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

Friday, October 29, 2010

Rafa Benitez not to blame for Liverpool FC's awful start


NOT since William Shakespeare transformed Richard III into a deformed hunchback has a figure endured as much revisionism at the hands of English writers as Rafa Benitez. As Liverpool manager, Benitez once quipped that he was “blamed for everything, for global warming to high petrol prices”. It is only since he left Anfield, however, that the real finger-pointing began.

Even Benitez’s most ardent supporter – which this observer certainly was not – would concede that the Inter Milan boss made a series of mistakes in his final years on Merseyside, that contributed to Liverpool missing out on the title in 2009 (albeit with a club record Premier League points haul) and the top four last season. His greatest blunder, though, appears to have been failing to play the game of the English Press, who have assigned culpability for Roy Hodgson’s abysmal start to Benitez.

Tellingly, the Spaniard endured harsher Fleet Street criticism when guiding Liverpool to the summit of the Premier League in 2008 than his successor did after leaving the club second from bottom following a humiliating 2-0 Merseyside derby defeat. Apparently, it’s not the Londoner’s fault that Liverpool have made their poorest start to a top-flight campaign since they were relegated in the 1950s. Forget the regressive tactics, the defeatist press conferences, spending close to £10m on Paul Konchesky and Christian Poulsen or playing his marquee signing, Raul Meireles, out of position.

No, if you believe everything you read in the national papers, Liverpool are sat in the bottom three because of Benitez’s record in the transfer market and the quality of the squad he left behind. This despite the former Valencia coach leaving behind 13 players who featured for their countries during this summer’s World Cup and three signings in Pepe Reina, Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano considered to be among the finest in their position in the game. And as pointed out in this column last week, nine players who featured in the 4-1 victory over United at Old Trafford are still in Liverpool’s ranks.

Admittedly, Benitez was a deeply frustrating figure who made a handful of questionable decisions in the transfer market. Forcing the exit of Xabi Alonso, who was key to his favoured 4-2-3-1 system favoured, ranks among his worst – as does his choice for the Basque’s replacement, Alberto Aquilani. But Aquilani – currently impressing at Juventus – was only a poor buy because he was unavailable until late in the season after undergoing ankle surgery in the May.
And it wasn’t Benitez who sent him back to Italy on loan for a season after the Anfield medical team had nursed him back to full fitness, while spending what little money was available on a player who occupies the same position.

When a player left Liverpool under the Madrid-born coach it was often at a profit, something which is usually ignored by when assessing his transfer record. Like the concept of net spend. His critics use the high turnover of players during his tenure as a stick to beat him with, while arguing the irrelevance of transfer funds received. To borrow a line from the excellent Liverpool FC writer Paul Tomkins, when you tell someone how much your house cost you don’t tell them the sum of every property you have ever bought. And Benitez traded at a significant profit during his final 18 months in charge, as the Amercians' debts began to bite.

Tom Hicks and George Gillett's destabilising effect on the club is seemingly a legitimate excuse for Hodgson's failure but not Benitez's.

The 50-year-old should be remembered as a Liverpool legend after delivering the Champions League in 2005 and assembling the best Reds side for 20 years, yet there are individuals seemingly intent on destroying his legacy. At the root of this revisionism is the usual mix of xenophobia and patriotism, a resentment of foreign coaches taking the top Premier League jobs – regardless of their pedigree – and a desire to see English bosses get their chance. Again, regardless of their pedigree – see Hodgson. Remember the fuss when Roberto Mancini replaced Mark Hughes at big spending Manchester City after 18 months of underachievement?

There’s also a less noble motivation behind these journalists wanting British bosses in charge of the elite clubs – they tend to be more open to the Press. In his entire six-year Anfield stay, Benitez granted just one exclusive interview with a national, The Times. It’s not that the Spaniard treated the media poorly. Regardless of however intense the interrogation became, Benitez would almost always respond politely and with a smile, no matter how rude his inquisitor.

Something which can’t be said of the tetchy Hodgson. Every question, no matter how simple, is met with “what do you mean by that, what are you trying to say?”. An element of his ill temper can be explained away by his inability to cope with the pressure of the Anfield hotseat. But Scandinavian and Italian journalists report similar experiences, even during the good times, and have expressed bemusement at his portrayal as an English gentleman on these shores. Indeed, his derisory comments about the abilities of La Liga and Champions League-winning coach Frank Rijkaard, after the Dutchman was linked to the Liverpool job, were pitiful.

Hodgson would swap all of his trophies won in the backwaters of Europe for just one of the former Barcelona coach’s.
Liverpool fans would happily trade Hodgson for Rijkaard.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Potemkin league

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Monday, October 11, 2010

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Tactics: Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City: A Tactical Breakdown

Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City: A Tactical Breakdown

October 7, 2010
By Rob McDonald

Robert Mancini has long championed the notion of universality within a football team and he is trying to implement his ideals into his Manchester City side: basically creating a fluid 4-2-3-1/4-3-3/4-2-4/4-5-1 depending on the context of the game.

Defensively the shape is relatively normal for teams within the modern game, with a cohesive back 4 playing with (typically) Nigel De Jong and Gareth Barry in front of them. The full backs have license to push forward and provide width as there is cover for them to do so, Gareth Barry plays a very English version of a regista whilst Nigel De Jong is a typical midfield destroyer.

Ahead of these 6 is where Manchester City differ from other teams. They play with a very fluid front 4, comprising of a false 9 with two players either side and then someone as the front pivot of the midfield triangle.

The roles of these 4 change within the pattern of play:

When the team loses the ball the forward will push up against the centre backs and play as a number 9 whilst the “wingers” fall back and help defend. The midfield pivot will defend which ever flank is being attacked, basically providing a one-man shield in front of Barry and De Jong, or the full back. In essence, they fall into what is a very defensive minded 4-5-1 and one that is difficult to break down - as Chelsea recently found.

However when the team is attacking we see the systematic lay out of a centre forward, an attacking midfielder, a trequartista (or rather a very 21st century version of one) and a winger. These roles are inter-changeable within the framework of the side, with the idea being to cause the defending side a problem inasmuch as it is very difficult to know who or how to mark them. Essentially, all 4 players are deemed capable enough of playing any of these 4 roles. Whether Manchester City do indeed have 4 players who can play all 4 roles is obviously a different question.

In spite of this, however, Manchester City aren’t a very romantic side to watch, they are indeed very pragmatic. Mancini’s ideology seems to be to wear teams down, in a similar way to Rafael Benitez, with developed patterns of play and essentially oppressing the opposition defence into giving up chances, rather than through creative endeavour.

The two most interesting aspects of the attacking tactics used by Mancini are the attempted re-development of two footballing traditions that are, seen to be, dying off. The first of these is the usage of a trequartista.

