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

Thursday, February 24, 2011

THE SCOUSER REPORT – RAFA’S UNDERAPPRECIATED LIVERPOOL LEGACY

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Rafa Melwood

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.

While Benitez' losing toss on Aquilani is often brought up...

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.

Full article here.

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.

...Rafa is given no credit for the likes of Martin Kelly and Raheem Sterling.

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.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The house that built Barca

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Pepe Reina, Cesc Fabregas and Carles Puyol are graduates of La Masia
Pepe Reina, Cesc Fabregas and Carles Puyol are graduates of La Masia

By Matthias Krug

The small, unassuming, brown-brick house built in traditional Catalan style stands almost unnoticed as the great swarm of Barcelona fans head towards the Nou Camp.

This is the house - La Masia - that has been the foundation of Barca's success. It provides the DNA for the club's players, the philosophy for how the game should be played - to pressure, to keep possession, to attack.

The three 2010 Fifa Ballon d'Or finalists Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, and much of Barcelona's first team all learned their trade at La Masia.

Another, of course, is Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas, who is preparing to face his former classmates in the last 16 of the Champions League on Wednesday.

The stellar names to have graduated from La Masia are impressive and the Spanish champions intend to maintain their conveyor belt of talent at a new state-of-the-art facility just south of the city, which will open in September.

But back to La Masia. It is in these homely surroundings, a mere stone's throw from the Nou Camp, that promising young players have matured into world stars. Graduation photographs of current captain Carles Puyol and coach Pep Guardiola hang on the wall of the brown-tiled dining room where Messi would have had lunch. In the small adjacent games room, Xavi would have played table tennis.

Daily schedule of La Masia student
06:45 Get up and make bed
07:00 Breakfast at La Masia
07:30 School bus pick-up
08:00-14:00 School
14:15 Lunch
15:00 Free hour
16:00-18:00 Added schooling
19:00-20:45 Training
21:00 Shower/Bus back to La Masia
21:30 Dinner
22:00 TV/Internet

Nearby the kitchen, next to the stairs, a cook greets you with a hearty laugh, while in the upstairs study room, which has a view of the Nou Camp, the likes of Iniesta would have done their homework.

The bedrooms are split up with a few on the top floor and the remainder sprinkled around the Nou Camp.

La Masia has an air of tradition mingled with expectancy and an atmosphere of fun and familiarity.

There is not much more to the place than that, but it is these 600 square metres that make the Barcelona youth system so unique in producing the football equivalent of gold.

"This Barcelona team is made up of a lot of people from La Masia, and that's an important factor in our success, because we know each other for such a long time," Iniesta told BBC Sport.

"We grew up here together with the same idea of football in mind and playing according to the same philosophy."

And, in many ways, it is Iniesta, the midfielder lauded by fans across Spain this season for his 2010 World Cup-winning goal, who personifies La Masia's spirit.

"Andres is one of the players who best represents what we stand for here in La Masia, who most comes here to visit us, and who has the best links with us," said La Masia director Carles Folguera as we settled down for an interview in the conference room next to the small wooden bar area that leads into the residence.

Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Xavi
Barca's three Fifa Ballon d'Or finalists

"Andres had a very bad time at the start here in La Masia. He's very family orientated, and with his family far away in Albacete, he took some months to adapt.

"But he did adapt very well in the end, and he's really humble considering all that he's achieved. Here we teach discipline, order, control, and we try to show that a football player can be a star without being a 'show-off', just by making your team-mates better."

The key to Barca's current success is a philosophy of play which emerged as a direct descendant of Holland's Total Football of the 70's, and is implemented throughout the club's teams - from seven-year-olds right up to the first team.

"Everyone says our philosophy started with the 'Dream Team' of Cryuff," Folguera stated.

"I think it was born out of the attempt to dominate play by keeping possession of the ball. We're always looking for a type of player who's not physical but a very good thinker, who's ready to take decisions, who has talent, technique and agility. Physical strength is not important."

Scouted from across Spain, the 60 young players who live at La Masia play surprisingly little football - just over one and a half hours per day.

Instead, there is a heightened emphasis on school work, with players expected to attend extra classes with tutors at La Masia once they return to the centre after a day at school.

This way, the students who do not make it into professional football can opt for university or find employment.

"Here is where the stars all started," added Folguera, throwing a proud glance at photographs of some of the most illustrious years to have graduated from La Masia: one includes Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina with Xavi and Puyol.

