Liverpool should stick with Benitez

Liverpool need to circle the wagons; Photo by Jeremy Burgin

Liverpool need to circle the wagons; Photo by Jeremy Burgin

When a season filled with high expectations comes crashing down before the clocks turn back, a lot of questions will be asked about job security of the manager. Liverpool’s continued poor run of form has prompted a press storm in England calling for Rafa Benitez’s ouster. Some fans too are joining in, but even though Benitez does deserve some fair amount of the blame for the club’s predicament, Liverpool should stand behind their manager as the team tries to get back on track.

Twice as many losses in the first nine games as it suffered in 38 last year, and now four defeats on the bounce, two each in the Premier and Champions Leagues, put Liverpool’s hopes of ending their 20-year title drought are on the ropes. Worse still, the hated Manchester United comes to Anfield on Sunday and can add further misery to the Merseyside faithful. A loss to United would put Liverpool ten points adrift after just ten games. A terrible start to be sure, but with 28 games left, even a loss would not end their chance at the title.

Diagnosing Liverpool’s problem is pretty simple: a precariously thin squad heavily reliant on Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard. It’s fair to lay blame at Benitez’s door for that problem, but in assessing whether a new manager would benefit the club, it must be asked whether anyone else could change ails the club. This is not like Chelsea’s struggles under Luis Filipe Scolari, when the squad was rejuvenated by Guus Hiddink. I don’t see how a new manager could come in and magically heal injuries or create squad depth.

But just because another manager would be unlikely to fix Liverpool’s problems this year doesn’t mean that we should examine Benitez’s record. He fought through his first four years to finally win total control of transfer policy last season—this is his team. As has been well documented, the squad he constructed for this crucial season was precariously thin and in need of good fortune on the fitness front in order to win the title. He didn’t bring in a suitable backup to Torres and his replacement for Xabi Alonso, while a promising player, has yet to take the field.

It is not sufficient, however, to simply compare the transfer budgets of Liverpool under Benitez with Man U, Chelsea, or even now Man City. It is true that Benitez has spent a fair amount of money during his tenure, but money isn’t the only story. When Benitez took over Liverpool, it was extremely difficult to recruit truly top talent to Anfield, meaning Benitez had to choose from among players who rate 7 out of 10 and hope they emerge into stars. Alonso, Dirk Kuyt, Martin Skrtel, and Daniel Agger have proved good buys from this class of player. Fernando Torres was the first player to come to Liverpool that could have gone to any team in the world. And since his arrival, Benitez has brought in Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani, players largely out of reach of the club in previous transfer windows.

But there have been misfires as well (and the jury is still out on Aquilani because he hasn’t played yet!!!). The £11.5 million spent on Ryan Babel seems to be a massive error. Babel has enormous talent and a nose for goal like few Liverpool players. The problem is that Babel’s style of play doesn’t fit with what Benitez wants—he’s doesn’t do well out wide and he doesn’t track back much. Babel’s struggles at Liverpool are as much the manager’s fault as the player’s.

The Robbie Keane debacle, however, is what is really hurting Liverpool this season. Keane was the Reds biggest transfer prior to last season and he was brought in to add goals to Liverpool’s attack. It is unclear just how involved Benitez was in Keane’s signing, because the striker doesn’t really fit in the manager’s system. But selling him back to Tottenham after just half a season meant that Liverpool essentially went a whole season without significant strengthening and they are paying for it now.

Criticism of Benitez is not limited to transfer policy. Through his first several years in charge, Liverpool struggled for a consistent identity. Benitez was slammed for his constant rotation, but it wasn’t the movement of players that was causing problems, it was the shifting tactics. They were hard to beat, yes, but I doubt anyone could point to a specific style of play.

Then with the arrivals of Torres and Mascherano, Benitez found Gerrard’s best position in the hole and put in place a 4-2-3-1 that could compete and defeat the world’s best teams. The only problem was that the caution that Benitez was famed for wasn’t necessary against weaker teams that parked the bus in front of the goal. The result was a team that crushed Real Madrid 5-0  over two legs and did the double on both Man U and Chelsea, but also drew twice with Stoke and dropped more points against the bottom three than the Big Four. To his credit, Benitez has recognized this, bringing in attacking fullbacks Glen Johnson and Emiliano Insua and replacing the deep lying Alonso with the more attacking Aquilani.

It seemed to be working even without Aquilani until further injuries ravaged this lineup. And let’s be honest here, fate seems to be targeting Liverpool this year with not just a rash of injuries, but concentrated among the most important players on the team. In the match against Lyon Tuesday, five of the ten outfield players that would be in the first XI were either out injured or left the game in the first half: Torres, Gerrard, Aquilani, Riera, and Johnson.  

It’s important now that Liverpool don’t panic. Get some players back fit—none of those five faces much longer on the sidelines—and right the ship in the Premier League before possibly picking up a striker or an attacking right winger in the January window. The new £20 million per year shirt deal should mean money is available to make those moves.

But regardless of whether more players are bought in January, it’s down to the manager and the players Liverpool have now. Chris Berman used to always say, “No one circles the wagons like Buffalo” during the Marv Levy era. It’s time for Liverpool to circle the wagons and come out fighting against Man U on Sunday.

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One Response

  1. Good article on your site, too.

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