(For the sake of clarification I’m going to be running on the assumption of David Silva playing as a ‘right winger’ and Carlos Tevez as a ‘centre forward’)

David Silva’s role within this front 4 is to drift in field and to create opportunities for his other attacking team-mates. His drifting in from the right helps to defeat the age-old problems of the trequartista, namely that he gets marked out of games and thus the teams creative force is shut down. Of course, within Mancini’s universality Silva isn’t the only player who fulfils this role. Carlos Tevez regularly drops into the space in front of the centre backs and helps to create chances for his team-mates, which affords David Silva the opportunity to put himself forward into more advanced and dangerous areas.

One of Manchester City’s main drawbacks so far this season has been that in many instances Yaya Toure has wound up in a enganche-esque position and, although he is a talented player, he is not a natural born creator and causes attacks to stagnate when he finds himself in this position.

One of the pivotal natures of the trequartista is for him to be in that space and for him to have other players to create for, so when Yaya Toure gets the ball in this position Tevez and Silva’s natural inclinations are to get forward, leading to these situations where a player who isn’t naturally creative is left in charge. And even if Silva or Tevez did drop deep to collect the ball, they find themselves dropping into a part of the pitch which is stifled by defending players who will be drawn to Yaya Toure.

A lot of credence has been paid to Adam Johnson’s recent omissions from sides in favour of David Silva, but the fact he doesn’t contribute as much creativity as Silva means he will probably be restricted to an impact sub role under Mancini. He is too one-dimensional to function within such a fluid sytem that has the directive of being inter-changeable, and Johnson’s Robben-lite abilities may prove to be his un-doing in the long term.

The other role that is being reincarnated in this system is that of a box-to-box midfielder with Yaya Toure taking on a great deal of attacking intent as well as defensive workload. Even though Toure doesn’t necessarily get into the box as much as a typical box-to-box midfielder he is a vital prong of the Manchester City attack. His physicality combined with a fairly deft touch for such a big man provides Manchester City something they do lack when going forward, and that is presence, especially when – for instance – Tevez, Silva and Johnson line up for them. An increased onus may be placed on Toure as time wears on to push forward into the box. He certainly has the athletic ability to do so and provide a big problem for defences if he arrives at the right time. It certainly seems to be an answer as he doesn’t have the right characteristics to play in the enganche position he regularly seems to find himself in at the moment.

One of Roberto Mancini’s biggest problems over the course of the season is going to be justifying his methods if City falter. With playing a formation that can be essentially seen as playing one or no striker at all he is going to be wide open to flak from the media and fans alike if the goals dry up, especially if he does continue to sideline Adam Johnson for his direct nature, which seems to have made him the new darling of the English game. That said, one can only imagine that they will become a much more potent entity once you put Mario Balotelli and Aleksander Kolarov into the mix.

The new, submissive Liverpool FC under Roy Hodgson


There has been an ever-increasing amount of hot air and bluster surrounding Liverpool Football Club these past few years. The club has been a well-documented mess behind the scenes under the stewardship of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, with fans veering between despair and fury from moment-to-moment. But with the dark days of Hicks-Gillett apparently about to end, full focus can return to matters on the pitch.

The purpose of this piece is to attempt to present a rational analysis of what has been happening on the pitch so far this season, and how the tactical approach during the nascent Roy Hodgson era contrasts to Rafael Benitez’s side. Of course, the use of the word ‘nascent’ is pertinent as it is very early into the new manager’s reign, but early tactical trends displayed are consistent with Hodgson’s M.O. Moreover, Hodgson might not last long enough at the helm to warrant long term analysis.

Off The Ball

Earlier this season Andy Gray remarked that Liverpool’s set-up under Hodgson thus far was not too dissimilar to Benitez’s approach - two holding midfielders, with an advanced midfielder behind a single forward. In a crosses marked on a blackboard approach to presenting formations, this is correct. However, herein lies the danger of reducing formations to a series of numbers and dashes, whether it be 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, and so on. Two teams featuring the same names placed into the same framework can still be markedly different from one another in practice.

Both Benitez and Hodgson generally set up their sides in variations on 4-2-3-1/4-4-2/4-4-1-1, but there are key distinctions to be made. The biggest difference between the two managers’ approaches is in how they set up their team off the ball.

Now, at this point I feel it worth noting that I agree with the broad assertion that both managers are defensive-minded by nature. (Although I’d also like to note that Andy Gray’s assertion before the Manchester City match that Roy Hodgson was about to “let the reds off the leash” by fielding two strikers in that game was laughable. However, the “two strikers = more attacking” debate is one for another day.) Yet there is more than one way to stop the opposition, and the two managers are quite different on that front.

During these early days Hodgson’s Liverpool have set up with a compact defensive line that has never strayed too far away from the 18 yard line, with a compact midfield four not too far ahead. Then, one of Fernando Torres or David Ngog has led the line, with a revolving list of second strikers supporting. One thing that has been notable in these early days is the large gap between the team’s striking spearhead and everybody else on the pitch, though this is something I will return to later on.

When off the ball, Hodgson’s side retreats deep into its own half and forms a narrow double barrier of midfield and defence in front of the opposition. Possession is ceded, and the onus is placed upon the opposition to penetrate these two static lines. One thing Hodgson’s sides do not tend to engage in is pressing the opposition, as Danny Murphy’s quotes comparing the approaches of Hodgson and new Fulham boss Mark Hughes reveal:

“Off the ball [under Hughes] maybe we’re trying to win it a bit higher up the pitch, maybe take a few more risks. With Roy we tended to drop off more and fill in the gaps.”

The rationale for this kind of approach is simple: when you do it well, and your side maintains its shape, it can be incredibly difficult for opposition teams to break you down. Teams cannot get in behind your defence through the centre with a ball played over the top, it requires great passing, movement and technique to play through your defence on the ground, and - providing you have defenders who are strong in the air - you’re well equipped to deal with crosses from teams that will attack you from out wide.

Comparatively, while similarly concerned with stopping the opposition as a first priority, Benitez’s Liverpool had a tendency to press teams aggressively as a means of preventing the opposition from playing through them. Greatly influenced by Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan side, Benitez liked his team - remaining compact in terms of the distance between defence, midfield and attack - to squeeze up against their opponents while out of possession. For every negative pass played by the opposition, the team was to push forward as one block, with the relatively positioned player systematically closing down the man in possession.

However, this wasn’t exclusively the team’s way of working off the ball, with Benitez - like Sacchi - prizing adaptability and game intelligence above all other characteristics. Thereby there would be situations where the team would retreat into a half-press, limited to their own half, with the pressing forwards and midfielders withdrawing again when the ball was played back into the opposition’s half. This would usually be utilised when already leading a match, with the aim of conserving energy and drawing the opposition forward in order to counter-attack quickly. Similarly, the team could also retreat deep in a style similar to Hodgson’s side when circumstances dictated and the team was under pressure. Another method of defending more readily used by Benitez’s side when possible was by maintaining possession for long periods, though this approach was hindered when the side lost Xabi Alonso.

