In recent weeks dark clouds have been moving towards Anfield and more explicitly manager Rafael Benitez.
Liverpool’s season stands on the brink of ruin even before November. Nine games into the 2009/10 campaign and the Reds sit in eighth place, with four defeats to their name. This week sees the team go up against Lyon in the Champions League and then Manchester United in the league in two season-defining games. Defeat in both clashes will see a Premier League title bid written off and progression in the Champions League an up-hill struggle. Should He Stay or Should He Go? weighs up the pros and cons of Rafa Benitez’s time at Liverpool and truly decides where his future lies.
Go – Xabi Alonso’s ghost continues to haunt Liverpool through the Press this campaign. Every bad performance is seemingly pinned on the lack of creativity coming from Javier Mascherano and Lucas in the centre. The Spanish international’s treatment over the 2008 summer was ultimately the deciding factor in him leaving as Benitez’s attempts to finance a deal for Gareth Barry openly saw him look to offload Alonso, despite the player’s desire to stay. The midfielder went on to produce his best season as a professional and contributed to the club’s second place finish. In doing so he attracted the attention of Real Madrid, who ultimately provided Benitez and Alonso a solution to their broken relationship.
Alonso had been one of Benitez’s first signings at Anfield and proved to be one of his better ones too. The breakdown in their relationship has cost the side one of its best players and Alonso’s departure can be directly pinned on his now former manager. Benitez ultimately missed out on Barry to Manchester City and has had to gamble on the fitness and finesse of Alberto Aquilani. We are not judging Benitez’s future at Anfield based on one poorly conceived transfer campaign, instead using it as the latest in a long line of poorly executed transfers at the club.
Regardless of the funds available to Benitez to bolster his squad, the players he has brought in and shown great faith in during his time as Liverpool manager have collectively underperformed. There is a long, expensive list of underachievers and misfits to have played at Anfield in the past few seasons, and whilst Benitez has only recently been granted full control of transfers at the club in his latest contract, he has always had a say in who the club has bought during his tenure. Before the Alonso debacle there was the Robbie Keane fiasco. The Irishman joining a long list of players to have passed through the revolving doors at Anfield after promising so much on arrival only to leave too soon (or not soon enough). Momo Sissoko, Peter Crouch, Craig Bellamy, Scott Carson and Jermaine Pennant are all names on that list, expect Ryan Babel to join them soon. Michael Owen wasn’t convinced by Liverpool’s direction domestically or in Europe, and after Benitez failed to persuade him to sign a contract extension, the manager was forced to sell an iconic figure before he’d even started work.
Beyond transfers is the manager’s relationship with his players. When teams start to falter, this is often the first thing to look at. The calm methodical approach which guided Liverpool to the Champions League trophy five years ago is still in place, but the stubborn nature of the manager to stick with methods and tactics that have shown flaws time after time is affecting the team’s performance. Uncertainty flows through the back-line, with the zonal marking system seeing the Reds ship nine goals from set-pieces this campaign already. Whether Benitez can still affect change on his players and correct these flaws in time is up for debate.
Stay – That same extensive list of transfers since Benitez’s arrival in 2004 should also take into consideration the one that didn’t happen. Steven Gerrard to Chelsea. The talisman of both club and country looked set to leave the club before a dramatic overnight u-turn. Benitez’s role in persuading the player to stay is unclear – the player cited the relationship with the fans as a major contributing factor – but Gerrard’s decision can still in part be put down to the plans his newly-arrived manager had in place.
Those plans led the club almost immediately to the Champions League. You cannot plan to win such a tournament, nor expect to do so in the circumstances against Milan in Istanbul, but it is forever written in Liverpool’s history as one of their greatest nights, and Benitez’s role cannot be underestimated. He transformed the team in his first season, and despite the loss of Owen, rejuvenated Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia into a world-class centre-back pairing, and successfully introduced Alonso and Luis Garcia into the midfield. Gerrard’s role has grown under the Spaniard, despite the chopping and changing of position for the England star, and the fact is, Gerrard leaving Liverpool is now inconceivable and this can be put down to Benitez’s impact at the club.
The Alonso issue deserves a second opinion too. When Benitez was looking to sell Alonso in 2008, he was seeking to dispose of a player who had under-performed in the past two campaigns and whose job at that time was ably shadowed by Mascherano and Gerrard, with Barry simply a better alternative due to come in. No-one could foresee the impact Alonso would have in his last year with Liverpool, and it was Benitez’s best and worst scenarios coming together in one go. Alonso left Liverpool with a huge gap to fill, whilst also commanding a huge fee to the Reds’ benefit.
Benitez has taken this club to a new level, stamping his image on the side and delivering a large element of stability to a sleeping giant of previous glory. Continued success in Europe, after reaching another European Cup final two years later, appears to have masked the continued inability to reach the Premier League’s summit, but year on year, Liverpool have looked more threatening on the domestic stage too.
On a tactical front, Benitez has been superb in outwitting some of Europe’s best sides with emphasis placed on organisation and control. Memorable results such as against Real Madrid last season display a first-class tactical knowledge and awareness rivalled by few in the game. His status as a successful European manager has attracted big names such as Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano to the club and has reinstated their status as a force on the world stage. Liverpool had become extremely difficult to beat following last seasons never-say-die attitude, with the side coming from behind to win on numerous occasions, including at home to Manchester United. The team enter European competition each year with high expectations, directly off of Benitez’s influence on the side.
Benitez gave the players belief and confidence through 2008/09 that they were capable of challenging on more than one front, and was a few 0-0 draws away from achieving something no manager has achieved in 20 years at Anfield. This was all achieved to the back-drop of squabbling owners and persistent rumours of his own future at the club. Rumours that look set to return.
Sadly, a wavering football manager has a short shelf-life and the cruel nature of football means that the longer the results continue to be affected by whatever influences – be them directorial or managerial – it will be Benitez presented as the fall guy. It would be utter madness on the part of the owners to dispense with the services of a manager who very few in world football could replace, but stranger things have happened in football.