Monday, 29 March 2010

Rafa Benitez: What goes on in this man's bright red clockwork head?

Liverpool 3, Sunderland 0.

If you don't like in-depth football chat, look away now.

This game followed Liverpool's 2-1 defeat at Manchester United, in which they were at best, as lacklustre as they have been all season, albeit it after a great first 20 minutes.

Just as last season, with Liverpool's league hopes now all but dead in the water, Rafa decided to free his team up to become more attacking.

He changed it tactically. Gerrard had been a supporting striker behind Torres against United, with Lucas and Mascherano as deep lying midfielders, passing sideways and backwards instead of forwards, which meant their two most attacking players were isolated up top and unable to influence the game when it seeped away from them. Kuyt, a Dutch international striker, was played wide right as he has been throughout his Liverpool career.

Against Sunderland, Benitez put Gerrard back into the centre of a four-man midfield - where he is clearly happiest and most effective - put Kuyt into the support striker slot, where his lack of pace is balanced against his ability to hold the ball up. Benitez also deployed Babel and Maxi, two international wide-players, as wingers.

In the interests of balance, Benitez was also able to field an almost first-choice defence (except Insua - Liverpool need Insua-rance when he plays) because Agger and Carragher played centre half, while Johnson was back from injury - his goal proved that he influences their attacking play as much as their defensive play. A good performance is rewarded with a three goal victory.

A BBC reporter's question to Rafa Benitez in the post-match interview; "So, Rafa, what was so different about Liverpool today?"
Rafa. "I don't know. We try to do the same things all the time."

No Rafa, you don't. You seem to try to do the same thing all the time, which is to play players out of position (Gerrard, Kuyt) play inferior players at the expense of better players (Lucas not Gerrard? Really?), play one of the massed ranks of your awful full-back purchases instead of Riera, Babel, Maxi or Benayoun), and just keep good players on the bench (Benayoun has a right to feel aggrieved and if Aquilani is good enough why the hell did you buy him?).

You seem to confuse and anger your players. You have lived off your Champions league win for far too long and without that trophy you would have been sacked already. The Liverpool board - obviously not a haven for sense or stability at present - were insane to give you a new five-year contract and you are now using that as leverage in remaining at the helm, while telling fans you will not walk away. At least not without your pay-off. It it, at best, disingenuous.

The Premier League doesn't need a strong Liverpool - the competition is as entertaining this year as it has been a decade and one club will always replace another in football's inevitable decline and rise - but a strong Liverpool is desirable.

For that to happen, Rafa needs to go.

He complains he has not been given big money to spend, yet I would argue that it is a rare instance of the board showing a degree of sense because his buying record is awful. Torres, Reina and Mascherano aside, how many of the 80+ players Benitez has bought have improved Liverpool?

He seems unable to find a 'diamond in the rough'. he has no eye for a bargain, or if he does, he insists on ruining them when they get to the club; Babel is a clear case in point - look at how the very raw Nani has been brought on by Ferguson compared to how Babel, one of the most coveted young players in Europe at the time, has gone backwards under Benitez.

I know they are slightly different standards for comparison, but down at Cardiff City Dave Jones continues to unearth quality signings at bargain prices, get us to an FA Cup final and into play-off contention when we should be in administration. He has an eye for a player, he gets the best out of people via strong man management and he does it all with no budget. Yes he has his faults - in my experience he's needlessly argumentative, he uses subs pretty poorly and could play the fans a lot better than he does; and he has also signed quite a few duds - but in the plusses and minuses columns, he is definitely a big plus. In a similar situation he shows what a good manager can achieve.

Rafa's problems are of his own making, the boardroom turmoil provides a nice smokescreen for his failings which he uses to optimum personal effect.

Rafa needs to do the decent thing and quit.

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