But what is clear is that more so than Hodgson, Benitez tended to mix up the team’s approach to defending, depending on the opposition’s characteristics or in-game circumstances.

The Turnover and Problems Faced

One area of similarity between both managers, though, is the use of the counter as a primary mode of attack in open play. It is in the moments after the turnover of possession when their sides will seek to exploit the opposition’s vulnerability.

For Benitez, this approach was most memorably effective in high-profile Champions League home games against the likes of Real Madrid (2009) and Juventus (2005). Against high profile, technically proficient (and arguably stronger, at least on paper) teams, Liverpool pressed hard and high up the pitch, challenging aggressively for any second balls, with the attacking midfielders quickly supporting the line-leading striker. Opponents that were used to easily dominating possession in matches were rushed into giving the ball away in dangerous areas.

The key here for Benitez’s side was in the fact that the turnover of possession was happening in close proximity to the opposition’s goal, increasing the likelihood of creating goalscoring opportunities. Liverpool were able to exploit the disorganisation their high pressing caused defensively as opposition players were found off-guard and out-of-position.

Of course, these are very famous individual examples, reflecting some of Benitez’s greatest successes. However, that is not to say that Liverpool under Benitez could generally be regarded of proponents of swashbuckling, aggressive football. There were many occasions when Liverpool struggled and were poor when in possession, despite being excellent at recovering it. Moreover, the side had real problems in creatively overcoming lesser opponents.

It was against those sides that would readily cede possession to Liverpool and sit back that Benitez’s side mostly struggled. When playing against ‘superior’ opposition and taking the role of underdog, the team could use the pressing and counter-attacking approach to good effect. Against sides that would ‘park the bus’, the team - not always blessed with great, creative or pacey individuals - would struggle to make attacking inroads. More often than not their superiority would tell, but in cases where they couldn’t score the goal that would draw opponents out of their deep, defensive shape, Liverpool would find themselves drawing matches they would be expected to win - sometimes even losing to a sucker-punch goal or two.

Hodgson’s side, by contrast, are set up in much the same way as the opponents that have so frustrated Liverpool for many years. With a deep defensive line and a lack of pressure on the ball, the side must rely on a more direct approach or set pieces when looking to attack the opposition’s goal. Whereas before, when Pepe Reina would pick up a loose ball from an opposition attack, the team would quickly push forward, with two players taking up advanced wide positions on either side for a quickly distributed kick or throw. Now, the team seems stuck in its deep, compact shape - with the wide players tucked in, and Fernando Torres often the lone central target for any kind of direct distribution.

This role - that of a hold-up target man - doesn’t especially suit Torres. While he is capable of holding the ball up, he is at his best when facing the opposition’s goal. This goes without saying how 3 years of solid football appears to have sapped his physical power. Indeed, in the summer Hodgson spoke of seeking to buy a striker “of a certain profile”. The fact that Liverpool were so heavily linked to the likes of Carlton Cole and Mario Gomez suggests that Hodgson wanted a more powerful target man type - someone who could play with his back to goal and hold the ball up, while the deeper, narrower midfield caught up with the play.

This was how Fulham operated under Hodgson, with Bobby Zamora able to receive long balls upfield with his back to goal and hold the ball up. Daniel Agger was allegedly quoted recently as saying that Hodgson likes to “play football in attack, but not at the back”. Though possibly misquoted or set up by the Danish press, the intimation is that defenders are to recover possession and get the ball forward quickly and directly, from where moves can be built. If this is indeed the case, it would lend weight to the idea that Hodgson requires a target man, as well as offering some understanding to Liverpool’s attacking problems this year.


Further problems to be found with this approach continue to reveal themselves with every stuttering, disjointed Liverpool performance. Roy Hodgson inherited a team that was very good at recovering possession quickly - never allowing opponents to find any rhythm - but sometimes poor when faced with teams that wouldn’t play into their counter-attacking strengths. Hodgson’s tactics have taken away the team’s greatest strength, and compounded their greatest weakness.

In the second game of the season against Manchester City, it was quite astonishing to see a Liverpool side allow its opponents free rein in midfield. By offering no pressure while out of possession the team looked all-at-sea defensively, and for the first time in a long time we saw a Liverpool side passively allow the other side as much time and space as they liked in the first two thirds of the field. Daniel Agger, makeshift and concussed at left-back, was repeatedly embarrassed by Adam Johnson. Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry and Nigel De Jong bypassed Lucas and Steven Gerrard at will in midfield. It was the worst performance by a Liverpool team off the ball I have seen in five or six years (though there have been many bad ones on the ball in that time).

And with the shift to a deeper defensive line and narrower team set-up, Liverpool’s problems in attack have been made even worse. Much has been made of Fernando Torres’ problems with form and fitness, and those points are very valid. But arguments against Torres’ attitude and body language must take into account how isolated he has become from his team mates. Torres is now only receiving high, difficult balls, playing almost exclusively with his back to goal and being expected to attack teams on his own when he is - as mentioned - half fit and out-of-form.

One of the players bought to help Liverpool overcome their attacking deficiencies, Glen Johnson, is looking more confused and drained of confidence by the game. Johnson is never likely to win any plaudits as a great defender, but last season he was one of Liverpool’s strongest attacking outlets. Playing in a deeper, more rigid team he appears unsure of whether he should move forward or stay back, attack wide or move centrally. Prior to this season Johnson was occasionally liable to attack through the centre of the field to good effect, knowing that someone would move into a position on the right in order to offer an outlet out wide. Now, with Liverpool’s wide players remaining tucked inside (unsurprising, when central-midfielder Raul Meireles is used as a right-midfielder), Johnson’s occasional central forays are only serving to congest and narrow the play.


As stated at the beginning of this article, there remains some question over whether Roy Hodgson will be allowed to remain in his position if results and performances continue to slide. Fan unrest - unusually for Liverpool fans - is quickening. Many are still upset at Benitez’s departure. But regardless, with Liverpool currently in the relegation places and the ownership situation appearing to be drawing to a close, scrutiny of the team’s - and manager’s - performances will only increase from here.

Many have argued that Hodgson needs time and financial backing in order to get the team performing again. Many have argued that he is only picking up the pieces of Benitez’s supposedly failed reign. But the fact remains that Hodgson has inherited a team that - by and large - has been expected and used to being the dominant side in matches. Benitez’s greatest feats were in those games when his side weren’t expected to be dominant, instilling a belief that the team could beat any opponent through intelligence, adaptability and unity. However, Hodgson is now setting up the team to approach every game as the underdogs, no matter the opposition - attempting to ‘park the bus’ in front of teams that would expect to ‘park the bus’ themselves. The team is in the process of losing its identity.

