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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.