There aren’t many people in football who divide opinion quite like Liverpool’s former boss, Rafa Benitez. Even in his darkest days at Anfield, there was still a fifty-fifty divide. Strong opposition from one quarter was constantly rebutted by staunch defence from the other and, nine months on, the debate has yet to die down.
During his time in charge of the Reds, Benitez was never given much credit by the media. His successes were lucky, whilst his failures, naturally viewed with 20-20 hindsight, could have been easily avoided by all but him. He was routinely persecuted for selecting ninety-nine different line-ups in succession, yet Manchester United’s weekend FA Cup tie against Crawley was Sir Alex Ferguson’s ninety-fifth straight variation since the beginning of the 2009/2010 season.
Of course, you tend to be cut some slack when you are delivering success, as Fergie has done year after year at Old Trafford. Still, if you’re to compare the two contentious rivals fairly, then the status quo when Benitez took the reins at Liverpool should be taken into consideration. Liverpool were light years behind United, as I am sure any rational Red supporter (and there are a few out there not slathering at the bit) will admit.
The problem with making an objective comparison is that a manager is judged on his success, which is very much a subjective term. To a side that has dominated English football for over ten years, a good year is one of continued dominance. In that sense, Fergie has certainly been successful, exactly as Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley were in their days. In the wake of those two legends, however, the reigns of Graeme Souness, Roy Evans and Gerrard Houllier, whilst they may have had their moments, had eroded a formerly great side.
It can be argued that Fergie didn’t inherit a great side when he took over at United. Certainly, it took him a few years to get his program up and running. The Scot, though, had the full backing of the Man United board and was given total control of football operations. Conversely, Rafa had to fight for everything he wanted.
Several myths surround Benitez’ time in charge, many completely untrue. The classic Sky Sports-led ‘Rafa spends too much money’ line can be easily shot down. It’s true that he was one of the most active managers in the English transfer market but when one balances the books, it appears that he did better than break-even business.
Over 150 [transfers] between comings and goings in five years does seem a large number. Compared to other clubs? Manchester United, the benchmark in English football, released or sold upwards of 75 players during the same period so it appears normal.
Examining the figures closely actually shows that the net cost of the players bought by Benitez and later sold is virtually non-existent, in fact there is possibly even a small profit when you take into account the small army of free transfers the former Valencia man has acquired. – According to Paul Madden of Goal.com, written on 3 June, 2010.
Other myths are not so easy to quash. There is no club on the planet which makes its backroom activities an open book and it is therefore difficult to say, with precision, exactly who within the club was responsible for what. For instance, Benitez is often blamed for buying Robbie Keane, whom it now seems was forced upon him. Where responsibilities are divided, laying blame becomes a matter of opinion and whilst such conjecture is difficult to dispel, it is too often widely accepted as gospel.
A good example of this is the widespread belief that Rafa destroyed the youth system with his constant import of talent from around the globe. A practise that Arsene Wenger has long been lauded for was suddenly frowned upon when the Spaniard emulated it.
Certainly, there was a clear shortage of players making the transition from Melwood to Anfield during Rafa’s stint in charge. Once Michael Owen and Danny Murphy had been shipped out, only two English players featured in the first team with any regularity, those being Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. Despite the club bringing in hordes of youth players over a six-year period, few made any impact.
The question, however, is whether Rafa was really at fault. Did he destroy Liverpool’s youth setup or was it already in a state of disrepair when he arrived? When players are recruited in their mid-to-low teens, the investment will not come good, if it ever does, for several years. Benitez was only with the club for six years, which suggests that the lack of homegrown talent brought forward during his tenure may have been down to his predecessors. Granted, it’s simple to point the finger at the guy who just left (ask Roy Hodgson) but, in all fairness, look at this year’s squad.
Despite the turmoil, 2010-11 has actually provided some very strong promise. Whilst the club has obviously improved under Kenny Dalglish, he and Hodgson have had one trait in common: both have relied heavily on youth. Whereas Woy was overly protective of the youngsters, King Kenny has trusted them with first team responsibilities, playing them alongside rather than instead of Steven Gerrard, Raul Mereiles and Fernando Torres. Nonetheless, the youngsters on whom Hodgson and Dalglish have relied were supplied by Rafa Benitez.
Martin Kelly has been excellent on almost every occasion he has been given the nod, Lucas Leiva has stepped up massively in the last eighteen months and David Ngog continues to improve. This week’s game in the Czech Republic saw no fewer that four academy members joining up with the first team squad. Raheem Sterling, the latest teen sensation, was rewarded with inclusion following his five-goal haul in the 9-0 youth cup victory against Southend United. Sterling was joined in the squad by John Flanagan, Conor Coady and Jack Robinson.
Admittedly, several first team players were unavailable, but this should not detract from the significance of the quartet being named in the squad. Only one of the four might have made the bench, but just being included in the trip sent a clear message from Dalglish. He is showing faith in youth. I hate to keep using United as an example but Sir Matt Busby said it best; ”If they’re good enough, they’re old enough.”
Perhaps, towards the end, Benitez was guilty of not nurturing the talent he had acquired well enough, failing to see how best to bring them through. It is a fact, though, that he has left Melwood in a much better state than he found it. There is genuine excitement with regard to Anfield’s next crop of youngsters, and rightly so.
“Progress at the Academy in the last year and a half has been absolutely fantastic. That’s great credit to Rafa who brought in Pep Segura, Rodolfo Borrell and Frank McParland. He reorganised the whole Academy and you can see the benefit in the kids now. It’s fantastic to see.” – Kenny Dalglish appreciates the Spaniard’s work at Melwood, even if nobody else does.