With time and money, Hodgson’s vision for the Liverpool team could be fulfilled, but the question many Liverpool fans will continue to ask is: would it be a vision worth seeing?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Nice Man; Wrong Job?


My new book ranks managers in a unique way: amongst other things, working out how much it cost them to win each point, in relation to the expense of team they sent out in every single one of their games.

In reference only to Premier League games, it shows that Graeme Souness did a great job at Blackburn. (He even won the League Cup, but we looked only at the league.)

It shows that, in the end, Roy Hodgson did a terrible job at Blackburn (the worst relegation ever, for which he was largely responsible, as the man who guided the team to just one win in their first 14 games).

It shows that Souness did a terrible job at Newcastle (and Liverpool, but you knew that already).

It shows that Hodgson did a great job at Fulham. (But not better than Chris Coleman, incidentally.)

Above all else, we highlight, time and time again, examples of good managers faltering when asked to manage bigger clubs.

In his last 21 league games at a club expected to finish in the top six (Blackburn and Liverpool), Hodgson has won a measly two. Two wins. He left Blackburn when they were rooted to the bottom; he currently has Liverpool in the relegation zone.

But Roy seems oblivious.

“It is insulting to suggest that because you move to a new club, your methods suddenly don’t work when they’ve held you in good stead for 35 years and made you one of the most respected coaches in Europe. It’s unbelievable.”

Joe Kinnear did a great job at Wimbledon in the ‘90s; no big club in their right mind would want him anywhere near them these days. (And that’s right, at the time Newcastle weren’t a club in their right mind, either.)

Different methods are needed at different clubs because a different kind of result and performance is expected. The pressure if very different, on you and your players. You cannot set up to sit off teams when you’re a big club.

And every last error is magnified. But that’s the reason why those who succeed are made of different stuff.

Now, I write this not from the perspective of someone who expected Liverpool to be in the top four, now or in May. Or even the top eight at this point, after the fixtures we’ve had.

I write it from a refusal to accept that even with the financial problems, this is a bottom-half-of-the-table side, let alone one that should be in the relegation zone, even at what remains an early stage of the season. Teething problems are to be expected; but this feels like a dentist going at us with a pair of rusty pliers, turning a modest smile into a bloody grimace.

Yet I’ve been inundated with suggestions that it’s all Rafa’s fault. They keep coming, on and on and on. On Sky Sports, Jamie Redknapp, aided and abetted by Richard Keys and the guilt-free Souness, blamed Rafa. He’d spent loads of money and the squad wasn’t good enough.

Well, not good enough for what? Only a year ago most of those players were supposed to be good enough to challenge for the title, and it was apparently only Benítez holding them back. As many as 15 of them were at the World Cup (not always as superstars, but there all the same).

Alan Hansen is now blaming players left by Rafa, such as Ngog (our top goalscorer this season), Kyrgiakos (gives 100%) and has said Kuyt never steps up to the plate. He says it’s too early to judge Roy’s summer signings, but did criticise Jovanovic, Rafa’s summer signing.

The Squad This Summer

Hansen also mentions that Roy inherited a one-man team. I thought Alan could count a bit better than that.

Reina, Gerrard, Torres: three of the best players in their position in the country, if not the world. Any club would want them, and Rafa bought two of the three. (Same applied to Mascherano.)

Agger: a thoroughbred centre-back. Wanted by AC Milan in the fairly recent past. Skrtel: another very fine centre-back. Roughly £6m each. Kyrgiakos: about as decent as you’ll get for 4th choice at £1.5m. Then there’s Carragher; well past his best, but not exactly finished. (Trouble is, he’s undroppable.)

Johnson: one of the best attacking right-backs in the world; in the right system, likely to create loads of chances in a game (defending not the best, but faults exaggerated this season from being too exposed).

Aquilani: over his injury problems, and such a clever player who’s … now in the Juventus team. Not that Liverpool are short of passing invention (sigh). Effectively given away for the season.

Lucas, Maxi: not spectacular, but good enough to play for Brazil and Argentina. Maxi, in particular, became a key player towards the end of last season. Lucas seemed to be really progressing last season too, but has struggled this year. Then again, he looks like Pele next to Poulsen, who has usurped him.

Jovanovic – another experienced international. Not sure about him yet, but pedigree is there. Insua is another player who came in for criticism, but had the potential to improve; at 21, full-backs are just starting out.

Kuyt: not everyone’s cup of tea, but almost every manager in the game sings his praises. Integral to Holland reaching World Cup final. Guarantees 10-15 goals from the wing almost every season, and as many assists. Does the work of two players. (Hansen thinks he never steps up to the plate, but look at all the goals he’s scored and created in big games.)

Kelly and Pacheco: two youngsters with a lot of quality. Not really been trusted in the league this season, even though they are now one year older and, people expected, sure to be knocking on the door. Pacheco not even making the bench. Jonjo Shelvey – one for the future, and possibly the near future at the rate Poulsen is going. N’Gog – just 21, and just £1.5m, but seven goals already this season. Kelly was home-grown, Pacheco part of Rafa’s Spanish connection.

Ryan Babel – frustrating? Hell yes. Likely to leave, whatever happens? Yes, too. But also, good from the bench? Yes, clearly. Not trusted before the Northampton game and now totally bombed out as a result. Roy said he’d been unfairly treated in the past, but now fails to even include him in the entire squad (and this is without inappropriate Twittering). Always a handy option with his pace on the wing, but Roy sees him as a striker (who doesn’t play), and Roy doesn’t use wingers.

Benayoun and Mascharano were also part of the squad Rafa left. Of course, they’ve moved on, through no fault of Roy’s. But Roy did get £26m from those two to buy replacements. Riera and a couple of others went, too, which at least allowed Roy to bring in a number of his own players, four of whom have been regular starters when fit.

But of course, Roy didn’t get all of the transfer money to reinvest; it’s wrong to expect the squad to be quite as strong as it was. Yet by the logic used to frequently slate Rafa, Roy “has spent a lot of money”; the Reds were behind only Manchester City and Chelsea in terms of money ‘spent’. However, the Reds ranked 1st in terms of money recouped. Rafa’s net spend was never that high; Roy’s isn’t either.

All in all, however, there’s enough there to be expecting a whole lot better than the relegation zone at this stage (for the first time in over 50 years) and out of a domestic cup to the lowest-ranked team to beat the Reds in 50 years. Rafa was sacked because he could only finish 7th with players that the media said should be doing better. The summer was supposed to be all about the feelgood factor: Gerrard, Torres, Cole; new manager, hip hip hooray.

