haven’t won anything since the 1950’s.
RB: “It’s a question of time to improve things, but you have to do things the right way. Again, I don’t want to talk too much about that, because people will say I am attacking them, and I don’t want to attack. I was really pleased, really happy there, but I had to go, and I think they understand that, and they understand why too.”
You mentioned that the fans at Newcastle were one of the reasons you decided to stay when they got relegated, which perhaps stands in contrast to when you were manager of Chelsea. Do you feel you were treated badly at Chelsea?
RB: “No. Liverpool is where my family lives, and is my home, and at Newcastle I was really happy. When I was at Chelsea, a lot of fans were quite happy. We finished third, and that was the target, and we won the Europa League, which nobody was expecting, so I think that we did really well, and the majority of the fans, believe me, they were fine. Maybe a group of fans were not happy, but there was also a misunderstanding, because I never said that I would not go to Chelsea. Someone tweeted that I had said that, and it was not true, but you cannot change it. [At Liverpool], we were competing for trophies against Chelsea at a time when they were quite strong. Fine, you can understand [Chelsea fans’ anger at my appointment]. But I did my best, they were happy, I had a very good relationship with a lot of people, a lot of friends over there, and I wish them all the best too.”
Talking about another of your former clubs, do you think that Liverpool can finally win the Premier League this year?
RB: “To be fair, I think in the last few years they’ve been very close. They were spending money, they were doing well, they have good players and a good manager, and the atmosphere is really good, the fans are behind the team, and sometimes you are unlucky. When we finished second [in 2009], Manchester United was doing well in the last part of the season, and [last season] the same thing happened with Manchester City, they were doing well against Liverpool. Sometimes you are doing well, but another team is doing it better than you. I think [Liverpool] are doing well. They are consistently there, and that gives you the possibility to win trophies, when you are consistently at the top of the table.”
You’ve been a coach for over 30 years, and have won trophies at some of the world’s biggest clubs. Where have you been happiest?
RB: “To be fair, almost everywhere. I am from Spain, so I was happy in Extremadura, Tenerife and Valencia. Even at Valladolid, when they fired me, even at Valladolid, when they fired me, and in my first professional job in Real Madrid’s academy, where I spent four years. I like my job, and I’m lucky enough to be paid for something that I like. Everywhere I go, like Napoli, I try to understand the culture and the relationship with the fans, the staff, and people who are already there. I’m quite happy with that. The problem is sometimes your ambition, and my ambition is to win, and to win trophies if possible, and this is when you can have a difficult situation, but in terms of which city, to be fair, I was quite happy everywhere, because we are professionals, we worked really hard, and we tried to enjoy ourselves. I’m looking now at what we can see in Dalian, but China is amazing, the culture is amazing, and we have so many things to see and discover, and I’m sure that we will be happy.”
Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to discovering?
RB: “We were looking at one of the Buddhist monasteries, and that was quite interesting, and of course there’s the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. After playing a game, sometimes you have some free time to see the city. I was reading that there is 5,000 years of culture here, so there’s lots to learn.”
You’ve worked in several different countries and you speak several languages. Have you ever been tempted by international management?
RB: “I have had some offers, and some interest from different national teams, but I decided to stay at Newcastle. There were rumours – which were true – that there had been contact from some people, but I told Newcastle that I wanted to stay and I finished with these rumors. I’m still young enough to be working on a daily basis, and then we have plenty of time to do a job with a national team. I like to work every day. I want to win trophies, I want to win games and I want to make sure we can compete. If you have a national team, it could be different, and you have to approach it in a different way, but I like to try to win every week.”
You’ve managed some of the best players in the world. Who would you say are the top three?
RB: “I think it’s not really fair to talk about the top three. Obviously, Steven Gerrard was one of the best because he has won almost everything. Hazard, when I was at Chelsea, was really good. Obviously, Cristiano Ronaldo was very good, so you have too many. I think it would not be fair, and also normally you talk about offensive players, but Petr Cech was a great keeper and a great professional, so sometimes you have [great] players that people don’t notice. I had Pepe Reina [at Liverpool and Napoli] who was a keeper and a leader in the team, so I think it’s not fair. I know I just said five names, but I think it’s not fair [to say].”
How do you think Steven Gerrard will get on as a manager?
“I think he will do well. He [played under] different types of managers with different styles of management, so I think he has learned from everyone. He likes football, he enjoys football, and he is competitive, so I think he will do well. Obviously, now he is doing well, but Celtic are a little bit ahead [of Rangers], but he is challenging and he is doing well.”
When you had him at Liverpool, could you see a potential future manager there?
RB: “Yes. He and Jamie Carragher were always talking about football. Both of them like football, Carragher is doing pretty well as a pundit, I have to say, and Stevie enjoys football and he has the potential to be a great manager.”
How do you like to relax when you’re not working?
RB: “I like to be with my family if I can. Obviously in China, I stay with my staff, and we play some cards, we play [Spanish card game] Mus; it’s a really funny game. Sometimes we watch television too. I like kung fu, so being in China is perfect!”
Finally, what can the Dalian Yifang fans expect to see from a Rafa Benitez-led team over the next two-and-a-half years
RB: “I think I don’t need to say too much, to be fair, because the Dalian fans are very similar to the Liverpool or Newcastle fans, because they are passionate, they love the team, they have won trophies in the past, so they are football people and they know about football, and what they want is a team that cares and works hard, so it’s very similar. Our team now is working hard and they try until the end. I am always telling them, “Don’t put your heads down, don’t give up, keep going,” and little by little, the players are trying to do that, and I think the fans appreciate that. So, what should they expect? A team that tries to win, a team that will be competitive and will care, and I think the fans will appreciate that.”