Thanks to the work of the English media, Liverpool can now count themselves lucky to have been pointed to the shortcomings of an inadequate manager, one with no proven record of buying quality players, one deemed to be entirely bereft of motivational skills and one without the ability to improve teams. Luckily, Liverpool saw the metaphorical iceberg and dismissed the manager who had left the club “in their worst state since Bill Shankly arrived at the club more than 50 years ago.” Unsurprisingly, this ‘fat Spanish waiter’ has landed himself a job managing Italian minnows Inter Milan, a side who only managed to win three pieces of silverware last season.
Whilst you may have detected the merest hint of sarcasm in my tone, the above paragraph highlights the unrelenting stream of bile that recently departed Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has been subject to over the course of the last season. Whilst I admit that the manager was partly responsible for the side’s worst season in ten years, one cannot help but feel that Benitez’s Anfield legacy may be unfairly tainted by the blinkered portrayal of his reign put forth by large portions of the English media.
Yes, last season was bad. Losing nineteen games, failing to progress beyond the Champions League group stage, losing to Reading in the FA Cup and finishing seventh represent somewhat of a recent nadir for a club so accustomed to success. However, focusing on the ills of last season consequently ignores all the good that Rafa Benitez achieved, as well as dismissing the notion that ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’.
Whilst the side’s legendary Champions League triumph of 2005 is affectionately referred to as ‘The Miracle of Istanbul’, it truly is astonishing when you consider what Benitez managed to achieve with such a comparatively poor team. The fact that he managed to win the Champions League utilising the mediocre likes of Djimi Traore, Igor Biscan and Vladimir Smicer clearly pays testament to Benitez’s motivational skills, an area in which Benitez is said to be weak. Unlike the likes of Harry Redknapp and Sir Alex Ferguson, Benitez is thought to be less prone to using praise as a means of motivating his players; this admission has frequently been used as a stick to beat the Spaniard.
However, the media fail to note how Benitez’s style of man-management, which consistently demands ‘more’ from his players, is heavily responsible for the stellar growth and development of both Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard. Prior to Benitez’s arrival, Steven Gerrard had never scored more than ten goals in one season. Since 2004/05, Gerrard has scored more than ten goals in each season, breaking the 20-goal mark in three of Benitez’s six seasons at Anfield. Fernando Torres, a player who failed to score more than 13 goals from open play in one season during his time at Atletico Madrid, has thrived since working under Rafa Benitez.
The Spanish striker has acknowledged this, telling the Guardian “He tries to improve every minor detail and movement you carry out during the course of a game and he also explains the reasons behind his decisions. He’s obsessed that you understand what you are doing and why. He’s not happy that you do things just because he tells you that something has to be done. He says: ‘Do it like this. Do you understand why you are being told to do so? No? We’ll go through it again then.”
Aside from perpetuating the myth that Benitez lacks motivational skills, several pundits have stated that the current Liverpool squad, crafted by the Spaniard, is worse than the one he inherited from predecessor Gerard Houllier. Onetime Liverpool manager Graeme Souness noted, “When you look at the squad now, I think it’s actually worse off than it was when he first took it over.”
Can anyone honestly say that they would trade the likes of Torres, Reina, Lucas, Kuyt and Benayoun for Cisse, Dudek, Diao, Diouf and Kewell? Aside from the losses of Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa, Liverpool’s current squad is virtually identical to the squad that failed to win the league by just four points in 2009/10. How can such a title-chasing squad be considered anywhere near as abject as the one left by Gerard Houllier?
Without wanting to reignite the debate concerning Rafael Benitez’s net spend in comparison with other Premier League managers, I feel that his transfer record is unfairly castigated amongst observers of the game. Souness, a man who stakes a genuine claim to the mantle of ‘the worst Liverpool manager in the last 50 years’, said of Benitez that, “He was there six years and made a net spend of around £140m but only signed two players who I would regard as truly world class – Fernando Torres and Jose Reina. To have spent the kind of money he has and only come up with two players is an awful indictment and ultimately doomed him.” Fellow former Red Alan Hansen has also blasted Benitez’s recent buying policy. Speaking of the signings of Fernando Torres, Javier Mascherano and Glen Johnson, the Match of the Day pundit said “they were all big-money buys and players of proven quality.”
Jose Reina (bought for £6m in 2005), was a virtual unknown when arriving in England, and is now considered to be the best goalkeeper in the Premier League and amongst the five best goalkeepers in the world. As highlighted above, Torres was hardly prolific during his days in Spain – spending a record fee of £26m on an unproven foreign forward was a risky move for Benitez, but one that has been proven right (and then some). Despite being a prominent member of the Argentina squad, Mascherano was languishing in West Ham reserves; now the diminutive anchorman is coveted by the likes of Barcelona and Inter Milan. These three signings have all vindicated Benitez’s beliefs and foresight in the transfer market.
Understandably critics point to the questionable £20m signing of Robbie Keane, but how many managers would have been willing to make such a bold decision in selling such an expensive acquisition just six months after signing him? Whilst many still lambast Benitez for the Keane affair, the media choose to forget how Benitez cleverly sold Keane at a time when he could still make most of his money back on the Irishman. Robbie Keane’s dramatic fall from grace since 2009 shows how Benitez anticipated the decline in the Tottenham man’s career a long time before most (conversely, the media have chosen to refrain from criticising Harry Redknapp for his treatment of Robbie Keane since bringing him back to White Hart Lane).
Despite the issues mentioned above, what irks me the most is when people claim that Benitez didn’t make any progress at the club. Aside from the two Champions League finals (2005 and 2007) and the FA Cup triumph of 2006, Benitez’s tenure at Anfield saw Liverpool break the record for highest points tally for a third-placed team (82 points in 2005/06) and highest points tally for a second-placed team (86 points in 2008/09). His seasons at Anfield between 2004 and 2009 saw year-by-year progress, with last season’s poor showing representing a blip.
With Benitez’s departure still a current issue, many sentiments concerning the departed Spaniard emanating from the press have been knee-jerk and reactionary, much like the majority of media coverage concerning Benitez during his time at Anfield. Once the dust has settled, I sincerely hope and believe that Benitez’s Liverpool legacy will reflect the truly positive impact he had at Anfield.
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