"So the current players think: 'I'm in a good place'. But that's also a danger. We have to let them see that the dream is a long journey. We tell them to have patience, and that not all of them will make it.

"Pep Guardiola likes to help, but not all 48 players who are currently here can make it. Despite this, La Masia is of course the ideal place for a young player to come."

La Masia director Carles Folguera surveys a picture of graduated classes in the dining room
Folguera has seen many current stars blossom at La Masia

The less-is- more approach of Barcelona's training regime is designed to make each training session of the highest possible quality.

"It is all about bringing high intensity into those sessions," the club's football youth academy co-ordinator Albert Puig explained.

"Up to the age of 16 we don't do any fitness training with the boys, just practice with the ball. Then we add the fitness training, but always incorporated into exercises with the ball."

Little wonder, then, that players like Pedro, who hails from the Canary Islands, and local players such as Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique seemingly run with the ball stuck to their boots.

Of course, there have been mistakes - and costly ones at that - with Fabregas allowed to leave for the English Premier League and Arsenal and Pique spending four years under Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford.

Pique came home at a cost of £9.7m, but Fabregas is still in north London.

Watching the La Masia graduates in the Barcelona first team the game seems easy. They exhibit a sureness bordering on laziness, zip the ball back and forth in triangles and play double-one-two's that leave the opposition - and the crowd - awestruck.

"It doesn't just look easy. It is easy to play with the La Masia players," Brazilian right-back Dani Alves told the BBC. "They have unbelievable qualities on the ball and you have to be happy about playing in a team like this."

And still La Masia keeps churning them out.

Andreu Fontas, Thiago Alcantara, Marc Bartra, Jonathan dos Santos and Victor Vazquez offered a glimpse of the next Barca generation in December 2010 in Barcelona's final Champions League group match against Russian champions Rubin Kazan.

Qualification for the knockout stages of European club football's most prestigious competition was already in the bag but the largely second-string side were comfortable winners, with Fontas and Vazquez scoring in a 2-0 win.

La Masia
It costs £8 million a year to run La Masia

Why do other top clubs around Europe not replicate the La Masia model, which is estimated to cost about a fifth of the £50m fee Chelsea spent on signing Fernando Torres from Liverpool in January?

"Other clubs like Real Madrid have a good youth system too, the difference is just that they don't use theirs," Puig added. "So the work is left unfinished. We on the other hand incorporate our talents into the first team on a regular basis. It's a little bit like producing a Ferrari but then not using it."

It comes with a touch of melancholy, then, that this iconic building on the road leading to the Nou Camp will soon no longer be used to nurture the club's young players.

La Masia is closing down at the end of the 2010-11 season and is to be replaced by new facilities - for 70-80 residents - in the Ciudad Deportiva in Sant Joan Despi.

"It is a necessary move. The new facilities are more modern. These are new times, but we do not want to lose the familiar essence of this building," Folguera reflected.

Barcelona's school of excellence will expand from 600 square metres to 5,000; from two floors to five; from ageing to entirely modern facilities. But memories and a sense of pride will remain in this old brick house which has seen the stars of world football come and go.

Xavi Hernandez is nominated for the Ballon d'Or

Ballon d'Or trio light up World Cup

Thursday, February 17, 2011

LOL

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Redsh*te!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Roy's Walkabout


Just been appointed WBA manager. Never liked him managing us. But good luck all the same

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Chess-loving Benitez lays out welcome mat

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Dan Walker | 19:42 UK time, Tuesday, 8 February 2011

There are very few managers who divide opinion quite as spectacularly as Rafael Benitez. There are those - many of whom are Liverpool fans - who will vehemently defend his record and style, while others dismiss his achievements and question whether he should be a football coach at all.

I remember sitting in a radio studio when an unnamed pundit claimed that Benitez had "offered nothing in 2005" and that the Champions League win over AC Milan in Istanbul was achieved "in spite of Benitez and certainly not because of him".

Benitez is seen by many as a manager who overspent at Liverpool, wasted the club's best chance of winning the title in recent seasons, let Sir Alex Ferguson get under his skin andfell out with the man crucial to Liverpool's success - Xabi Alonso.

I have spent plenty of time attending Benitez's media conferences over the years and interviewed the Spaniard on numerous occasions but last Thursday he invited the Football Focus cameras down to his pad in the Wirral. I spent the best part of two hours with him, playing chess, walking his dog and talking about his first love - football.

