Reading the pre-season forecasts from many of football’s most well-known pundits before the Premier League season kicked off, it would have been easy to get the impression that Liverpool were shoo-ins to finally lift the Premier League trophy. Every man and his dog (well, except me) seemed to think that this was going to be Liverpool’s season and yet here we are nine games in and they’ve already lost four matches and are looking a little bit all over the show.
While many a Red Liverpudlian will point accusingly at a red beach ball after today’s defeat to Sunderland, the truth is that the Black Cats thoroughly deserved the win and for much of this season, Liverpool simply haven’t looked like a top four side, never mind a team that could realistically challenge for the title. So the question is, after all the pre-season optimism, what on earth has happened to see them slump to such a poor start?
Because it’s not just their league form that has been poor either, as they’ve struggled in Europe as well, which is often their strong suit. After stumbling past lowly Debrecen with an unconvincing 1-0 win at Anfield they slipped up big time in Florence when beaten by two Stevan Jovetic goals against Fiorentina. Defeats to Tottenham, Villa, Chelsea and Sunderland and constant boardroom unrest mean it’s not been a good season so far at all, so what’s going wrong?
Well I must be honest and say that despite my usual reluctance to throw the blame at the feet of a manager, I can’t look past Rafa Benitez in this situation. Now I’ll admit that as a proclaimed and passionate Evertonian I’m no friend to Benitez or Liverpool, but I do attempt to maintain an objective point of view when writing for this site and I think that the arguments I’ll be making in this article are not coloured by prejudice, however vehemently I’ve criticised Benitez in the past (which is quite vehemently, I’ll admit).
The simple fact is that Rafa entered this season with a squad that doesn’t have enough strength in depth to mount a serious title challenge, and for that he has only himself to blame. Looking at Liverpool’s performances so far this season they seem to be lacking in every area of the pitch: with Carragher ageing and off form they have no cover, without Alonso and with Aquilani injured their midfield is too lightweight and up front they only have Fernando Torres. Of course, using “only” and “Fernando Torres” in the same sentence feels wrong, but we all know how prone he is to injury.
While I’m the first to admit that Rafa’s experiment with Robbie Keane last season didn’t work, and he was perhaps right to offload the Irishman, he still needed replacing. Torres is quite simply the best striker in the world at present, but no matter how good he is, that does not justify Rafa’s decision to come into this season with only one front line striker. You may argue the merits of Kuyt, Vornin and Babel with me, but I think they are neither out-and-out strikers nor good enough (except Kuyt on his day), and Rafa’s failure to rectify that was criminal.
A further huge oversight on Benitez’s part was to underestimate the importance of Alonso to his side. Despite having been treated like shit the summer before, Alonso was immense for the Reds last season and was the reason why Liverpool could still play in the periods when both Gerrard and Torres were injured. Letting such a player go could only be justified by replacing him adequately – and even if Aquilani a) ever gets fit and b) turns out to be any good, he’s not a like for like replacement for Alonso and they will still miss the Spaniard.
At the back too, Benitez spent an awful lot of money on Glen Johnson – a defender who can’t defend very well – and let go of utility man Alvaro Arbeloa, while signing the ageing and unconvincing Sotirios Kyrgiakos as cover at the last minute, despite the fact that Carragher is getting old pretty quickly, Martin Skrtel is a bit shit and Daniel Agger is injury prone. It’s little wonder that they’ve only kept two clean sheets so far this season is it?
Of course, some will attempt to relieve Benitez of responsibility for his squad’s lack of depth by pointing the finger at the club’s board, and suggesting that he didn’t have any money available to him this summer with which to strengthen. While I won’t deny that the American owners of the club probably aren’t helping matters though, one can’t overlook the amount of money spent on Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani (it was a lot) and let’s face it, even if Rafa had had more money to spend, he’d have wasted it.
