Rafa Benitez is close to finishing his worst season as Liverpool manager. After such a campaign it is not only fair but necessary to ask the big questions. For example: what has contributed to this year’s regression? Who is to blame? Is it the manager’s fault? But what is more important than the questions themselves is a sober, representative analysis of them.
I think that Benitez is an easy man for the English press to dislike. His impersonal managerial style, ruthlessness with regards to player roles within his formation (employing Gerrard wide midfield in much of 05/06 a case in point), and a tactical acumen perhaps more appreciated in foreign shores all contribute to a less-than-flattering media portrait. On many occasions the epithet ‘lucky’ has preceded the utterances of his name with media commentators levelling three criticisms in his direction: his 2005 Champions League success was with an ‘inherited’ team, his transfer activity has exhibited terrible judgment, and that his tactics are either costly (zonal marking) or too negative.
The first claim can only bear any weight due to Carragher and Gerrard. The truth is however that Carragher only became the stalwart he is now because Benitez moved him into the centre of defence and Gerrard, I’d argue, has become a better player under Benitez (as mentioned here). Furthermore I think it would be short sighted and naively nostalgic to suggest that Reina, Carragher, Agger, Johnson, Kuyt, Benayoun, Mascherano, Gerrard and Torres are not an improvement on Dudek, Finnan, Cisse, Traore, Diouf, Baros et al.
Benitez’s transfer activity has had its flaws fixated on heavily in the media. Consider the purchase and hasty sale of Robbie Keane (a large portion of the fee recouped) and the attention it garnered in comparison to a Shevchenko or a Veron. All managers get it wrong and Benitez is no different but he certainly has had his hits (Reina, Mascherano, Alonso, Torres) underplayed and his misses (Keane, Riera, Voronin, Pennant, Morientes are some that stand out) augmented. As for this season, Johnson offers the team a much needed attacking option from full back and, though he has made mistakes this term, is young enough to learn the positional awareness required to be a good defender. Any judgment on Aquilani must wait until the player has had an uninterrupted run of games and, while we may reprimand a manager for purchasing a long term injury, what we cannot do is prematurely brand the player a flop.
The discussion on Benitez’s tactics is indicative of the critical bias that pervades media commentary. Zonal marking is a glaring example of this; Liverpool consistently boast a stubborn defence and concede less than most teams in the league from set pieces yet when a mistake is made the reactionary defensive experts on Match of the Day castigate ‘the system’. The fact that man marking is an alternative does not mean it must be employed – looking over a long enough time period shows that Liverpool are successful exponents of zonal marking.
Finally the argument that Benitez’s style is too defensive, too negative, is an aesthetic judgment that should temper the necessity to win alongside a need to entertain; a winning fan base is entertained. Last season there were no attacks on the team’s tactics (they scored the most in the league) because the crucial difference is they were winning matches. I do think that Liverpool are prone to being overly cautious (especially this year: see here) but isn’t this discipline and defensive rigidity the very reason that they, under Benitez, have performed to a consistently high level in two legged Champions League affairs (two finals, a semi final and a quarter final)? Is the manager perhaps doing the best he has with what’s available, hence the focus on being defensively sound instead of attempting an overtly attacking game?
I think it would be a mistake to blame Rafa Benitez unanimously for Liverpool’s terrible campaign: Gerrard has had his worst season on record, Torres has been frustratingly sidelined, and the club’s financial descent coupled with an unforgiving media that have a tendency to side against him has all taken a cumulative toll. My criticism of Benitez this year would be that his lack of man-management has at times cost him. When players have needed to be inspired to perform, to find their best on an afternoon where everything seems hopeless, there has been no indication that the manager has offered anything (of course this is purely speculative from my part).
When Gerrard is off form and Torres is unavailable other players need to maximise their output and it just hasn’t materialised this year. I would also argue that last season the team overachieved with many players doing exactly what has been lacking this year: playing beyond their means. The judgment is not an attempt to slander but rather a curious observation on the psychology of confidence in the professional game. Barring Alonso the team is largely unchanged yet the output of its players has markedly decreased since a mentally taxing previous year. The question of whether sacking Benitez is the right course of action leads me to reject the notion completely. This is a proven manager, not a ‘lucky’ manager, who broke the stranglehold of Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga by twice becoming Champions with Valencia (and a Uefa Cup to boot). And since coming to Anfield the club has won a Champions League (competed again for the crown two years later) and, twelve months ago, accumulated enough points to win the league in most years. One bad season cannot change these facts. The reaction to one bad season however can steer the club either to failure, or success.
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