When you’re a really passionate football fan, defeat hurts. I know it and you know it, and sometimes it can be easy to react badly to it and come as a sore and bitter loser. You know you’re being a twat, but you just can’t help it. However, I like to think that most of the time I’m able to be gracious in defeat. Looking at Everton’s 1-6 hammering against Arsenal, I can freely admit that we were shit and so though bitterly disappointed, I didn’t throw a strop.
Of course, when you’re a manager, a defeat can hurt just as much. Few managers will have quite the same emotional bond with their side as the fans, but they will feel the defeat. It reflects badly on them, suggests they’re doing a poor job and can even threaten their employment. So it’s natural that they too will get pretty wound up when they lose, but I think that this opening weekend of Premier League fixtures has given us a perfect comparison of how a manager should go about reacting to defeat.
I’ll say now that this article will compare the reactions of David Moyes and Rafa Benitez to their opening day losses at the hands of Arsenal and Tottenham respectively. The two managers would have had hopes of getting a win to start the season but both suffered disappointing defeats, albeit in fairly different fashion. Moyes though, reacted with far more dignity than his Spanish counterpart.
I of course, am an Everton fan, but despite that I want to state now that this article is not motivated by bias, and that these two managers simply provide, in this circumstance, the perfect point of comparison. While I fully admit that some bias may creep in as a result of my allegiance I feel my argument is valid and well reasoned and I hope you’ll consider the arguments in a similarly objective manner before accusing me of being biased.
I discussed Everton’s heavy defeat yesterday and I like to think I was quite fair about it. I didn’t point out for instance, that the first three goals that Arsenal scored came from free-kicks that were, in my opinion, questionably awarded to Arsenal. Instead I simply acknowledged that we were utterly terrible, but attempted to gain some perspective, as the first game of the season isn’t the be all and end all. I wanted to moan about the referee, or find something else to pin the blame on, but that would have been stupid. We lost because we weren’t good enough.
It’s a tough thing to admit, because in my heart and in my head Everton are the greatest team in the world, but it’s true. And that’s why it’s so refreshing to see Moyes make the same admission and to shoulder his share of the blame. He has built a squad that he is proud of and that he feels is a good one, that is close to breaking into the top four and he desperately wants to achieve that too. Accepting ones own flaws and admitting that we are not good enough is a difficult thing to do, and takes a lot of honesty and integrity.
Moyes clearly has plenty of both qualities as he admitted in his post-match interview that he will “take responsibility” and “need[s] to do better with the players” he has available to him. He acknowledged that “the defending was terrible from set pieces” and that it was a “disappointing day all round” but insists that he is determined to “coach them better and train them better” in order to prevent anything like a repeat of that performance.
This is good to see coming from Moyes. While obviously the manner of the defeat was a shock, an opening day defeat to Arsenal would usually be no disaster as they are one of the ‘big four’ sides and have a good record at Goodison. Add to that the ongoing furore surrounding Joleon Lescott and Manchester City which some would suggest could have the squad unsettled, the key players still missing through long term injuries and the lack of financial power to add to the squad over the summer and there is plenty to suggest that Moyes could be feeling hard done by.
Instead though, he took the defeat on the chin, admitting that he needs to improve both his and the team’s performance in future. It’s a shame that the same can’t be said of Rafa Benitez. Liverpool too had a tough opening fixture away to an improving Tottenham side, but the Reds – who many have tipped for the title – were clear favourites for the win. They had a few injuries of their own but had their key players ready and raring to go and new signing Glen Johnson keen to make his mark.
However, Tottenham pretty much outplayed them for most of the game, Ekotto scoring a magnificent goal and Bassong wrapping up the victory with a fine header after Gerrard had equalised for Liverpool from the spot. Spurs were hugely impressive, taking the game to Liverpool and they could have had more goals, with Harry Redknapp rightly noting post-match that they could possibly have wrapped it up by half time.
On the other hand Liverpool looked well below par, they never got going and rarely threatened to find the sort of form that made them such a danger to Manchester United last season. They certainly didn’t deserve to get anything from the game and it took a clumsy blunder from Gomes to give them a lifeline at all. However, Benitez was fuming after the match at the officials who he felt denied him and his team two clear penalties, though I think the officials were right on both counts.
Whatever your take on the appeals though, I think Benitez’s reaction has been over the top. On the highlights programme screened here in New Zealand he was extremely angry to the point of being downright rude to the interviewer and snapped that ‘of course they were penalties’ (I don’t have an exact quote I’m afraid). The BBC reports that Benitez criticised Phil Dowd’s decisions as being “very poor” while he claims that “Everyone could see the first one was a penalty. The second one was handball but we knew it would not be a penalty.”
He also criticised the fourth official Stuart Atwell for being “too young” and suggested that “he has to calm down a little bit” after he sent (Liverpool assistant coach) Sammy Lee to the stands after the penalty appeals were both turned down. I think, having seen the footage, that Sammy Lee is the one who needs to calm down and that Rafa Benitez needs to stop criticising everyone else and take a look at his team.
The penalties were worth a shout but both were contentious, while Liverpool played quite poorly for much of the game. Benitez can have no control over the performance of the officials (though such ridiculous criticisms could actually make them treat him worse) while he can have an influence over the way his team performs in future so I think it would be altogether sensible if he were to focus on his team’s shortcomings rather than flinging at anyone and everyone else.
While he did admit that they “have to improve” he spent far too much time looking for an excuse for the defeat and even suggested that the clash of heads between Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel was a major factor in the defeat. If it affected their performance, surely it fell to him as manager to replace them and thus prevent any ill-effects? No, overall it seems to me that Benitez is far to quick to look to external factors to justify the shortcomings of himself and his team.
As Michael Caine playing the role of Batman’s butler Alfred famously tells us, the reason we fall is that so we can learn to pick ourselves up again. David Moyes knows this and so he is focusing on putting right the mistakes from the weekend in time for Everton’s next outing in their Europa League qualifier. Rafa Benitez though, hasn’t accepted any responsibility for his team’s fall and so don’t be surprised to see them stumble again if not in their next match against Stoke then sometime in the near future.
So even though Everton’s opening day defeat to Arsenal was perhaps far more demoralising than Liverpool’s narrower loss to Tottenham, I think that Everton fans have more reason to be optimistic for a positive change in the near future. These two managers have been proven in the past to operate very differently and though Liverpool continue to dominate in terms of league position, I happen to think that is a result more of financial resource than of the quality of the respective managers. Their reactions to opening day defeat speak volumes about them as people and managers so I’m sticking with my Premier League Previews: Everton will reach their target while Liverpool will fall short of theirs.
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