Normally, beating a team lying in 13th in League 1 whose star youngster wasn’t fit enough to be in the starting lineup isn’t a great accomplishment. But Liverpool’s 4-0 win at Marseille, a vitally important victory in the first in a series of three huge matches over eight days that will decide the direction of the remainder of the Reds’ season, their activity in the transfer market, and the fate of their manager, could be even more significant because it demonstrated the potential of the team when the right players are put in the right positions.
Benitez has taken a great deal of stick in the press over his team selection, most recently being lambasted for his team sheet against Reading and the “surrender” of taking off Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres in the second half down 3-1. I find much of that grief to be typical media hyperbole, especially so the case at Reading given the column inches devoted to the importance of the upcoming games in three competitions, Marseille in the Champions League, Man U in the Prem, and Chelsea in the Carling Cup. Isn’t it prudent to keep more than just one eye on those games while picking your team to face a struggling bottom-table side even if they have a decent record at the Madejski?
My criticism of Benitez is not against his rotation policy in general, it is that when he moves players in and out of the lineup he often fails to keep a balance of skills on the pitch. That was true at the weekend with a midfield trio of Gerrard, Javier Mascherano and Momo Sissoko. For all of Gerrard’s qualities, keeping possession often eludes him. That hole in his game is only a serious problem when his teammates can’t make up for it, and no one will argue that the calamitous passing of Sissoko or the wasteful actions of Mascherano can hide Gerrard’s errors. Liverpool’s midfield just gave the ball away too often to control the game and they paid the price for it.
At the Stade Velodrome it was a different story. Injuries precluded the selection of Daniel Agger, Xabi Alonso, or Steve Finnan—regulars who would likely be automatic selections for a game of this magnitude—but this Liverpool side fit and worked together like few other setups have, particularly the midfielders and strikers. Gerrard and Mascherano were again in the middle, but they were complimented by wingers that are comfortable and skilled with the ball at their feet. Harry Kewell and Yossi Benayoun not only kept possession, but were dangerous when they had it, forcing the Marseille defenders to cover the whole pitch. That opened up space for Torres, a handful in any circumstances, and Gerrard, whose trademark surging runs found fewer men in neon orange blocking his path. Even the energy and industry of Torres’ strike partner Dirk Kuyt was put to its maximum utility, constantly harrying the defenders allowing Gerrard a freer role and clearing the way for Torres to terrorize the defense.
So who will play in Sunday’s showdown with Manchester United? The win at Marseille Tuesday provides the blueprint—a balanced team on the pitch with game changers on the bench. Whether or not Benitez follows this formula for success rather than a simplistic look at rotation is how we should judge the manager.