HASTA LA VISTA, BENITEZ : ARE LIVERPOOL COMING TO THE END OF THE ‘RAFA ERA’?
By Phil Dickinson.
Sullen and lacking all his usual bullishness, Rafa Benitez looked a broken man stood in front of the ESPN cameras on Monday night. Having just seen his side put in a truly insipid and characterless performance in a 1-0 defeat to Wigan Athletic, he seemed like a man losing faith, coming slowly to terms with the fact that he may not be able to deliver what he has consistently promised the club’s fans. After a loss, a manger’s post-match interview is often a PR exercise in damage limitation, picking out the positives or even finding other people to blame. But in the aftermath of this defeat, Benitez had few positives to offer and no one else to blame. For the first time ever in his reign as Reds boss, the most stubborn manager in European football appeared caught in the headlights of inevitable failure.
The question on everybody’s lips is, of course, where has it all gone wrong? As has been repeatedly pointed out, minus Xabi Alonso, this is pretty much the same side that came within 4 points of winning the club its first Premier League title last year. Confidence? Injuries? Bad luck? Has Rafa signed the wrong players? Is Rafa Benitez’s tactical genius a managerial myth? Whichever way you look at it, the buck eventually has to stop with the manager.
When the team lost away in France this week, Stan Collymore, like many pundits, was quick to blame the quality of Liverpool’s first team players, the majority of which are Rafael Benitez’s signings. Callers to TalkSport seemed to agree, the likes of Kuyt, Lucas, Riera, Babel and Aquilani bearing most of the scorn. The cry of “not good enough to wear the shirt” was in the air.
Going against the grain of popular opinion, I actually think Rafa had done quite well in the transfer market over the years. Of course, we’ve had our share of Kromkamps and Voronins but our squad in the main is a mix of very well established international footballers, some of them captains, and young prodigies with plenty to learn but as much to give.
One of the main problems in my eyes is not the players Benitez has brought in, but the players he has let go and failed to replace. It is now widely believed, but unconfirmed of course, that it was Benitez’s failed attempt to sign Gareth Barry that forced Xabi Alonso out of the Anfield door, creating a void that an inexperienced and delicate Alberto Aquliani has as yet been unable to fill. Meanwhile, Benitez has tossed aside the services of Manchester City’s live wire Craig Bellamy, England’s internationally prolific Peter Crouch and Spurs misfit Robbie Keane, leaving the squad desperately, almost disgracefully short up front. Defenders of Benitez have consistently pointed to a chronic lack of funds, but the fact remains that the majority of these players have sought pastures new after being made to feel unappreciated. For Liverpool fans, the adage “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” is becoming painfully relevant.
But unfortunately, Liverpool’s problems run deeper than that. Rafa Benitez is a man with a very clear footballing philosophy. It’s a philosophy that won him two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup at Valencia, and saw Liverpool reach two Champions League finals under Benitez. For that very reason he stands loyally behind a very organised, mechanical but unambitious way of playing.
What Benitez has failed to learn in his 5 years at Liverpool is that La Liga and the UEFA Champions League are very different competitions to the Premier League. While Valencia won titles by being the best defence in the league and clinically taking advantage of most Spanish sides’ inability to keep clean sheets themselves, and Liverpool cruised through rounds of the Champions League by being compact away from home and ruthless at Anfield, the rigid defences of Stoke, Blackburn and Fulham have posed much more of a challenge to Bentiez’s not-so-expansive 4-4-1-1 formation. The art of defending and attacking as a team is severely undermined in Rafa’s system and when “not getting beaten” becomes more important in your footballing philosophy than “outclassing your opponent”, it only takes a slight knock in the team’s confidence for 1-0 wins to turn into 1-0 defeats.
In Liverpool’s current formation, it’s almost as if the two banks of four protecting goalkeeper, Pepe Reina, are exclusively there to defend, while Gerrard and Torres are left with the overwhelming burden of scoring goals and ultimately winning Liverpool matches. There simply isn’t enough support for front man Torres, not enough players running beyond the man with the ball and not enough movement in the final third of the pitch. And if either Torres or Gerrard are missing, these problems becoming all the more acute. To me, it says a lot about Liverpool’s season that, until he picked up an injury, Liverpool’s best attacking player this campaign was England full-back, Glenn Johnson. In the Premier League, whatever formation you play, you have to take the game to the opposition. Liverpool simply don’t do that often enough.
And often, the true measure of a top side is not in never losing but in the ability of that side to bounce back convincingly from disappointments – Iain Dowie’s famous bouncebackability. Liverpool have really struggled with that aspect this season. Even the good run the Reds had before the Wigan defeat was littered with stuttering performances, sloppy play and drab nil-nils. This season has been full of false starts and Rafa’s men have never quite “turned the corner” after convincing wins against the likes of Manchester United, Everton and Spurs. The Reds had much more of that bouncebackability last season, a “never say die” attitude which actually masked a lot of the tactical short-coming that eventually cost them the title.
I was pretty unnerved by Benitez’s fervent promise that Liverpool would definitely secure 4th place. I think he largely made that promise not because he could but because he felt he had to. Fans, players and management alike know that not making the Champions League is almost unthinkable. Dropping out of the top 4 would surely force a complete rethink of how the club is being run, with the manager’s job most at risk as the dust settles.
And even if Monday night’s defeat to Wigan wasn’t the point at which Benitez lost faith in his own philosophy, I believe there has come a point where certain key players have lost confidence in the manager’s ability to get the best out of them as a team. A great deal now rests upon Benitez’s continued tactical stubbornness as the club look to restart their stuttering season. If he is not careful, this tactical inflexibility and general bloody-mindedness could cost him his job come May. If Benitez refuses to take the shackles off this one-dimensional power-house of European football himself, somebody else will surely oblige.
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