Rafa Benítez knew as soon as the microphones were switched on just what he’d be getting asked about. Whether speaking at the official press conferences or to the interviewer from the official club website, the topic of rotation was sure to be brought up.
Rafa is the manager of a team unbeaten so far this season, which until Tuesday (with the second-choice keeper between the sticks) had yet to concede a goal in open play. But dropped points caused concern for some fans who may yet prove to be correct, but perhaps should wait a little before getting too worried. Supporters want to see the best eleven players line up for every game, they want that game they are watching there and then to end 6-0 to the Reds, and so does Rafa. Except Rafa worries that playing the best eleven players for one game means they won’t be able to play the next game. Furthermore, Rafa’s definition of “best eleven” means the best players for that game, based on fitness and (less so) form as well as ability, not to mention conserving players for forthcoming games.
His view of the season so far is that it’s going well, but he still isn’t happy with the way Liverpool’s fixtures have fallen: “I think that in general it has been good, the only thing that has disappointed me has been the timing of fixtures. After the international break we had to play an early kick-off away to Portsmouth and ended up with a draw. It wasn’t the best result but in the circumstances it isn’t a bad one either.”
The player we’d all love to see start every game is £18m signing Fernando Torres, but he was left out of the last two league games, coming on as a sub both times. It raised eyebrows when Rafa actually used him from the off against Reading. He got a hat-trick, but surely if there was one game he should miss out on it was that one? Perhaps he wanted to see Torres shine in what was bound to be an easier fixture, although his ‘official’ reason is that he thought Torres would be suited more to that game than he would have been against Birmingham at Anfield. He certainly wasn’t surprised at El Nino’s performance on Tuesday: “I was really pleased. People forget that we signed Fernando Torres so we already knew his quality and we have confidence in him.”
And so were onto rotation: “For me the key is that we have many good strikers and we need to decide which two will be the best choice for each game. I was sure that Torres could be good for us against Reading away. You don’t need to use all your strikers throughout the season and for me the key against Birmingham wasn’t Torres.” And Rafa made the valid point that the two dropped points against Birmingham, like the two dropped against Portsmouth, weren’t dropped because of the absence of Torres. The eleven that started weren’t up to scratch: “People say I don’t want to say it was a mistake, but it wasn’t just about starting with Torres. Other players were not playing at their usual level.”
Again Rafa won’t be drawn on whether Torres will play in tomorrow’s league game against Wigan. He feels he has valid reasons to choose who he starts with, and to keep his decision under his hat: “I am not stupid. I know if a player is playing well and is fit, and I don’t have a player better than him or at the same level, then I must use that player, but I don’t want to say ‘yes,’ because Kuyt and Voronin are playing really well. Crouch is playing well also, so why do I need to say this one must play because he has scored three goals?”
Voronin is certainly a better player than perhaps expected by most Reds, but expectations weren’t exactly high. Rafa’s claim that Voronin – for example – is as good as Torres is difficult to believe. Torres is a class above the other three strikers, and that’s not to take anything away from them. But Rafa’s job is to make sure his players are motivated and he continues to say publicly that all his strikers are equal: “Voronin scored one goal in the Champions League then was not playing and Kuyt was the same. The situation for me is similar. We are creating chances for all the strikers and they are scoring goals. For me all of them are similar and I need to decide which one is better for each game.”
Sam Allardyce, former Bolton manager hates Rafa Benítez with a passion, or so it seems. Now manager of Newcastle, but still not talking to the BBC because of their accusations against him, he said a few weeks back (to Zoo magazine) that Rafa would never win the league in this country: “Being a foreigner, Rafa doesn’t understand it’s supposed to be Premier League first and Champions League second. Only Europe has saved his skin.” Most Liverpool fans would prefer the league this season to the Champions League, because the Reds are well overdue their 19th title, but to suggest that Rafa doesn’t realise this because he’s ‘foreign’ was pretty wrong from the man known as “Fat Sam”. But he’s not the first to assume Rafa’s decisions are all because he’s foreign, pundits seems to imply as much in every Liverpool game on TV and in most newspaper articles. But in reality Rafa’s decisions aren’t “the Spanish way” – they are “the Rafa way”.
