Are we witnessing a counter-Rafalution?
Most Liverpool fans still believe Rafael Benitez is a tactical genius. But the voices of dissent are increasing.
In Rafa we trust. That’s what Liverpool fans will tell you. Or at least that’s what they used to say. Until this season that is. Now there are audible voices of dissent.
Rafa hasn’t ‘lost the Kop’. Most Liverpool fans still believe in the Rafa-lution. But it’s evident from the message boards, football blogs and phone-ins that the counter-Rafalution is gaining support.
I’ll lay my cards on the table here. I don’t think Rafael Benitez is a tactical genius. Never have. He got lucky in the Champions League final in Istanbul in 2005. It wasn’t his rousing half-time pep talk that turned the game – Stevie Gerrard has said he can’t even remember what Benitez said. No, it wasn’t Rafa wot won it; it was AC Milan who threw it away. The Italian club’s extraordinary complacency and carelessness gifted the game to Liverpool.
Benitez’s early Liverpool teams rarely played expansive football. They defended well and counter-attacked at pace. It was a simple formula. Not particularly pretty to watch but very effective, particularly in Europe. The acquisition of Fernando Torres in 2007 has given Liverpool an attacking dimension which they didn’t have previously. Torres, for my money, is the best striker in the country, possibly the best in Europe. He conjures goals out of nothing. When Torres and Gerrard are fully fit and firing on all cylinders Liverpool are a match for any team.
Liverpool’s problem this season is that their two best players have been injured. Invariably, with Gerrard and Torres struggling for fitness, and their deep-lying playmaker Xabi Alonso sold to Real Madrid, Liverpool’s form has been erratic. The Premiership title is already looking a lost cause and their Champions League campaign is hanging in the balance. There are calls for the manager’s head. Here’s the rap sheet against Rafa:
1. The Premier League isn’t top priority.
The charge that Benitez knows how to navigate the Champions League but doesn’t ‘get’ the Premiership has been a recurring theme during his tenure at Anfield. Former Kop hero Ronnie Whelan was scathing about Benitez’s tactics after the 3-1 defeat at Fulham last Saturday. ‘It’s all gone wrong with the manager. He has shown today exactly where his priorities lie’, said Whelan. ‘He wants to win the European Cup so that he can get a job anywhere in Europe. For me now, his days have got to be numbered.’
2. He tinkers too much.
Squad rotation is one thing, but Benitez’s team selections have had fans and pundits alike scratching their heads. ‘Does he even know what his best team is? I don’t think so’, said Tony Cascarino. ‘And more often than not, his selection is not even near what many would consider to be his best. He makes Claudio Ranieri, the former Chelsea head coach and renowned ‘Tinkerman’, look positively conservative.’
3. He’s wasted money in the transfer market.
Since he became manager in 2004 Rafa has signed 79 players at an estimated cost of £256 million. You can’t argue with signings like Fernando Torres or Javier Mascherano. However too many of Rafa’s signings have failed to shine. ‘Benitez’s record with players signed for around £10m is not good’, said former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson. ‘My goodness, Benitez should get a revolving door for all the full backs he’s signed and have flopped. It’s frightening.’
4. Poor man-management.
Benitez isn’t an arm-round-the-shoulder sort of manager. Former Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant accused Rafa of being too ‘cold’. Andres Palop, the goalkeeper at Valencia during Rafa’s tenure, complained that: ‘Benitez is a great manager but, at a personal level, he leaves you feeling like you don’t even exist.’ Even Steven Gerrard has admitted that it took him some time get used to Benitez’s aloofness. Some have blamed Benitez’s man-management style for Gerrard’s flirtation with Chelsea and the departure of Xabi Alonso.
As I said, I’m no Rafa fan. His Liverpool team is occasionally exciting but mostly functional. Torres and Gerrard are fantastic players but you can keep the rest. Most of them wouldn’t even get a place on the Crystal Palace subs bench. OK, only joking, I’d probably have Mascherano. But the point is that I don’t buy into the cult of Rafa. However, I think it’s only fair to present the case for the defence. So, this is how Rafa would account for Liverpool’s current malaise.
1. An injury list as long as the Mersey Tunnel.
The first team squad has been decimated by injuries. Any club would suffer in those circumstances.
2. Yanks out.
Boardroom strife has undermined the Rafalutionary project. George Gillette and Tom Hicks haven’t stumped up the cash Rafa needs. They should bog off and let some filthy rich Arab bankroll the club.
3. Still playing catch-up.
Rafa argues that he needed a lot of money because the quality at all levels – from academy to first team – was so poor. By contrast Manchester United and Arsenal already have an infrastructure in place.
4. Making progress.
Rafa argues that Liverpool are making incremental progress in their Premier League campaigns. He’ll reel off all manner of statistics to prove it.
5. ‘When you walk through a storm hold your head up high’.
Rafa actually said this at a press conference this week. It’s not really an excuse but, when all else fails, play the populist Scouse card.
Convinced? Well, some of his points are valid. Liverpool are still playing catch-up and don’t have the spending power of Chelsea or Manchester City. However, even if you discount the youngsters he has signed who are not yet ready for first team action, there are still some very baffling transfer decisions. Andrea Dossena anyone?
The Robbie Keane affair was also head-scratchingly hard to fathom. Why didn’t Keane get a proper run in the first team? And why, having sold him back to Spurs, didn’t Benitez bring in a goal-scorer to deputise for Torres? Rafa can’t be blamed for the injury list, but the lack of cover for his star striker is entirely his fault.
But leaving aside his transfer decisions, the biggest problem, as I see it, is that Liverpool too often trip up against weaker Premiership teams. Whether it’s a lack of team spirit, an inability to motivate his players, or his stubborn insistence on using zonal marking to defend set pieces, it’s Benitez who has to take responsibility for this failing. Still think he’s a tactical genius? I’m not saying he should be sacked. But a little less blind faith and a little more healthy Rafa-scpeticism wouldn’t do any harm.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.