How much longer can Rafa be the Gaffer?
Liverpool’s poor season just keeps getting poorer, but the sulky Spaniard is clinging on to his job.
For Evertonians, it’s not been a great season so far. Key players – Phil Jagielka, Mikel Arteta, Joleon Lescott – have either been without working knees, or in the case of Lescott, seduced by the expensive denim on offer at Eastlands. Others, having returned from serious injury, still don’t look right – the striker Yakubu, for instance, once a fearsome combination of pace, power and finishing, is currently happier doing an impression of a man pulling an invisible caravan. Unsurprisingly, Everton have struggled near the wrong end of the table. Yet, amidst the gloom, there has been one shaft of light for Everton fans: the desperate plight of Liverpool Football Club.
If it wasn’t a goal being scored against them by an LFC-merchandised balloon, it was a humiliating reverse in the Champions League. It’s been the tale of Liverpool’s season: for every impressive performance – beating and outplaying Manchester United, or nicking an away win against a very good Aston Villa side – there’s been several jaw-droppingly awful ones – scraping a draw at home to Birmingham City, or losing away to bottom-of-the-table Portsmouth. And, on Wednesday, to crown a season of ever-lowering expectation, Liverpool were dumped out of the FA Cup. At Anfield. By Reading – a team lying twenty-first in the Championship. As one disconsolate fan put it: ‘Just another footnote in the essay of wank that is the 2009/2010 season.’
Liverpool’s wretched season so far – a season at the start of which fans and pundits alike predicted (as they always do) a challenge for the league title – would usually have been enough in itself to warm the hearts of even the bitterest of blue. But, incredibly, there’s been something more to enjoy, too: the performance of Liverpool manager Rafael ‘Rafa’ Benitez, a man who seems to be unravelling almost as quickly as Liverpool’s season.
Benitez has never been one to keep his emotions in check. Past interviews or press conferences, especially if he feels a tad under pressure, have frequently caught him at his sulky best. In 2007, having learnt that Liverpool’s American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillette, were not going to give him loads of wad to spend on Spanish left-backs, Benitez decided he was going to answer all questions about his relationship with Hicks and Gillette with the single line, ‘As always I am focused on training and coaching my team’. This he did 14 times. It would have been Samuel Beckett-like, were it not for the fact he looked like he was going to cry.
This season, the wibbling self-pity has come increasingly to the fore. In the aftermath of Liverpool’s loss to Portsmouth a few weeks ago, a game in which midfielder Javier Mascherano was sent off for trying to separate a limb from its owner, Benitez fell into his default ‘spoilt child’ setting. Asked about the officiating, Benitez responded: ‘The referee was perfect.’ Asked about the sending off, Benitez responded: ‘The referee was perfect.’ Detecting just a hint of sarcasm, the interviewer pushed Benitez further. ‘The referee was perfect’, he responded. No wonder arch wind-up merchant Sir Alex Ferguson called him ‘disturbed’.
Benitez is not limited to pushing the boundaries of dialogics, however; he’s also adept at passing the buck. This season he’s blamed, in no particular order: the fact that other teams score late goals; lack of money to spend compared to other teams; and injuries to the team’s star players Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard. The problem with all of Benitez’s excuses, as enjoyable as they are, is that at root, they all relate to Benitez’s failings. Late goals might be deemed bad luck, but, given their frequency, bad defending (and tactics) might have something to do with it, too. As for injuries, that Liverpool rely so heavily on just two players, often to the extent that they’re played when clearly injured, is testament to his failure to sign players who can contribute something meaningful.
This is a failure that is definitely not due to a lack of finance. In fact, since 2004/05, the season Benitez joined Liverpool, they have the third highest yearly net spend out of all Premier League clubs, averaging nearly £19million a year (1). Only Manchester City who are spending nearly £37million a year, and Chelsea with £24million a year flash more cash. (Admittedly Manchester United might well be higher if it wasn’t for the fact they sold his preening pranciness Ronaldo to Real Madrid for £80million last summer, with only a Wigan winger, a couple of cheap unknowns, and the Meccano kit that is Michael Owen coming in return.) To give you a better idea of the advantage that should have given Liverpool over most of the league, the majority spend something between £4million a year and nothing. And, in the case of Arsenal, who scour the world for the most talented fetuses, before selling them on at a later date, they’ve actually made a net profit on transfers.
So what exactly has Benitez got to show for his dough? Here’s just a sample of some his signings: £4.5million for Mark Gonzalez, £7million for Jermaine Pennant (with or without his prison early-release electronic tag), £9million for Dirk Kuyt, £7million for Andrea Dossena, £3.5million for Diego Cavalieri, £25million for Torres. His transfer policy has certainly been unorthodox: ship in a cartload of manure, and every now and again buy a bona fide world beater, the most obvious being Torres. The problem with this, as Liverpool fans have seen this season, is that aside from Gerrard, Torres, and occasionally Yossi Benayoun, the dung tends to stink the gaff out.
And yet despite what looks recently like unequivocal failure from a man far too happy to blame others, Liverpool fans still don’t seem desperate to rid themselves of the Rafatollah. They might not quite worship him the way they did after 2005’s unlikely Champions League success, but given his team’s and his own collapse this season, you’d think the outcry from the stands would be overwhelming. But it’s not, with the hapless owners, Hicks and Gillette, coming under far more, albeit deserved, fire.
Don’t get me wrong, as an Everton fan, I’d love to see Benitez see out his five-year contract. Heck, give him an extension. But surely there must be someone out there who could do a better job. Someone who, with Liverpool’s fan base and Benitez’s level of spending, could win the premier league – not least because they’ve done it before. Someone who thinks the world of Steven Gerrard. Someone whose admiration for the Liverpool Way once prompted him to say ‘I loved the way Liverpool played in the 1970s and 1980s. I loved Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Phil Thompson, Ray Clemence and Ian Rush. Now I want the same success.’ Someone currently plying his trade in Milan…
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Duleep Allirajah is away.
(1) See Transfer League here.
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