One of the stars of Rafael Benitez’s decorated Valencia teams says the Everton manager boasts game-changing tactical insight – and is an “expert in instilling a winning mentality”.
Miguel Angel Angulo, the former Spain international forward, was an important figure during Benitez’s three-year Valencia reign, which yielded two La Liga titles and success in the 2004 UEFA Cup.
The appointment of Benitez at the Mestalla Stadium was greeted with “scepticism” by players, admits Angulo, with the former Extremadura and Tenerife boss replacing Hector Cuper, who left after guiding Valencia to successive Champions League finals.
Those doubts briskly gave way to a realisation Valencia had hired a “great coach” and innovator, says Angulo, who coaches the Spanish club’s B team today – and confesses he leans heavily on the teachings of Benitez when preparing his players tactically and physically and psychologically.
“It is difficult to summarise in a short time the importance of his influence, I could spend hours talking about the impact Rafa Benítez had on me,” Angulo told evertonfc.com.
“At a tactical level, in training exercises and in how to prepare for matches, both in attack and defence, and in the physical training.
“The other aspect I would highlight is the psychological approach.
“The season is very long… managing a squad of 25 players and having them fully invested in a common goal, for a long time, is complicated. On that, Rafa did a great job.
“We were players of a high level and all wanted to play. He knew how to handle that situation successfully, with each one of us knowing our roles.
“That is something I try to apply, so – like with Rafa – every player has equal prominence, then when they are in the starting XI, they are prepared for that challenge in the best possible way.
“Rafa was very good at reading games, finding where the opponent was weakest and attacking him.
“He is a specialist in preparing the gameplan and in analysing the rival.
“He devoted many hours to the tactical order, especially in the 4-4-2 system. How to press, how to direct the pressure.
“In the attacking movements, he worked on how to create two against one, how to create superiorities and find where to inflict damage on the rival.”
Benitez replaced Cuper in 2001 after the Argentine led Valencia to Champions League finals in both his seasons in charge.
The team finished third and fifth in La Liga with Cuper – but Benitez duly masterminded the club’s first domestic title in 31 years.
Valencia regained the championship in 2003/04 and added the UEFA Cup in what was Benitez’s final campaign as boss.
“In football, we all want to win, but given the difficulties of the competition, in which everyone is very prepared, the winning mentality always makes the difference,” said Angulo.
“In this case, generating that extra ambition, which gives you a little more, is what makes you win or lose.
“I think Rafa is an expert in this, in instilling in us a winning mentality, the desire to go into every game to win.
“There was some scepticism [among players over Benitez’s appointment] because we didn't know him very well.
“Rafa came from the second division. At first, we thought perhaps he was not the ideal coach for a Valencia that had just played two Champions League finals.
“It seemed a bit strange a coach who was unknown to us was coming.
“But over time he showed he was a great coach.
“He didn't usually raise his voice.
“He was a person who cared about everything, he wanted everything under control and instilled in us good behaviours, not only on the field but also outside.
“He insisted on healthy habits, taking care of details to find the maximum performance of the players.
“He was one of the first to innovate in individualised physical preparation.
“Also, to pay attention to concentrations [periods when a player expends a lot of energy] and rotations.
“He let us know when we were ready to make a big effort and when we needed rest.
"His rotations became famous at a time when they were not common."
Valencia’s 2001/02 La Liga success was founded on discipline and strong defence.
Benitez’s miserly side conceded a league-low 27 goals. They scored 51, a tally surpassed by five teams.
By 2003/04, Valencia had added a clinical edge to their famed parsimony, scoring 71 times – second only to Real Madrid’s 72 – and again letting in only 27 goals.
In the UEFA Cup, which they won by beating Marseille 2-0 in the final, Valencia scored 20 and conceded five.
“The attack-defence balance, the ability of each player to interpret every position they had to work on, was one of the keys to the team,” said Angulo.
“I had a high number of starts in the years Rafa was here. I had to play a lot of positions, in defence and midfield, mid-right, forward and extreme left.
“I am very satisfied with the level I gave.”
Angulo, who was capped 11 times by Spain, stayed with Valencia another five years following Benitez’s exit, playing under a further seven managers as the club tried to return to the heights scaled under their most successful boss.
“It was surprising [when Benitez went] because we did not expect him to make that decision,” added Angulo.
“Over time, we were able to understand what could happen.
“He chose to pursue his career elsewhere and we were convinced that wherever he went, he would succeed.
“He is a coach who has the ability to adapt, who can lead, and who is ready for any team.”