There’s been no great injury crisis, and if anything, the Reds have had a bit of the luck (contrast Sunderland goal with beach ball one, and bizarre free-kick award against Blackpool) that they lacked last season. But worse than the results, performances have been universally poor; every single first-half in 14 games has been dire. Last year was pretty bad, but there were good displays too.

There’s been no apparent method, and rather than tighten up at the back, it’s as if Phil Babb has returned with his mate Tubby Ruddock. The centre of the midfield was so invisible at times against Blackpool it was as stupefying. Gerrard was AWOL and Poulsen was lost at sea, considered dead.

The stats are damning. Liverpool have had just 65 attempts at goal this season, and the opposition have had 77 against us. Stoke have had more goal attempts.

What the Rafa-haters didn’t foresee was that while a change of manager might help some players, it could also hinder others.

“My methods have translated from Halmstads to Malmo to Orebro to Neuchatel Xamax to the Swiss national team and many other jobs as well.” Roy Hodgson.

But not to Blackburn, and only moderately so to Inter Milan (15 years ago; good first season, less good second season).

And with all due respect, none of those clubs Roy mentioned is in a major league, or is a major nation; these are not household names. Roy had the Swiss national team playing well in 1994; but then Roy Evans had Liverpool playing well around the same time. George Graham took Arsenal to a European final that year. Football has evolved dramatically in that time.

Liverpool still have a core of excellent players. And the club has its talent on the fringes. It may not be a top four squad anymore, due to too many sales in relation to purchases since 2008, but is should not even be a bottom-half of the table squad, let alone end the weekend in the relegation zone for the first time since 1964 (after a minimum of three games played).

Conceding six goals at home to Northampton, Sunderland and Blackpool, and winning none of those games, all in the space of 10 days, is unacceptable. The performances have offered nothing to cling on to. In the three most recent Anfield games the Reds have been outclassed. Blackpool were a credit to the game of football.

I’m not especially angry at Roy. I feel some sympathy for him; I don’t enjoy watching a man apparently out of his depth, flailing and drowning.

But he should not have been appointed in the first place. I won’t bring myself to say he must be sacked – he has the job, so now he needs to prove he deserves it – but as I said in the summer, his appointment was always more of a risk than the ‘safe hands’ tag suggested. And if his team loses the Merseyside derby, the calls for his resignation will be deafening.

‘Going English’ with the manager and transfers might have worked as a policy, but it needed money; therefore, drastic change was not a wise move. James Milner is a good English player, for example. He cost £26m. But without the budget, the Reds tried a sea-change, a U-turn.

This is all the folly of Christian Purslow, and that of his media cronies who badgered Benítez at every turn. (Yes, you know who you are.)

The history of warning was there with Hodgson at Blackburn, and the history there was in Spain, too.

As soon as Rafa left Valencia they crumbled. Spectacularly. The players who had wanted him gone realised the error of their ways. Valencia overachieved massively during his three seasons. After, they didn’t so much find their true level as sink right through it.

If you replace a world-class manager, you need to get it right.

Roy’s Mistakes?

• Calling the players who lost in the Carling Cup the ‘B team’, and blaming it all on them.

• Not defending Torres, saying Alex Ferguson has a right to his opinion; that opinion being that Torres is a cheat.

• Criticising the fan protests. (He’s backtracked on these last two points, but the damage was done.)

• Picking a (virtually) full-strength team away in the Europa League, and expecting Torres’ muscles to be 100% three days later. I thought he was going to use the ‘B’ team in the early stages, as he did at Fulham?

• Not buying a striker; I know Rafa struggled to find one at the right price, but it was the clear priority of the summer. Aquilani was bought to replace Alonso, and was now fit; and so, instead of going for Meireles and then not using him properly, why not keep Aquilani and buy a striker?

• Leaving it to the 80-minute mark in several games to make the first change, when a result was needed. (One of the TTT subscribers sits behind the manager’s dugout, and said he’d never seen a Liverpool manager so passive during a match.)

• And do we really want to see Kyrgiakos as a centre-forward late in games against Northampton and Blackpool? Admittedly it nearly worked, but if we have to resort to desperate long-balls rather than try and play through lesser teams at Anfield, it’s a sign of grave concern.

• Alienating Agger. Potentially a world-class centre-back. But doesn’t fit Roy’s style, which involves not taking chances with footballers in defence. One of the best players at the club, but not utilised.

• Loaning out Insua and Aquilani, without sufficient replacements. (Might not all be Roy’s fault, this one, with Insua apparently offered to clubs by the Reds’ hierarchy.)

• Paying £5m for mediocre players who are near the end of their careers (Konchesky, and the frankly risible Poulsen). Paying £11m for Meireles – a very good player – and using him as a wide midfielder (albeit one forced to play horribly narrow). Saying Rafael Van Der Vaart doesn’t fit the profile of the kind of player he was interested in.

Biggest Error

And the biggest one of all: taking a team with players suited to pressing and rather than working with what he had, trying to reverse it. If anything was broken under Benítez, it was his relationship with Carragher and Gerrard, and one or two less-influential players.

The tactics were not the issue (look at how they were often successfully deployed at the World Cup) and maybe now people are seeing that.

Liverpool pressed high and hard – and fast from the start – and it suited Torres, Kuyt and Gerrard. It made it easier to create chances, because errors were forced. It gave the game some energy.

It now suits Samuel Eto’o at Inter: “With Mourinho we played on the counter-attack, with Benítez we press more and that’s better for us forwards because we win back the ball higher up the pitch and create more chances.”

Eto’o has 11 goals already this season, after just 16 last time. Torres has … one.

Last season I noted that Rafa was the only manager to get more than an average amount of goals from Torres. At the time, I wasn’t sure if it was just coincidence, or maybe due to the very detailed and specific advice Rafa gave him (which Torres said was incredible). Now, I’m starting to think it was mostly tactical.

Torres’ goal record in Spain was not the best; consistent, yes, but never above 13 from open play in a season (in one year he scored six additional goals from the spot). For Spain, it’s a decent international record, but not outstanding. (Spain also press, but they often delay the final pass; Torres needs the ball earlier.)

For Torres under Hodgson, it’s … one goal in nine games.

Now, he hasn’t been 100% fit. And it’s early days. But he wasn’t fully fit for large parts of the previous two seasons. And he still got 14 in 24, and 18 in 22, in those two Premier League campaigns. Often he was coming back from injury, but rarely did he look this out of sorts. Rarely was he so starved of service, so isolated; an island within Anfield.

Perhaps the new style of play doesn’t suit him? He’ll always be a great striker – pace, power, eye for all types of goal – but the tactics were always tailored to his strengths. Now it seems tailored to the strengths of Bobby Zamora.