That’s because his record in the transfer market is abysmal for all to see. While this list (select Rafa from the “View by Manager” drop down list) is not fully up to date, it very quickly gives you a very clear sense of how much money Benitez has spent and how few of those players have made a serious impact at Liverpool. Cisse, Josemi, Morientes, Gonzalez, Sissoko, Crouch, Bellamy, Paletta, Pennant, Babel, Cavalieri and Keane: all players who Benitez spent serious money on, and how much did they contribute?
Of course, every now and then he’s signed a brilliant player, such as Torres, Alonso, Mascherano to name three of uh… three, but when you have £49.2m to spend on three players they should be bloody good. Looking through that list though, Rafa has spent that amount several times over and while a couple of his other signings have done OK for Liverpool, for the amount he’s spent, there’s been very little in terms of returns.
Even so though, Benitez does have at his command a squad that should be capable of making it into the top four quite comfortably. Unfortunately though, not only is Benitez somewhat incompetent in the transfer market, he’s not very good on the training ground or at the tactics board either. He’s exceedingly poor at nurturing young talent – he’s been there five years now and (correct me if I’m wrong) not one youngster has progressed from the club’s youth academy under his tutelage.
Evidence of this was seen at Sunderland yesterday when Jay Spearing, perhaps the club’s best prospect, was thrown into the deep end during a must win encounter when the team was setup in an unfamiliar formation. Any manager worth his salt knows that kids like Spearing need to be introduced gradually and given significant tastes of first team action before they’re ready to play from the start. Yes, they may have been short due to injuries and the international break but there had to be better options – throwing Spearing in like that could ultimately harm his development.
He struggles tactically too, he’s famous for playing people out of position (there are few people who could mistake Peter Crouch for a winger, let’s be fair) and seems incapable of finding a system whereby he can accomodate a partner for Torres, the best striker in the world, who links up so prolifically with David Villa for the Spanish national team. This lack of tactical prowess was showcased at the Stadium of Light too, with Benitez’s decision to play with three central defenders and wing backs leaving a midfield or Lucas and Spearing criminally exposed.
Of course, it’s not all negative when it comes to Benitez, he is after all such a likeable chap who is always magnanimous in defeat (due to the difficulties inherent in conveying sarcasm through text, let me assure you that last sentence was loaded with it, see: exhibit A, exhibit B & exhibit C). Benitez again lost his temper in the face of defeat yesterday, accusing Sunderland of faking injury to waste time, only to see both players require the use of a stretcher – suggesting that they were in fact, quite badly hurt.
It seems clear to me then, that Rafa Benitez as a manager is looking increasingly incapable of taking Liverpool to the Premier League title that their fans so crave. While he will doubtless remain popular as the man who brought them the Champions League in 2005, the simple fact is that for too long Benitez’s Liverpool side have been carried by Steven Gerrard, with Fernando Torres taking up some of that burden since his arrival a few seasons ago.
Simply put, any manager able to call on the quality of those two absolute world class players while also given such copious amounts of money to spend over a period of five years should be seeing his team making a serious push for the title every season. Rafa has managed it only once though (last season) and if their start is anything to go by, the 09/10 Premier League season will be another failure for the Reds of Merseyside.
Strangely, I’m beginning to warm to Benitez. Because let’s face it, if Liverpool had had a competent manager in charge over the past five seasons, someone with a bit of tactical cunning about them and an eye for a decent player, it’s highly likely that Liverpool would have had significantly more success in recent years. As an Evertonian that’s the very last thing I want to see, and so I hope that Rafa stays at Liverpool for many seasons, but I have little doubt that he’s a very poor manager, and is the main reason behind Liverpool’s struggles so far this season.
Have your say:
What are your thoughts relating to Benitez and to Liverpool’s season so far? Is Rafa to blame or have I missed another cause? I’m anticipating some backlash from some Liverpool fans – have I been harsh to Rafa or do you think it’s time he went? Leave a comment with your thoughts below…