Forget Injuries And Owners, Focus On Rafa’s Baffling Decisions

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is considered a tactical magician, a master of European two legged ties and a target for big clubs like Real Madrid and Juventus. His success in Europe’s most prestigious club competition has effectively covered up for his complete failure in domestic competitions.

This season, again, Benitez has run out of domestic ammunition but this time around, he does not have his European weapon to fall back upon. Liverpool’s performances during the course of the season have been so dreadful that they can barely be classified as a ‘performance’. And the manager, not the owners, is to be blamed.

Let’s put aside, for now, the excuses which involve injuries and lack of transfer funds. Let’s just assume for whatever reasons, Rafa received the squad plus Xabi’s transfer money as a summer gift and also received regular setbacks in the form of injuries. It was up to him to make the best out of it. Could he have done better? The answer is an emphatic yes!

Transfer Market

Benitez used two-thirds of Xabi’s transfer money to sign Roma’s injured midfielder Alberto Aquilani. At the time of signing him, the club was well aware that the Italian will be out for at least three months at the beginning of the season. This clearly implied that Lucas, the star of pre-season, was thought to be good enough to fill the gap left in midfield – a judgment that has virtually cost the club its champions’ league spot.

Benitez also sold the reliable Alvaro Arbeloa and brought in Glenn Johnson to replace him, defying his own style of play which involves a solid defensive unit rather than attacking full-backs.

Where Art Thou Skipper?

The problems were clear on day one itself, at White Hart Lane. The midfield combination of Lucas and Mascherano lacked the creativity or simply, the ball skills to pass the ball forward with any conviction. The result was that they resorted to passing square, rather than forward, and the Gerrard-Torres duo was left frustrated without any service.

Amazingly, the same trend continued even at Anfield.Throughout the season, Benitez stuck with two defensive-minded midfielders for home games.

What should have been changed? Liverpool’s performances are directly affected by the involvement of Steven Gerrard, and the skipper should have been controlling the play alongside Mascherano rather than waiting for things to happen alongside Torres. One can understand Rafa’s reluctance to break up the devastating duo of Gerrard-Torres but the threat possessed by the pair was significantly reduced after Alonso’s departure.

The club needed its captain in a central midfield role and on the ball rather than as a second striker who faded in and out of games, yet this did not happen throughout the season until the final few minutes of matches which Liverpool weren’t winning – a classic example of which was at Bolton.

Symbol of Liverpool 2009/10

While Rooney’s sublime finishing represents the United of this season, Drogba’s powerful display represents Chelsea and Fabregas stands for Arsenal’s exquisite brand of football;  Liverpool’s symbol of their miserable season became Dirk Kuyt and appropriately so.

Football - Liverpool v Tottenham Hotspur Barclays Premier League

Dirk Kuyt – Rafa’s darling

Kuyt lacks technical ability, pops up occasionally with a scrappy goal, and does not have the pace to play as a winger. This must be the definition of Rafa’s perfect player because he is the first name on the team-sheet. Quite inexplicably, he has occupied the right wing for a large part of the season, which has left one wing position open for Riera, Benayoun, Maxi and Babel to fight for.

Team Selections

Rafa’s rotation and dumbfounding team selections have been a hallmark of his time in England. His inconsistency over the years in sticking to a regular line-up not only frustrated the players, but hardly gave them a chance to gel as a team.

He is the only manager in England who could provide ‘The Voronator’ with the amount of appearances he has this season. Voronin is the perfect example of ‘he’ in the phrase ‘He cannot hit a barn door from ten yards out’. Surprisingly, three days after another inept performance against Fulham, Rafa selected him ahead of Ngog in the starting line-up for Liverpool’s most crucial game of the season – away to Lyon. It took Rafa till Christmas to finally wake up, swallow his ego and delete Voronin from the squad.

Benitez’s mismanagement of Ryan Babel is a real mystery to everyone in the league. He was never drafted in the starting eleven even after a wonderful late cameo to  set up Torres’ winner at Upton Park. If that wasn’t enough evidence of the man’s ability, Babel’s moment of brilliance at Lyon would have kept Liverpool in the Champions League, if not for a late defensive lapse. Even after displays of pace, spark and an eye for goal, Babel has effectively played only six matches this season.

Away to Fiorentina, Benitez decided to start Fabio Aurelio in central midfield while Gerrard was again, on the periphery of the game, resulting into the club’s poorest Champions League performance under his reign.

In the away match against Reading, he unsuccessfully tried Aurelio at left wing while Babel’s confidence reached rock-bottom. At Stoke, he effectively played four full backs – persisting with left-back Aurelio on the left-wing and right-back Philip Degen at right-wing – while Maxi Rodriguez and Albert Riera sat on the bench.