Now, if Roy wants to change the team’s entire style, that’s down to him. But it can be argued that it makes more sense to work with what he has (or for the club to employ someone to do so), in a way that suits the players, than force his ideas onto them; especially as he doesn’t have the money to buy those who’d fit better into his system. (Not being funny, but right now, Emile Heskey would probably be better at what Torres is being asked to do.)

The style – which Hodgson has made clear he’s carried with him for 35 years – is being forced onto the players. If it works, great. If it doesn’t? Buck. Stops. There.

The next few weeks are vital in the future of the club, and so any decision can wait until that is resolved, and until after the Everton game. Win that game, and Roy might have a chance of taking his ideas into a new regime (if one finally arrives).


I don’t want to appear fickle, but can I really be that if I never wanted him in the first place? I said as much in the summer. I didn’t say that Roy would definitelyfail, but I did feel that his experience at Blackburn should not be brushed under the carpet, and that his achievements at Fulham, while admirable, do not necessarily transfer to a bigger club. I looked at his low-scoring teams that eked out a lot of draws, and that included his previous jobs at Blackburn and Inter Milan too.

Yes, I continue to remain annoyed at how the world-class manager we had was treated. But that’s a separate issue to this. (Although the media keep merging the two.)

If you have to sack a manager, you find a suitable replacement; not just one who speaks perfect English and makes life as easy as possible for you. And you don’t try to reverse a successful culture (Spanish) for one that has more faults. After all, how many great English players has the club purchased in the last 20 years? And how many great Spanish ones in the last six years alone?

If Roy stays, and turns things around, I’ll happily hold up my hands. If he wins, I win too. But if he fails, and fails as thoroughly as he currently is, it needs pointing out.

It needs pointing out that the owners are a cancer, and that those running the club know next to nothing about football. It needs to be pointed out that some players wanted an English manager, who would comfort them. We needed rid of rotation, zonal marking, Gerrard in centre-midfield, 4-4-2, and a manager who didn’t celebrate goals with backflips. How’s that working out?

It needs to be pointed out that on the basis of his team’s incoherent performances and his own bizarre press conferences, Roy Hodgson looks like the right man in the wrong job.

“I’ve had two-and-a-half wonderful years (at Fulham) where nothing ever negative was said about me and my team. Now maybe people are saying negative things. It doesn’t change anything. I work the same way as I did last year.” Roy Hodgson

Benitez better than Mourinho: Eto'o

Benitez better than Mourinho: Eto'o

Sep 30, 2010 1:26 PM | By Sapa-AFP

Inter Milan boss Rafael Benitez is better for strikers than his predecessor Jose Mourinho, according to nerazzurri forward Samuel Eto’o.

Inter Milan's Samuel Eto'o celebrates after scoring his third goal against Werder Bremen during their Champions League Group A match at the San Siro stadium in Milan September 29, 2010.

Inter Milan's Samuel Eto'o celebrates after scoring his third goal against Werder Bremen during their Champions League Group A match at the San Siro stadium in Milan September 29, 2010.

The Cameroon captain scored a hat-trick in Wednesday’s 4-0 Champions League victory over Werder Bremen to take his tally to a remarkable 11 goals in nine games this season.

It was also the first game in this campaign that he was played through the middle in Benitez’s attacking triumvirate and Eto’o reaped the benefits.

He played there due to an injury to Diego Milito and Eto’o is hoping to get more run-outs through the middle.

“With Mourinho we played on the counter-attack, with Benitez we press more and that’s better for us forwards because we win back the ball higher up the pitch and create more chances,” he told Sky Sport.

“I feel good as a central striker. For a forward it’s important to play close to the goal and not far from it. It’s more complicated for me when playing on the wings.”

Eto’o has had a stunning start to the season, scoring five goals in five league games, four in two Champions League matches as well as bagging a brace in the Italian Supercup, although he failed to hit the net in the European Supercup.

Inter sit joint top of Serie A with Lazio and now top their Champions League group A ahead of Tottenham, whom they play next, on goal difference.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Rafa's record at anfield


Sunday October 03 2010

Liverpool honours

UEFA Champions League: 2005

FA Cup: 2006

UEFA Super Cup: 2005

FA Community Shield: 2006

Season-by-Season Record


Premier League: 5th (58pts)

Champions League: Winners (beat AC Milan in Final)

FA Cup: 3rd round (lost to Burnley)

League Cup: Runners-up (lost to Chelsea)


Premier League: 3rd (82pts)

Champions League: Last 16 (lost to Benfica)

FA Cup: Winners (beat West Ham in Final)

League Cup: 3rd round (lost to Crystal Palace)


Premier League: 3rd (68pts)

Champions League: Runners-up (lost to AC Milan in Final)

FA Cup: 3rd round (lost to Arsenal)

League Cup: Quarter-final (lost to Arsenal)


Premier League: 4th (76pts)

Champions League: Semi-final (lost to Chelsea)

FA Cup: 5th round (lost to Barnsley)

League Cup: 5th round (lost to Chelsea)


Premier League: 2nd (86pts)

Champions League: Quarter-final (lost to Chelsea)

FA Cup: 4th round (lost to Everton)

League Cup: 4th round (lost to Tottenham)


Premier League: 7th (63pts)

Champions League: Group Stages

Europa League: Semi-final (lost to Atletico Madrid)

FA Cup: 3rd round (lost to Reading)

League Cup: 5th round (lost to Arsenal)

Liverpool under Benitez


Premier League: 228 126 47 55

FA Cup: 17 8 5 4

League Cup: 17 10 6 1

Europe: 85 48 20 17

  • Broke Bill Shankly's record of 65 European matches as Liverpool manager.
  • Recorded Liverpool's biggest win at Old Trafford for 72 years. It was also the first time four Liverpool players scored at Manchester United in the same game.
  • By lifting the FA Cup in 2005, he became the first manager in the club's history to win a trophy in each of his first two seasons in charge.
  • In the 2006/2007 season, he recorded his 50th league win in just 93 games -- a record bettered by only two Liverpool managers of the previous 57 years, Kenny Dalglish and Bill Shankly.
  • He won 81 of his first 150 league games in charge, surpassing Shankly. Only Kenny Dalglish (87) won more.

Sunday Independent

'Liverpool is my home and I will come back'


Sunday October 03 2010

'Football is a lie.' Anybody who has spent any time with Rafael Benitez will have heard these words. There are a million lies in football, a hundred thousand ways for the flimflam men and the bullshitters to prosper.

For Liverpool to prosper, it was concluded that Benitez would have to leave. His exit, it was said, would lead to an explosion of joy among the ranks of the players who had been worn down by his obsessiveness, his relentless demands and his cold, cold heart. The club, it was said, needed a break from his plotting. Things could only get better.

