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Bitter…or does Rafa Benitez have a point?

Former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has heavily criticised in his new book the club’s failure to invest off the back of finishing second to rivals Manchester United in the 2008-9 title race, arguing that owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett strangled the life out of the club just at a time when it looked as if they were prepared to finally end their 19-year drought for the league crown, but do his words carry any substance?

Liverpool were excellent throughout the 2008-9 campaign, the Spaniard’s second to last in charge and they will go down as one of the best teams never to win the Premier League and they were just two Federico Macheda swipes away from clinching a long overdue title triumph. However, in that summer Benitez has questioned the lack of investment and willingness to hand him a significant transfer kitty to work with and they went on to struggle the following season in the wake of Xabi Alonso’s departure, finishing seventh, a slump from which they are still trying to recover from, a full three years and two sacked managers later under Brendan Rodgers.

Benitez states in his book, currently being serialised by the Daily Mirror: “Attempting to work in the transfer market that summer was almost impossible,’ Benitez said in his new book being serialised in the Daily Mirror. We knew we would need cover and support for Fernando Torres, as David Ngog was still developing, and we had raised the cash to find it. The player we identified to fill that role was Stevan Jovetic, a young Montenegro forward playing for Fiorentina in Italy.

“The funds we thought we had available would also have stretched to another central defender, to provide cover for Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger. The two players we had identified were Sylvain Distin, then with Portsmouth, and West Ham’s Matthew Upson, both boasting abundant Premier League experience. Signing one of those two, plus the tall, powerful, intelligent Jovetic, would have given Liverpool the squad we needed to build on the previous year’s title challenge, when we had run Manchester United so close.

“Liverpool, though, was no longer a football club. It was a business. The money, which we wanted to use to take Liverpool on to the next level, was all gone. We would be punished for the disappearance of that money – and our failure to sign Jovetic – again and again that season. That was supposed to be our year, the season it all came together. Instead it was a long, hard campaign, a battle from start to finish. For five years I had been a football manager at Liverpool. By the start of my sixth, it was clear I had become something else entirely. I was suddenly supposed to be a bank manager. Decisions were being made to appease the banks, not the fans. That is how serious the situation with the owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, had become.”

Now, whenever we get into a debate about Rafa Benitez’s transfer business during his six-year spell at the club, we are inevitably sucked into a tiresome net spend circle of despair from which there is no return. His detractors will point to the fact that he spent significantly on the likes of Robbie Keane, Alberto Aquilani and Ryan Babel who failed to live up to the hype and their weighty fees, while pointing out a litany of other flops.

This is met with the equally predictable reaction whereby his supports, the ‘In Rafa We Trust’ brigade reasonably point to the continual need to balance the budget to an extent and the likes of Javier Mascherano, Martin Skrtel and Xabi Alonso. It’s a cyclical debate that nobody ever wins, but in this instance, it’s worth trying to see if his words stack up or are little more than a convenient re-writing of history?

The summer after 2008-9, Benitez spent £36m but recouped a further £44.6m, so for those net-spend fanatic out there, he brought in £8.6m more back into the club, so his claim that the spending taps were turned off is true to an extent as the previous five summer, Benitez had spent more than he brought back in. That figure is distorted somewhat by the sale of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid for £30m, after he was simply magnificent in his final season on Merseyside, seemingly trying to play himself in the shop window after being alienated by Benitez’s very public and ill-advised pursuit of Gareth Barry as his replacement.

The full effects of Alonso’s departure are still being felt today and Brendan Rodgers purchase of Joe Allen this summer can be seen as a deliberate attempt to address the side’s inability to keep the ball for prolonged spells like they used to at their best under Benitez. Moreover, the departure of Alvaro Arbeloa to Real Madrid for just £3.5m after the club let him run his contract run into its final year was also an act of gross negligence and shaped their transfer policy that summer to an extent too.

The problem was not only that Benitez wasn’t given extra funds, which as the above figures show, he wasn’t, it was also compounded by his failure to properly replace Alonso and miss out on Barry altogether, after he moved to Manchester City despite the previous summer’s saga. Instead, in what represented a huge risk and transpired to be a flawed approach, he took head scout Eduardo Macia’s advice (coincidentally, now at Aquilani’s new club Fiorentina in a similar role) to reinvest a large portion of the money in Aquilani, a player with a proven record of injury and who arrived off the back of a broken ankle the previous campaign.

Glen Johnson’s fee may have been £17.5m, but four years on and he’s still a mainstay in the side, so there’s at least some longevity to his acquisition and he’s plugged a gap at left-back extremely well whenever he’s been called upon too, although Liverpool were still owed a portion of Peter Crouch’s £10m fee, which was subsequently knocked off Johnson’s overall price.

While Aquilani, simplistically, played in a similar position to Alonso by virtue of the fact that they were both central midfield players, how they went about their roles was completely different in terms of style. The Italian was by no means a like-for-like replacement and his starting position was a full 15 yards or so further up the pitch and Liverpool, struggled, particularly on the road, to control games against lesser opposition like they had the year before.

We all know that the club was at one point just a day away from administration such was the financial burden placed on the club in the form of leveraged debt by both Hicks and Gillett, so in that respect, Benitez is entirely correct that the pot was empty and that they failed to capitalise on their success the previous season in the right way. However, he must also take a portion of the blame himself for underestimating how integral Alonso was to Liverpool’s style and not replacing him with a similar type of player, which affected the balance, tempo and shape of the side just as much.

As is often with these cases, it’s not simply a case of black and white; Benitez clearly did not want to leave the club that summer, particularly given that Hicks and Gillett had put the club up for sale. The budget had been tightened and reigned in to a much greater degree than in previous years and the working environment behind the scenes must have been poisonous, but that shouldn’t mean the 52-year old gets off scott free.

Whenever you spend £36m in any transfer window, you can hardly plead poverty; more should have been done, yes, but sometimes circumstance dictates that you have to work with what you’ve got more and Benitez didn’t adjust accordingly as well as may have been expected at the time in terms of who he actually did bring into the club.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that he was bitter still about the nature of his departure, it clearly still rankles and I wouldn’t bet against him returning to Anfield as boss again one day in the future. He’s been criminally underrated by most and he truly transformed the club in many ways. His comments do stand up to closer inspection in this instance, but should be taken with the caveat that he could have held up his own end of the bargain a tad better too, rather than simply pointing the finger elsewhere.

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Article title: Bitter…or does Rafa Benitez have a point?

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