The most inexplicable team selection, however, came in the first half of the season at Fratton Park. Liverpool’s failed left-back Andrei Dossena was handed a rare start on the left wing while Benayoun was left scratching his head on the bench.

Rafa’s ingenuity failed miserably on all above occasions; handing Liverpool a drubbing by The Viola, a dull draw at Stoke, a humiliating FA Cup exit to Reading and a miserable defeat to bottom of the table Portsmouth.

Cowardly Tactics

If it isn’t the Spanish manager’s starting eleven, he keeps every player on his toes with vague substitutions that not only flatter to deceive, but change the course of games for the worse.

When a Lyon side virtually without any centre-backs had equalised at Anfield in a crucial group stage encounter, Rafa replaced Liverpool’s goal scorer and their only goal threat in the match – Yossi Benayoun – with a centre-back. By doing so, he invited more pressure from the away side instead of playing like a home team, resulting into a stoppage time defeat to the french champions. Only the applause for the Israeli midfielder drowned out the whistles from the crowd.

At Fulham, Rafa virtually sacrificed the league title with an eye on Liverpool’s mid-week visit to Lyon. Two-thirds into the game, he substituted a distraught Fernando Torres at 1-1 and minutes later took Benayoun off at 2-1 down. In an uninspiring goalless draw at Ewood Park, he shockingly substituted Benayoun for El Zhar with twenty minutes to go.

After a calamitous season, there was still a chance for redemption – at the Emirates. A Liverpool team in better form faced an apprehensive Arsenal side which was low on confidence and fresh from defeats to United and Chelsea. With the game there for the taking, what was Rafa’s approach? He set up the side for a goalless draw, eventually conceding late and losing by a solitary goal.

Premier League: Arsenal 1 v 0 Liverpool

Diaby header sinks a defensive Liverpool at The Emirates

Abysmal performances against fourth-place rivals like Villa and City, and relegation-threatened teams like Wolves and Portsmouth, were characterised by complete absence of attacking intent.

It makes one wonder whether Liverpool’s all-attacking style at the end of last season was simply forced upon the manager due to circumstances? Since Benitez had the cushion of having already secured the champions’ league spot, he had no option but to go all out for the title. As a consequence, some devastating football was played at the club and Liverpool ended up top scorers in the league. The results were there to be seen, but the learnings were nil.

Time for a change

Over the years, Rafael Benitez has given the club plenty of wonderful memories – delight in Istanbul, joy at Wembley and the freedom of Old Trafford among wins at the Nou Camp, Bernabeu and The San Siro – but never has he given what is most desired by the people of Liverpool – ‘consistency’.

The all-promising but zero-delivering owners certainly haven’t helped and the injuries have added to the misery. But when you take into account the fact that money isn’t going to come overnight and injuries will always affect players, Liverpool need a new manager – a manager who sticks to a consistent line-up when he can, has no prejudice against a player and is able to produce results under the apparent financial restrictions of the club and the limitations of the squad.

It’s been five years for Rafael Benitez at the club, but it’s time for Liverpool to move on and look forward to a new beginning.

  • ThisisAnfield

    I second your argument, Rafa needs to go if Liverpool wants to increase the count to NINETEEN.

    Hell, he cam even take the 20 million pound Italian with him as a compensation. One stone, two birds.

  • Rohit

    @ThisisAnfield — The closest Liverpool’s come to no. 19 in a long long time was last season with Rafa at the helm… yes, this season has been a mess and it’s more disappointing because it comes right after a season where no. 19 nearly came.. there was belief at the beginning of this season which was shattered… to completely blame the very man responsible for that belief is unfair..

    @Author — It was pretty evident that Aquilani was brought in keeping in mind the next 5yrs rather than the immediate 3 months

    @Author — The heart Kuyt shows is what any manager would want.. hence he is the first name on the team sheet and deservedly say a player lacks technical ability and runs like a headless chicken may make an interesting read but can’t be casually used to describe any player who has the caliber to play in a top league or for his country.

  • @Rohit: Never said anything about him not being bought for five years but three months virtually meant sacrificing half-a-season without Aquilani and counting on Lucas being good enough to fill in for Xabi.

    @Rohit: Kuyt may play his heart out, but he only slows down Liverpool on the wings. He has put in average performances after average performances this season. He is a hindrance to Liverpool’s attack – very evidenced by the Portsmouth win.

    It was only Portsmouth, yes, but the flow on the wings would never be achieved with Kuyt. he does not provide enough width on the wings, nor does he have any crossing ability. Most of the times, he is just a right-back in an advanced role and keeps players with much better ability out of the team.

    When Liverpool has blatantly got striker problems, Kuyt should be used as a striker who defends from the front rather than a winger who doesn’t know where to run.