Today, as Benitez's Inter Milan face Juventus at the San Siro, Liverpool play a team one point above them in the Premier League: Blackpool. Before the game, the supporters will be marching in the streets in protest against Tom Hicks and George Gillett whose duplicity Benitez did so much to expose. The chief executive Christian Purslow, brought in to sell the club, is still there, still looking for owners, still reassuring the key players that all will be well. Within days, Liverpool could be in administration but, for many Liverpool fans, the possible nine-point penalty (there could be a loophole which allows Liverpool to avoid it which would almost certainly lead to a legal objection from Liverpool's challengers) is preferable to Hicks and Gillett refinancing. On the pitch, Roy Hodgson, the man Purslow appointed, appears to have made things worse.

And all it took was the removal of Benitez to bring the feel-good factor back.

Many ignored the complexities involved in managing a club owned by leverage kings while Benitez was in charge. Only now is the extent of his achievement becoming clear.

His refusal to play the media game or to back down or to be pragmatic in any way alienated those who form opinion. For a long time, nobody listened to their opinions at Anfield. In the last year, they did.

"Did we make mistakes? Obviously," Benitez said last week. "But 82, 86 points, four trophies, three more finals in a difficult time when the owners were changing, when the chief executives were changing. A lot of things were changing. Now people can see it, no? It was a big, big problem."

Benitez took the hits but held the club together. If he was shunned by the opinion-formers, it wasn't because he wasn't political. In the last year he went, as one ally puts it, "to war". He always felt there was a better way to do things

Benitez wants to look forward to his challenge at Inter, it is how he has persuaded himself a football man should be, but he cannot shake the sadness about his departure from the club and the city he and his family love. Those who know him well say he is more relaxed now than he was during that draining final twelve months.

After three hours in his company on Wednesday, I could see why his friends want him to talk to the media more often. David Conachy, the Sunday Independent photographer, was surprised by his warmth and wit, having expected a brooding, more explosive, presence.

But Benitez is wary too. Football is a lie and he has observed how some use the media to promote their versions of the story. At one point, he jumps from his seat, refusing to pose in a certain way because it is, he says, the kind of picture one of his enemies would sit for. Above all else, he is wary of being a phoney.

Liverpool, it was said, needed a manager who would put his arm around a player's shoulder. But they can't hug out their problems, as Hodgson is discovering.

"Everybody has weak points and I have weak points for sure," Benitez says. "People say I don't put my arm round the shoulder. It's not true. I am talking to the players every day. I like to know about them but my priority is football."

His priority has always been football. "I have been doing this job all my life," he says and it is barely an exaggeration. "Always in my head I was a manager."

He talks about his childhood in terms of football. His father was a commercial director of a hotel -- "he didn't like too much football" -- and a busy man so "I remember my mother taking me to the Bernabeu for training".

His career as a player was ended by injury but he was ready. Managing is his lifetime's work. He sleeps a few hours each night and he is always thinking of ways to be better. He may think too much.

"I think the manager is eternally dissatisfied because he wants more and more and more. I'm this kind of manager. I like to improve, to do better every time. Some times you know that you will need more time so you have to be calm but still you have to improve."

Does he ever look back on his great nights with pride and contentment?

"I have notes of everything, every single season, every single day. What I did this, or how I changed my approach to a player. One hundred per cent, I am analysing and I am always talking to my staff."

It's hardly The Time of Our Lives with Jeff Stelling. Benitez couldn't act clubbable. Last month, Jamie Carragher gave an interview in which he talked of the need for Liverpool to get back to traditional values.

"We've had situations like Martin O'Neill and Steve Bruce criticising Liverpool and they were right," Carragher said. "We shouldn't be getting involved with stuff like that. Everyone else should look at Liverpool and say they have dignity, class. I mean, like the way people look at Arsenal."

It was unfortunate timing as Arsene Wenger then spent the next month fighting with everyone, including match officials.

"I didn't see his quote but I like Carra as a player and he has to keep focusing on doing things well for Liverpool. Maybe he has an opinion but I don't think Shankly would agree with him. For me the manager of Liverpool Football Club has to defend the club and his players against everyone. The name of the other manager doesn't matter. If you know the story inside you will understand why these managers are talking and I think for our fans it's very clear.

"If you see the friends that these people have you will understand why. It's obvious that there are people who are close to some people and they like to protect each other."

Benitez was apart and, equally as dangerously, became convinced of his own separateness. Again, it is the way he believes a manager has to be.

"When you work hard and you have an idea and you want to carry on with your idea people say 'oh you are stubborn'. I think you have to have a conviction when you work with the players, when you know the players and when you talk with your staff. It's essential if you want to convince them. All the managers have the same idea."

He was a physical education teacher and one of the ways he sees himself as different to his predecessor at Inter, Jose Mourinho, is in his approach to footballers.

"I like to teach them. I am sure if they learn they will know things for the rest of their lives. If you can win in one year with the best players, saying we have to win this game, this game, the next game that's one way. But when you teach them the way and you ask them how to do things, it's different. At the end, they will know and they will remember all their lives."

He is trying to change things at Inter while keeping the things they did well under Mourinho. Before he arrived in Milan, he read in the Spanish press how Mourinho could control everything from his manager's office at the Angelo Moratti Training Centre. There was a window with a panoramic view that allowed him to see all that was happening on the training fields. During my time in Benitez's spartan office on Wednesday, I couldn't see this window. Football is a lie.

Mourinho's achievements cannot be disputed but Benitez would not be the man he is if he didn't think he could do more.

"The players are happy because we are trying to play more football, more on the floor, the passing is better. They were doing good things in the past and especially in the transition, the counter-attack, they were quite good. Now we have more possession but it takes time to adjust. It will be almost impossible to win more trophies in one year, we know that, but at least we will try to win some of them with style."

Inter are top of Serie A but one defeat is a crisis in Italy. He has the squad that won the European Cup, but he may have liked to have new faces to challenge the players who achieved so much last season.

Benitez is not going to rest on somebody else's laurels. On Wednesday night, Inter beat Werder Bremen 4-0. It was an important result but again perhaps football lied as it was not a performance that merited 4-0.

Inter suits Benitez too. He looks to Turin, to Juventus and sees the questionable powerbase of Italian football. He looks to the south, to Rome and sees the capital with its influence and he looks to Milanello, AC Milan's famed training camp and he sees Silvio Berlusconi and his authority. Italy is the kind of country where a man can collect enemies.

His friends from Liverpool are still around. They are thinking about Inter now but they form a government in exile, always aware of what is happening at the club they love.

