RAFA BENITEZ: IF NOT NOW, WHEN?
By Patrick McLoughlin.
Friday morning and Liverpool fans are once again waking up to another defeat, this time at the hands of French side Lille in the Europa League. The defeat leaves Liverpool’s only hope of silverware this season hanging in the balance and once again Rafa Benitez needed to explain his team’s performance.
Coming into the game Liverpool were not exactly brimming with confidence, an embarrassing defeat by Premiership struggles Wigan has left Liverpool’s hunt for fourth spot in tatters and the Europa League has been seen by many fans as a conciliation prize to an otherwise dreadful season. However, if there is one thing that can be learned from this season it is that nothing ever goes to plan at Anfield, Thursday night was no exception.
Benitez started the game with his usual formation, 2 defensive midfielders and Torres the lone striker. Although the performance was an improvement from the pathetic display at Wigan it still wasn’t enough and Liverpool went down to a single goal.
Consequently here Liverpool are, lagging behind in the league and hanging on in Europe. Next season offers no silver lining either with the possibility of further Europa League action, crippling debt and the threat of top-stars leaving to find Champions League football elsewhere. All this from a club which last season beat Real Madrid 5-0 on aggregate and came the closest to winning the league for almost 20 years. So who’s to blame? And what can be done?
Firstly, the players. Granted Liverpool have been exceptionally unlucky with injuries this year. Alberto Aquilani, Glen Johnson, Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard are just a few examples of first-teamers which have been sidelined for considerable parts of the season, however, a recent return by all of these has still shown no improvement in results and has just added to the list of under-performing players. Other players such as Dirk Kuyt, Lucas and Emiliano Insua have been nothing short of woeful and leave fans holding their heads in their hands and wondering how they manage to get picked every week followed by the eventual blissfully ignorant quotes of: “Kuyt is a work horse”, “Insua needs time” and “Lucas is getting better”. The simple fact is that these players are not good enough. Kuyt’s short, stocky body combined with his lack of basic technical skills makes him an awful choice for a winger. Insua’s lack of pace and relative lack of experience leave him exposed and caught out far too often and Lucas finds it physically impossible to pass a ball forwards.
Perhaps the most worrying signs are that of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, they have rightly earned themselves a reputation as world-class however this season is different. Gerrard’s body language on the field gives the impression of a player that is tired and has simply given up the fight, a shadow of the player that drove Liverpool to success in Istanbul. Furthermore, Fernando Torres, his frustrations are for all to see, against Wigan tracking back almost 50 yards only to commit a foul and pick up a petulant yellow card. Double marked in every game and lacking any supply his patience is clearly wearing thin.
Secondly, the owners. In 2007 after the Gillett and Hicks buy-out Liverpool fans were buoyed by cautious optimism, perhaps, finally, after much waiting and hoping Liverpool’s time had finally come and would be able to compete with the likes of big spending Chelsea and Manchester United. The days of obscurity during the 1990s were over and finally Liverpool was back in the big time.
Fast-forward 3 years and it seems like yet another false dawn. Crippled with debt and unable to back up their early promises the big bucks are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps Hicks and Gillett had underestimated the size of their task in merry ol’ England or perhaps Liverpool fans expected too much from their newly crowned owners but whatever the reason they are a very unwelcome presence on Merseyside, constant power struggles behind the scenes has made Liverpool football club more of a soap opera than a sports team. Scandals and sleazy deals seem to be the attention they have attracted to Liverpool rather than goals and trophies. Perhaps their off-field squabbling has served as a catalyst for the loss of morale in the dressing room?
Third, and finally, the manager, Rafa Benitez. With his first season in charge he guided Liverpool to the mother of all trophies- the Champions league, hailed by most as a tactical genius, anyone that could come from 3 goals behind and win against AC Milan and with Djimi Traore in the side must surely be the man that would answer Liverpool fans prayers across the globe. The Spaniard came with a glowing reputation, he had managed to break the strangle hold of Barcelona and Real Madrid on La Liga and guide Valencia to 2 titles as well as a UEFA Cup, he was soon followed to Anfield by Spanish stars such as Luis Garcia and Xabi Alonso and was soon becoming an adored figure in Liverpool.
However, Rafa Benitez must now go into every game under intense pressure, the threat of the sack is very real and although he eventually won his struggle with Rick Parry his new found power is more of a curse rather than a gift. Mismanagement of both Xabi Alonso and Michael Owen allowed them both to leave for Real Madrid, terrible transfer mishaps such as Robbie Keane and Gareth Barry wasted money and above all else his negative all too predictable tactics have left Liverpool a demoralised team.
Benitez’s 4-2-3-1 is too reliant on Gerrard and Torres and with 2 defensive midfielders Benitez seems to be more concerned about keeping a clean sheet rather than winning games. This negative approach to must win games has Liverpool fans angry and frustrated. Not because of the defeats but the manner in which Liverpool are defeated. The Liverpool teams of the 1970s and 1980s were based on attacking football, free flowing and free scoring; games are won by scoring goals. However, defeats against Wigan and Portsmouth this season has seen Liverpool fail to even register a shot on goal, a truly embarrassing statistic. Every team loses now and again, it has to happen, but not to attempt a shot on goal is remarkable.
Couple this with his transfer dealings and fans are looking at a mediocre squad devoid of any recognisable talent with the exceptions of Torres and Gerrard. Philip Degen, Andrea Dossena and Andriy Voronin are all players who Benitez brought to Anfield and have made little or no impact yet have cost the club precious money. Time is often an excuse used by managers to justify them not producing results but with Benitez in his sixth year at Anfield every player except Gerrard and Carragher Benitez has signed spending over £100 million in the process.
In my personal opinion I believe that Benitez has had his chance, I always respect Liverpool for keeping faith in their managers and if it comes down to it only releasing them during the summer to minimise damage as done with Gerard Houllier but Liverpool’s stance on Rafa keeping his job baffles me, out of the champions league, out of both domestic cups and struggling to finish fourth the question must surely be asked when he will get sacked? If not now, when?