"What do you mean you've hurt 'your' knee, it's Liverpool's knee" - Bill Shankly.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Why Liverpool's Rafa Benitez is a master tactician

Sep 19 2008 by David Prentice, Liverpool Echo

Rafa Benitez with Alex Ferguson during Liverpool's 2-1 victory over Manchester United at Anfield

WHAT constitutes a master tactician? The ability to make changes to the pattern of a match with influential substitutions is clearly one criterion.

And in Rafael Benitez, Liverpool possess the best Anfield has ever seen.

Ryan Babel’s goalscoring impact against Manchester United last Saturday was the 50th occasion Benitez has brought on a player who has scored.

Even given the increased number of substitutions in modern football, that’s a remarkable record.

To give that stat even greater resonance, on 12 separate occasions Benitez has made substitutions which have led to two or more goals – many from losing positions.

Cynics might suggest that the Reds boss sent out the wrong team in the first place. But I prefer the argument that there aren’t many better coaches in Europe at analysing the flow of a match and making the necessary switches which work.

Remember Olympiakos? Steven Gerrard’s late piledriver is the obvious memory, but without goals from supersubs Mellor and Pongolle that match-winner might have been meaningless.

Then there’s Kewell and Alonso scoring against Charlton to salvage a 2-2 draw, Crouch and Warnock against Fulham, Garcia and Cisse saving a draw at Birmingham, then Alonso and Biscan turning a 2-0 deficit at Fulham into a 4-2 win.

And none of them were even Benitez’s greatest switch.

Arguably the Reds’ manager’s most valuable intervention was the introduction of a player who didn’t score at all – not until a penalty shoot-out anyway.

Vladimir Smicer might have come on and scored in Istanbul, but it was Dietmar Hamann’s half-time introduction which swung the match back Liverpool’s way.

It’s just as easy to make a damaging switch as it is to introduce an effective change – as Sir Alf Ramsey discovered in Mexico, Howard Kendall at Wembley in 1986 and Gerard Houllier in Leverkusen.

But Benitez has, so far, managed to avoid that pitfall.

Even his controversial withdrawal of Steven Gerrard at Goodison Park for showing “too much passion” paid off.

The use of an impact substitute was a tactic whose effectiveness grew only stealthily.

It was first allowed in England in 1965, but only for injuries. Tactical switches were later allowed in 1967, increased to two changes 20 years later then, in 1995, increased to the current limit of three.

Predictably the influence of Anfield substitutes has grown with the times.

Bill Shankly made just 18 scoring switches in nine years, the last – in 1974 – resulting in a last-minute winner from Peter Cormack against Norwich.

Bob Paisley doubled that figure in eight years, but then he could call on the greatest Supersub of them all, David Fairclough, who scored 18 goals after stepping off the bench.

Joe Fagan did it three times, Dalglish 21, Souness 10 and Roy Evans 12, before the folly of a joint management team was exposed.

While Evans and Gerard Houllier argued amongst themselves about which subs to bring on, only Karl-Heinz Rieldle stepped off the bench to score during their joint stewardship.

Left to his own devices, Houllier introduced 40 scoring subs in five years, but that figure has already been eclipsed by Benitez in four years.

The Reds boss may have his faults, but the effective use of substitutes is not one of them.

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009