He has changed, he says, everybody changes. The former Real Madrid manager Luis Molowny, who died earlier this year, once told him that it is important to be patient. Molowny's name is written on a piece of paper pinned to his office wall so his advice is on his mind. He says he is more patient now than he used to be.

The signings that didn't work out at Liverpool might be among the things he'd change. "I'll say it again, we made mistakes. But people are talking about players who were not good enough, if you put five or six of these players together, the cost would be five million. It's not easy to wheel and deal and at the same time to win and sign players like Torres, Reina, Mascherano, Aquilani, Skrtel, Johnson, Lucas Leiva, Agger or Kuyt."

These are the players he left behind. "I was very clear that when I left we had a better squad than we had in the past, and a better team. We knew we had to bring in better players. We left a good team, a very good team. A lot of people are talking about the legacy but the legacy is fantastic. When I left the club, Mascherano, Benayoun and Riera were there, along with Carra, Gerrard, Spearing, Darby. Insua, Cavalieri and Shelvey. They cannot talk about legacy when Purslow and Hodgson signed seven players. They have already changed the squad."

Gerard Houllier said he left a legacy too, claiming that in Istanbul the players told him it was his side that had won the European Cup. "I didn't see Houllier on the way to Istanbul or at half-time," he said sardonically. "After the game, I gave him permission to come into the dressing room and we couldn't get him out, even with boiling water! That's a Spanish expression."

Among Benitez's mistakes were Robbie Keane and the alienation of Xabi Alonso in one crucial summer. Keane was, he says, a "good player and a fantastic professional who needed a target man with him". But, crucially, Gareth Barry was Benitez's priority. "Barry was the first but I was not doing the business and I couldn't control it. The timing was a problem. I thought we had the money and it was obvious we didn't have the money."

Benitez had rumbled Hicks and Gillett before this but as they scrambled and failed to find the money for Barry, his plans unravelled. The collateral damage was significant too: Xabi Alonso was lost.

"In the last season Alonso played his best season for us. That is the reason people are talking about him. It was his last year when he gave us his best."

In Alonso's last season, Benitez drove his team towards the title. Liverpool finished second, a stunning achievement given his resources and the apocalypse that was heading Liverpool's way thanks to Hicks and Gillett and the recession caused by men like them.

Benitez's handling of the attempted sale of Alonso the year before alienated the player and ensured he would go. But Benitez planned to replace him with Alberto Aquilani and the Montenegrin Stevan Jovetic. The sale of Alonso was a controversial and ruthless decision and, as so often at Liverpool, he wasn't allowed full control of the solution.

Instead he was given half of what he asked for. Suddenly the money disappeared, as it tends to when working for the indebted. Benitez's last season began with Liverpool as many people's title favourites. But the manager couldn't conceal the club's problems anymore.

"It was a long time, it wasn't just one thing," he says of the process that wore him down. "The feeling was that something was wrong, we couldn't do what we wanted to do. We were preparing the signings and the sales but we could see that we have some targets and we didn't do it."

Christian Purslow was the new chief executive. Rick Parry had infuriated Benitez with the pace at which he got things done but he insists there was nothing personal. "I had a very good relationship with David Moores and Rick Parry but the only thing I wanted to do was to do things quicker because we didn't have too much money. To be fair, sometimes we were doing good business without big money and sometimes we lost players. After the Americans arrived, everything changed. I thought it would be easier the first year, we signed Torres and everything was going well but little by little we had some money problems and all the decisions were subject to the money issues."

It is the most understated way of describing the meltdown. The last season became attritional. Stories filtered out about an unhappy squad, how Rafa had lost the dressing room.

"It's not true that I lost the dressing room. It was obvious that maybe some players were not happy but the majority of the players were very good professionals who were surprised by these stories in the same newspapers by the same journalists. Who was leaking them?"

He wasn't looking to be loved but he believed he would stay at Liverpool.

Last week Christian Purslow remarked that "Rafa's exit was about as clearcut a case of mutual consent as I have ever been involved in in my life. Both sides thought it was time for a change, both sides said so at the time, if you go back and check."

Benitez saw his comment. "I read that he said this -- I was preparing for the next season but after the meeting with Mr Broughton and Mr Purslow I realised that I had to accept the offer they made. I was very sad and my family were devastated when we realised after these meetings that we would leave. I knew I had to go."

He will not be drawn on what changed but after a couple of summers being denied the money he thought he was getting, it's not hard to conclude that his transfer budget and the money he would get from player sales had something to do with it.

He remains attached to the place. He is aware of the protests against Tom Hicks and George Gillett but doesn't want to talk too much out of "respect for the fans and the club". All he knows is that the club is still looking for investment a year after being told the cavalry was on its way. Christian Purslow is nobody's idea of the cavalry.

Benitez spent last year waiting for the investment, meeting with potential investors. Now he has a new challenge while survival is Liverpool's.

But Liverpool is a part of him. It is the place he and his wife call home.

"I am monitoring carefully everything that's going on there. I have a lot of friends there and I received a 'Justice' scarf from the Hillsborough families group that is in my office at home. Again out of respect I think it is important that I talk a little bit about the past but especially about the future. For me, at this moment, that is Inter Milan. I keep my house there, we are based in Liverpool and in the future we will be there again."

Right now, he thinks about Inter and the challenges but he knows more than most what football can bring and how he might return.

"You never know, football is football. It could be in five years' time, ten years' time, two years' time. We have two years of a contract here, we are really pleased here, the people are very nice, the fans are very similar to Liverpool fans, with passion, so everything is going well."

But Liverpool is home? "Yeah-it's the only house we have. Liverpool is my home and I will come back."

In his last year, he fought many battles in pursuit of victory in one war. He wanted the right to do things as he wanted to do them. He wanted so much, he always did, and he always wanted more.

Those close to Benitez dismiss Purslow as a man who thought he knew too much about too many things. It is a criticism many have thrown at Rafa too. They saw him as a political animal and he was unwavering in his belief that his way was the right way.

But they underestimated him too, they always have. They concluded that he was cunning. He wasn't cunning, he just wasn't as pliable as some expected.

With his dishevelled appearance and his lack of personal vanity, Benitez is football's Lieutenant Columbo. And he is always looking for 'just one more thing'. The obsessional pursuit drove him mad and brought him into dangerous conflict with the powers that remain at Liverpool. But he knew no other way. He didn't ask for much: only perfection.

On Wednesday, David Conachy was pushing Rafa for more pictures. He doesn't like having his picture taken or, more precisely, he doesn't like having a certain type of picture taken. Dave wanted to take every type of picture.

"Just one more," Dave said to him several times.

"You always say just one more," Rafa smiled, looking at his watch, as he tried to get away.

"He's a perfectionist, Rafa, you can understand that," I said.

Rafa looked at me. "I didn't say it was bad. It's just dangerous."

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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