Thursday, 23 December 2010

On Rafael Benitez

Today came the news confirming what had been rumoured for most of the week: that Benitez was to be sacked from his position at Inter Milan. And now, what with Hodgson's tenure at Liverpool being anything but secure, and the club now being under new administration, there's more frantic rumours and discussions over whether Rafa will find his way back to Liverpool.

Now I'm personally undecided on the topic. I'm honestly not sure whether I think it would be the best thing for the club to kick out Hodgson before he's really had a proper chance to get settled, and go through yet another transitional period with yet another manager. I will, however, defend Benitez's record, because it seems that some football fans have an absolutely fucking ludicrously short memory when it comes to managerial success. Any football fan claiming Benitez has no credentials whatsoever as a manager is a complete idiot, and here's why:

Firstly, lets look at results. Before coming to Liverpool he had his tenure at Valencia. They weren't a bad team when he arrived in 2001, far from it, given they'd finished runners-up in the Champions League both seasons prior to his arrival. Still, Benitez won their first league title in over thirty years, breaking the Barca-Real deadlock on La Liga. In 2004 he won the league title again and the UEFA Cup before resigning as manager over differences with the club's director of football. He inherited a decent squad, but I don't think it's at all possible to suggest that his time at Valencia was anything less than fairly successful.

So, to Liverpool. First off, I've compiled some statistics on league form for Liverpool, which was supposedly Benitez's main weakness during his time at the club.

SeasonPointsPositionFrom 1stManagerOther Honours
2000/01693rd11HoullierFA Cup, League Cup, UEFA Cup
2002/03645th19HoullierLeague Cup
2004/05585th37BenitezUEFA Champions League
2005/06823rd9BenitezFA Cup

At a glance, there's nothing particularly remarkable there, or at least there's no huge difference between the results under Benitez and those under Houllier, which is sort of my point. I see comments that Benitez "took a club fighting for the title and made them a mediocre mid-table 7th-place side". No he fucking didn't. Even last season, a season that was supposedly disastrous for us, we still finished closer to the leaders and with more points than we did the season before he took over. The fact that we came 7th was more a mark of improvement on the rest of the teams below the top four, rather than a particularly horrific season by Liverpool.

In the two seasons after the treble and then the close-run title fight with Arsenal, Houllier had us struggling to make the Champions League, and even when we were in it we were struggling to get to the latter stages. Benitez significantly improved upon that. His first season the league form was terrible, but we didn't have a great squad inherited from Houllier, and frankly it was a miracle that we made it to the Champions League final at all, let alone won it. The season after that saw a pretty impressive points haul in the league (though not enough to come close to Chelsea's whopping 91 points that season) and an FA Cup win. The season after that wasn't great for the league, but we got to the Champions League final again, and were arguably the better side that time around, even though we didn't win. The following season we had a respectable points haul, and then in 2008/09 we almost won the league.

It shows how ridiculously fickle fans are, and just how short-term their memories can be, that people could regard Benitez's time at Liverpool as something other than extremely successful. He didn't take a top club and throw them down into mid-table. He took a team struggling (and sometimes failing) to stay in the top four, was usually weak and uninspiring in Europe, and he turned them into a team that was challenging for the title and was a force to be reckoned with on the European stage. And then he has one shit season (but in terms of the last ten years, not that shit, and everyone forgets anything he did before that.

Not only did he improve results, he made Liverpool more exciting to watch as well. I have a great amount of respect for Houllier and what he did in his time at the club, but his style was boring and defensive. We would play defensive counter-attacking football, and generally would just try and hold onto 1-0 leads. Under Benitez there was fast-flowing, attacking football. We beat Manchester United 4-1 at Old Trafford, won 4-0 against Real Madrid at Anfield (and 5-0 on aggregate). There was also the Champions League quarter final against Chelsea, which we lost, but which finished 7-5 on aggregate, and the 4-4 second leg was one of the most epic games of football I've seen.

Even ignoring Istanbul, and the other honours Liverpool won under his reign, Benitez made a team which was enjoyable to watch and which, when firing on all cylinders, could produce some absolutely magnificent attacking football.

So onto his second major criticism, which would be transfers. This one is a bit harder to defend, not because it's an indefensible standpoint, but more that I don't have the figures and statistics so readily to hand.

First off, I'll say that yeah, Benitez definitely made some odd choices in the transfer market, or at least Liverpool did under his management. Frankly, I'm not so sure that every single player purchased by Liverpool during his reign was actually signed by Benitez, especially the likes of Robbie Keane, who was signed, rarely played under Rafa, and then was sold on at a loss less than six months later. I don't understand why Benitez signed Crouch, persisted in playing him back when he had an epic goal drought, and then dropped him from the team when he was actually started to show some form. I don't think his handling of Alonso was particularly brilliant either.

Benitez made a few dud signings. Morientes, Josemi, Nuñez, Voronin (though he was free, to be fair), Maxi and Aquilani. Lucas is showing some potential now, as is Ngog, and they're both still young players. Babel could be regarded as a shit signing, but I think there's an aspect of him just being not played in his natural position often enough.

However, for all his meh signings and occasions of poor man-management, there are plenty of gems in there. Reina, Torres and Alonso, just to name three completely world-class ones. And how about Mascherano, who wasn't even making the West Ham starting line-up when we signed him, and turned out to be an absolutely fantastic defensive midfielder (albeit a bit of a crazy one). There are plenty of other solid signings, such as Agger, Skrtel, Sissoko, Insua, Benayoun and Kuyt. It was his decision to move Carragher to centre-back alongside Hyypia.

Benitez also totally overhauled the youth setup in 2008, which is something that probably won't truly show results (if there are any) for a few years yet, but the trickle of decent talent coming through currently, and their youth cup wins might suggest that he's not done a bad job there either. He also put a fair bit into foreign youth players as well, such as Pacheco and Suso.

Sure, not all of his transfer dealings were strokes of genius, but at the very least most of the shit players we bought were either free or cheap, with the only notable exception being Aquilani, but Benitez isn't the only manager to have spent a lot of money on a player who is permanently injured.

Like I said at the start of this post, I'm not entirely sure if re-hiring him at Liverpool would be the greatest decision ever, but I certainly don't think it would be an awful one, because Benitez is not a bad manager. He's not a terrible manager just because he had a bad final season at Liverpool and didn't have a great start trying to impose his attacking style of football onto Mourinho's famed ultra-defensive Inter Milan team. Really, the main issue he has seems to be working under people, especially if he can't get his way with transfer funds, because he's managed to fall out with the club owners at Valencia, Liverpool and now backfiring quite spectacularly at Inter Milan

There are those Kopites who apparently only joined us in 2008/2009 when we were top of the table, and who can only remember Benitez's rant at Ferguson and the subsequent loss of the title race and then the dire performance last season. And then there are perhaps those who have been going to games for a bit longer than that, who have slightly longer memories, and who can recognise what Rafa did for the club and that maybe at the very least we'd have been better off not sacking him and replacing him with Hodgson in the first place.

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