Liverpool’s failure to get maximum points against Birmingham at Anfield yesterday fuelled the obsession with Rafa Benítez’s rotation policy. A still unbeaten Liverpool side have lost momentum in the battle to be title contenders this season, but a look at the league table shows that Liverpool are still in fourth place, having played just six games – one less than the two Manchester sides above them.
As frustrating as Rafa’s rotation policy can be, it’s a little early to be writing the season off yet. And it’s a fairly futile pastime to try and persuade Rafa to give up on his long-term policy of changing his teams. Fernando Torres was a surprise member of Liverpool’s bench yesterday, but Rafa says he had his reasons for leaving the £18m man on the sidelines for an hour: “I have four strikers. I played them all in the end. I felt that Andriy Voronin and Dirk Kuyt were the type of striker I would have needed to work hard against a packed defence. I did not start with Torres because we knew Birmingham would be deep, denying space and very compact.”
Rafa wasn’t given as much money to spend this summer as he would have liked, and it was free-signing Andriy Voronin he felt he could rely on for the visit of a side he correctly predicted would be looking for a 0-0: “Voronin is a clever player in such circumstances, and Kuyt works very hard.” Rafa felt that his decision to leave Torres out was vindicated when looking at the number of chances he had to get behind the defence when he did make his appearance: “We tried with fresh legs with Fernando, but you could see how many times he was able to get beyond their defence. Never! That is because he is a player that needs space.”
Sami Hyypia was asked how he felt about the absence of Torres, and if it contributed to Liverpool’s failure to get all three points again. Hyypia is in the side because of a metatarsal injury to Daniel Agger, one of a number of injuries Liverpool have suffered this season that have actually forced Rafa to rotate in games. Not that injuries were the only reason Rafa has rotated so many times, it’s what Rafa does and it’s what he’ll always do, says Sami: “Everybody knows the manager likes to rotate and he is not going to change his style, and nobody said anything about it when we were winning. Now we have drawn a couple and everyone wants to talk about it. That is silly. It is his style and he is not going to change regardless of what anybody says.”
Blues manager Steve Bruce was full of respect for his opposite number and would not criticise him for the omission of Torres: “As managers we are paid to make big decisions. Who am I to argue against something Rafa Benitez does over playing Torres or not. After what he has achieved in the game, I’ll sit on the fence on this one.” Rafa has yet to achieve a victory over Birmingham in the league, although one of the seasons he’s been in charge of the Reds Birmingham weren’t in the Premier League. And he did manage to beat them 7-0 in the FA Cup, as Bruce recalled: “Liverpool gave us the biggest hiding of our lives two seasons ago in the FA Cup, so for me to come here and nick a point is very sweet. Rafa has not beaten me in the league.”
Bruce said he had to play defensively because of the gap in quality between the two squads: “We only had about three lads out there who had even been to Anfield before. You must do something different: If you play 4-4-2 and you have as good players to match what they have, then you can have a great open game, but life is not like that. We have had to work hard and frustrate them with players behind the ball.”
He went on: “As a club we have to love occasions like this, playing at venues like this, and we want to be back here next season. We know we are going to be one of the clubs loitering around the bottom of the table, and it is absolutely vital that we stay in the division.”
He was delighted that his meticulous planning had worked, and that his players worked as hard as he’d asked: “We are their bogey side in league games and we aimed to continue that. We needed to run a million miles and they did that, we stuck to the game-plan, executed it really well and got our rewards. The way we played we deserved something.”
Benítez said Birmingham deserved their point: “The game was very frustrating, we tried to play wide, we tried to get the ball into the box and we did everything we could to break them down – in the end we ran out of ideas. The game was too narrow, it was too congested in the box and there was no space. Credit to Birmingham, they were very well organised and worked very hard. They made it very difficult.”
He says Liverpool know that teams will play this way at Anfield, and know they need to find out how to get round it: “I suppose we must expect that style of play, but it is up to us to break it down, to find the spaces.”
Liverpool did create chances, did have shots at goal, but none went in. As time went on Birmingham’s confidence increased and Liverpool’s went the other way: “It would have been a different game if we had scored from one of our early chances,” Rafa said, “but as each minute went by the situation became more difficult for us.”
Hyypia had an opportunity to leave the club in the summer after dropping down the centre-back pecking order. He chose to stay, and with Agger’s broken foot he will be getting more games than perhaps he expected, although he’s not happy with the circumstances: “I am going to get games now because Daniel Agger is injured. I am not happy with the way I get games, but that is the way it is here at this stage of my career. I could have left but I wanted to stay with a winning club. I have had such a good time here, the fans and everyone has been very good to me and there is no reason to look elsewhere.”
Rafa was confident enough in the former captain that he didn’t buy any cover for the position this summer, but that may change next summer when Hyypia’s contract comes to an end: “I am happy to be here and we will see what happens next summer when my contract runs out. I am not thinking of the end of the season, there has been some talk of a new contract, but that is only from the manager in the media. He has not said anything to me. I will wait to see whether I get the papers in front of me to sign.”
Hyypia is often criticised for being slow, but he says he’s never been known for his pace, trying to use his knowledge of the game to be in the right place at the right time: “I don’t think I am any slower than I used to be. I have never been a rocket – my style has not changed in 10 years. It is not that I am getting any slower. But I do not need to race quick strikers; I try to be in the right position all the time.”
Liverpool’s next match is the Carling Cup tie against Reading on Tuesday, when Rafa is guaranteed to rotate his squad. Then it’s a visit to Wigan in the league, and with that match being played days before a Champions League clash with Marseilles it does seem unlikely that Rafa will risk Fernando Torres. Which means more criticism will be coming his way, unless the result silences those critics.