"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.

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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