When we arrived, he burst out of the front door, welcomed us warmly and proceeded to show us around his gaff. While the tea was brewing and cameraman Sean and producer Richard were picking the perfect spot for our interview, Benitez beckoned me over to a sofa to show me his latest passion... photography. There were hundreds of pictures, mainly of scenery and sunsets. This, he said, was keeping him busy between jobs.

The main interview lasted about 25 minutes - and you can watch almost all of it below. The camera jumps around a bit because it was never intended to run as a single piece but so many people have requested the full thing that we thought we would try to deliver.

There was plenty said off camera that was even more fascinating. I don't want to tease you but if I could reveal what he said it would change your opinions about managers in general, Benitez in particular and some of the players he bought, sold and kept. I shall leave the man himself to unveil all that.

One part of the interview that fascinated me was the concept of football being "a lie". We didn't have time to get into this on Focus because there was so much good material to wedge in already but I think Benitez feels that, both at Liverpool and Inter Milan, his job was made a lot more difficult than it should have been.

The Italian situation probably sums up Benitez perfectly. Those who think he is a great manager and those who don't can fuel their arguments with what took place in Milan.

Some may argue that Benitez took over Jose Mourinho's treble-winning side and ruined them, failing to motivate the squad, deploying the wrong tactics, annoying the president, alienating the fans and the media before leaving only six months after taking over.

On the other hand, those that love him argue - as Benitez himself did in our interview - that he inherited the oldest squad in Europe yet still won two trophies in six months - albeit the Supercoppa Italiana and the Fifa Club World Cup - and could have added more if he had been allowed to buy players and not been undermined by the president and long-time servants of the club.

Walker and Benitez on the beachWalker and Benitez down on the beach

I am not sure of the truth but, whether in Milan or Merseyside, Benitez has been blamed for much that he shouldn't. Yes, he spent a lot at Liverpool but, as his supporters will tirelessly point out and his detractors conveniently ignore, he was always balancing the books. He will admit that he does talk a lot about "net spend" but it is always worth looking at the "players out" and "money in" columns before making a judgment.

Benitez will be back and probably in the Premier League. While we were walking one his dogs, Goofy, down on the beach, he talked about his desire to return to England's top flight, where he thinks he is best suited. The next time there is a vacancy at the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, Spurs and Liverpool... watch this space.

Before we left, I was given a perfect example of his will to win. We were filming a game of chess to use as colour for the interview. After about two minutes, I said we needed to speed things up for the purposes of TV and removed six or seven pieces from each side. "What are you doing?" piped up Benitez. "This is serious." We filmed the end sequence and shook hands for the cameras, at which point I stood up to thank him. "Sit back down," he said. "We have a game to finish."

I tried to unsettle him but he did not react to any of my mind games. "Chess is all about controlling the middle of the board... just like football," he proclaimed as he manoeuvred his pieces into an unassailable position.

"We'll play again sometime," he said as we left his pad, "once you've had a bit more practice." Apart from being humiliated at chess, I found Benitez as charming as he was interesting and I look forward to his return to the dugout.

Walker and Benitez play chessBenitez gives me a lesson in the finer points of chess

If you have any comments about Benitez, the interview or Football Focus in general, let us have them. Let's try really hard not to turn this into a "net spend" fest. If you want to follow the build-up this week's show then visit twitter.com/danwalkerbbc.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The changing man

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Peter Fraser looks at Lucas Leiva's transformation from boo-boy to midfield lynchpin at Liverpool


It was late in the second half at Stamford Bridge and a grimace of personal disgust shot across the face of a mild-mannered Brazilian in a demonstration of personal frustration at surrendering the ball.

A tackle-back and possession was immediately regained in a snapshot of the mindset ofKenny Dalglish's revolution. Amid the focus upon the act of fate which saw £50million striker Fernando Torres making his Chelsea debut against his former club, the man in question was Lucas Leiva. Liverpool's No.21 demonstrated why he has emerged as a lynchpin.

Lucas: Has become an integral part of Liverpool's midfield

Lucas: Has become an integral part of Liverpool's midfield

Martin Kelly, Dirk Kuyt, Daniel Agger, Raul Meireles and, of course, Jamie Carragher andSteven Gerrard are to list six names from the 13 heroes for those in red on Sunday, when Torres was brutally outplayed in the wake of what has been labelled an act of treachery. But the transformation of Lucas deserves special mention.