  • ashish sood

    man okai this is one of the most biased articles i have read in recent times….more like NDTV on NARENDRA MODI

  • ashish sood

    The heart Kuyt shows is what any manager would want.. hence he is the first name on the team sheet and deservedly say a player lacks technical ability and runs like a headless chicken may make an interesting read but can’t be casually used to describe any player who has the caliber to play in a top league or for his country. beautifully put….

    headless chicken kuyt? thats actually hilarious…..

  • crouchey

    The above comments are ridiculous. Let’s assume Kuyt is Messi….do you have anything to support Rafa for the other decisions mentioned in the article?

  • ToD

    If I get that kind of money, at least I will have the decency to play with my whole hearted effort…the concern that I understand from this article is on the ability part and not the effort.

  • Ben

    What Kuyt does for Liverpool is the same as what Park does for United but the latter does not play in every game. And if Kuyt is the first name on the team sheet, don’t u think that’s a major problem and this article is justified

  • ThisisAnfield

    @ all those Kuyt fans out there

    Take your Kuyt and your Rafa, and go support another club.

    This club does not need such players, such a manager and you fans. Are you blind or are you just pretending?

    I guess you are Mancs in disguise of a Red, supporting Rafa and his favorites, cause you know till the time this man is at the helm of Liverpool, the merseyside club will not win the league.

    @ Rafa

    For lords sake, QUIT.

  • Rohit

    @Akarsh — Yes, so Alonso’s exit and the coming of Aquilani were pretty much independent in that regard. No existing player could have possibly replicated Alonso’s class anyway.Xabi wanted to leave and he left.Such a player would be missed in any team. And Benitez sold Arbeloa because he wanted to go back to Madrid…again I don’t see why Rafa should be criticized for this.Johnson is an excellent Right Back..nothing wrong in getting him as a replacement for Arbeloa..

    @Akarsh — Hindsight is wonderful. Once a team starts doing badly its fairly easy to criticize absolutely everything..Kuyt has had many decent games playing the way he is used by Rafa..also Kuyt’s been used as a winger by the Dutch as well. His playing on the right is not some fixation that Rafa has that must be fulfilled at all costs.

    @ToD/Ben — don’t see what the money angle has to do with anything..pretty absurd.. .and the concern in the article is more towards berating him by the use of flowery words and making an interesting read rather than questioning his ability.

  • Ben

    @ Rohit: My concern is that a player with Kuyt’s ability should not be a sure shot starter in a big club like Liverpool. Sure, he has done well in some big games, but there are also games where he can go missing. For me, he is not the player who has to start in every game.

  • Gaurav

    Wonderful Article!!! Sumps tup Liverpool’s pathetic season…

  • rafa bashing is like the latest IN thing… so why not hop in and enjoy the ride???

  • Was that sarcasm dear Arun?

    There is a reason it is the ‘IN’ thing. The world can see it. Red-tinted glasses can’t.

  • yes my dear Akash.. that was dripping in sarcasm :)

  • ajoy b

    Till Rafa and Lucas are part of Liverpool I dont see a way back for the team. Honestly shocked at the downfall of the club’s fortune. And Mr Benitez and his crap strategy.

  • KS

    A new jerk reaction. That’s all I can say. Rafa bashing is the passion for plenty and prolly after last weekend’s debacle, a job for a few as well.

    Poor article. Pls do consider the players’ performances on the pitch as well. Last year when everything went well with the same tactics, Rafa was still the special one. Falters in a season, and out comes the swords and knives.

    By the way, as for team slection, ManUtd have far more changes in the playing XI than Liverpool.

    Rafa has made blunders but he is NOT the only one to take all the BLAME!!

  • @KS: Do you know what knee jerk means? A ‘knee jerk’ would have been after the first match at WHL, or the Villa defeat in the third game. This isn’t a knee jerk. This article has been written after Rafa’s poor management game after game after game, throughout the season.

    The difference between last and this season is Rafa did not have to refer to plan B. There weren’t many injuries – which means there weren’t many decisions for him to make.

    United make a lot of changes because they have the damn squad to do so. Rafa’s rotation without a squad is absolutely ridiculous. His substitutions are horrific. He has lost the dressing room. He has lost our skipper’s trust.

    Your ‘players’ performances’ argument would mean every manager will stay in his job till eternity. What performance did you expect from Voronin? Or Lucas replacing Alonso?

    Kindly read the article again, and tell me where i exaggerated anything.

    In fact, i just took this season as an example. His ridiculous decisions have been going on for 4-5 years.

  • And it’s taken him almost a full season to bring Gerrard back into midfield – realising he needs his best player to be involved. Gerrard has had a wonderful game or two, as opposed to the poor games he had before.