The 2007 arrival from Gremio is often used as a label for the faults in the Liverpool reign ofRafa Benitez; a mistake in the transfer market; a square peg for a round hole. But the former Anfield boss was always rigorous in his defence of a player upon who he spent £6m and once announced that 'people just don't know how good Lucas is'.

General consensus is that among the wretched 12 months that was 2010 for Liverpool, Lucas was the man who stood out as the club's best player. While team-mates and managers wilted around him, the now-24-year-old showed spirit for the fight as sceptics and opponents circled like vultures.

Trust

The man from Dourados, a city in the south west of Brazil, had presumably been hardened by the barrage of negativity he had been forced to shoulder since crossing the Atlantic almost four years earlier. Lucas himself told skysports.comin an interview conducted in March 2010: "I don't know why the criticism started with me, but some people just do not like me."

Lucas arrived at Anfield as an attacking midfielder, who made late runs into the box and essentially represented a Brazilian version of captain Gerrard. But Benitez decided he would be best deployed in the responsible holding role, having never trusted Gerrard to fill such a position. The 2007 Merseyside derby at Goodison Park was famously an illustration as the hot-headed Gerrard was substituted by Benitez in favour of Lucas, who went on to secure a match-winning penalty.

The sale of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid led to a regular first-team role for Lucas alongside Javier Mascherano, who has since joined Barcelona. However, the arrival ofRoy Hodgson in the summer of 2010 seemed set to spell the end of his Liverpool career. He was told he could leave if he wanted and did not seem to feature in his new manager's plans. But the fighting spirit, which is not always evident in South American imports to the Premier League, again shinned and a first-team place was reclaimed.

Hodgson has gone, Lucas remains. He is clearly an integral part of Dalglish's plans, as well as inheriting Brazil's famous No.5 shirt under former Gremio boss Mano Menezes. The transformation from boo-boy to midfield engine room has been remarkable and it now appears that the much-sought-after commodity of time in football was the vital element. Lucas needed to settle, especially after arriving on a foreign continent, just out of his teenage years, and being deployed in a different position to that which earned the Bola de Ouro, the Brazilian Footballer of the Year, in 2006. A look at the Chelsea team-sheet on Sunday provided a perfect example of how difficult it can be for South Americans to find form and avoid injury in the rough and tumble of the Premier League as Ramires was not even named among the substitutes, despite costing three times as much as his compatriot.

There is a need to not to get carried away. The frustrating elements of Lucas' game remain evident; he started slowly against Chelsea; he can get caught in possession; he can give away clumsy free-kicks. But, as demonstrated by his tackling back in a direct duel with Michael Essien, there is the pride in personal performance that is rated so highly by Dalglish and mistakes have significantly decreased in frequency. 13 Premier League points have been collected under Dalglish in the process of close to 400 minutes without conceding a goal.

Argument

A look at Lucas' Opta statistics during his 90-minute, plus injury-time, outing against Chelsea demonstrates his improvement. His overall pass completion rate was an incredible 88.89 per cent, 81.82% when in the opponents' half of the field. These figures are very similar to his contribution for the 2010/11 campaign to date, with an overall pass completion of 84.02% and 81.08% when in the opponents' section of the field. One goal has been assisted and 14 chances created from a total of 1133 passes.

The obvious argument would be to suggest that the majority of passes have been simple 10-yard side-foots when under no pressure. But there is a skill to decision-making when doing the unsung task. Ask Sergio Busquets. A destructive force has also been added to Lucas' game. Ninety-nine tackles have been made throughout the season at a success rate of 66.67%. Four yellow cards have been collected. The second booking earned in the defeat to Stoke in November was an act of petulance, but also a reflection of new-found aggression. Seven tackles were made against Chelsea. This may not sound a lot, but that is one player recording exactly one third of Liverpool's entire tackle count at Stamford Bridge.

Lucas does not possess the natural pace, power and overall athleticism to dictate midfields, but he is beginning to patrol in front of the defence, whether it be three or two centre-backs, with brilliant effect.

He deserves immense praise amid the clamour for Dalglish to be given a permanent contract and the dissections of Torres' terrible 65-minute Chelsea debut. Lucas embodies what Dalglish seems to be trying to impose upon his team - a personal freedom within a team responsibility.

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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