Benítez was actually criticised in Spain for his rotation policy: “At Valencia it was the same,” pointed out Rafa. “I was there three years and I remember in my first season we were 13 games unbeaten and they were saying maybe he will be sacked. Even after 13 games without losing. I was rotating the players and then in one particular game against Espanyol they said if he loses he will get the sack. We were losing 2-0 at half-time and I took off Aimar, who was the star of the team and then we won 3-2. And people said I was lucky!”
Ever since he arrived at Anfield there has been a sense that Rafa learns from his mistakes, and he isn’t afraid to admit he’s made them – just not necessarily the ones people accuse him of: “You need to take these decisions and when you analyse your squad you know that during the season you will make some mistakes, but you must look at the big picture and maybe with one mistake you have prepared the team for 10 other games.” And then there was a hint that perhaps Torres will be getting three games in a row: “Torres was talking about having fresh legs but if you use him against Birmingham and then against Reading maybe he will not be ready for playing against Wigan and Marseille. In this case I am sure 100 per cent certain that I made the right decision.”
Some clubs spend all their money on one or two superstars, but Rafa wanted to spend the funds he was given on improving the strength of his squad overall. Some good returns on players sold boosted his funds, but perhaps a little more money would have enabled him to buy more of his first-choice players. When the name Yossi Benayoun was first mentioned as a target it caused quite a bit of consternation amongst Reds fans, but he has already shown some of the reasons Rafa bought him: “I was really pleased with Yossi. He scored a great goal, worked hard and played really well. I think Sebastian Leto and Lucas Leiva also did well. It is my idea that you have a strong squad so that when you play in the Carling Cup you can change six or seven players and still win. If you cannot then you do not have enough power in your squad to play in three or four competitions.”
As for tomorrow’s game, Rafa doesn’t expect Wigan to be the same kind of opponents they were a year ago when Liverpool beat them 4-0. They’ve spent a lot of money by their own standards in the summer, and after resigning Paul Jewell was replaced as coach by Chris Hutchings: “They have players with experience and they will remember that it was 0-4 and they will try to work really hard to change the result. For us it will be the same idea as any other game, try to work hard, play well and try to win. In the Premier League if you are at the top of the table and you want to stay there you need to win almost every game.”
Interestingly, Rafa was asked about how Chris Hutchings might find the difference between being an assistant and being the actual manager. Rafa’s own assistant and long-time friend Pako Ayesteran has now left the club (or is at least on leave, officially). There’s no doubt that Rafa and Liverpool will miss him, and are already missing him. Rafa doesn’t like to get close to the players, from what he says that was Pako’s job: “The differences are that assistant managers can be friendly and close to the players. With managers you make tough decisions. So, for example if I say to Torres you are not playing in the next game after he has scored three goals, he will not be happy, but as a professional you must make these decisions and sometimes the players don’t understand – you must do what’s right for the team.”
One of those decisions might be to drop ever-present full-back – and occasional centre-back – Alvaro Arbeloa. “Arbeloa has been playing because we didn’t have too many options in this position, but now we have Aurelio fit and Riise fit again, he will fight with Finnan and we will see if he can play fewer games.”
Rafa also mentioned another reason for rotating his players. It’s a long-term view on the season: “People are talking about letting players play a lot of games now. They can do it – I don’t say that they cannot. They can play 20, 25 games, 30 games in a row if you want, no problem, everybody can do it. The problem is at the end of the season after 30 games, after 40 games. It is in the last 10 to 15 matches when you are playing for trophies, that you must be fresh.”
He went on: “If you don’t do something now you cannot change it later. If you play against a club that has 24 players in the squad and they are changing the players, the last 10 to 15 games they will be ready, they will be fit and you will not be ready because you cannot change the physical condition of a player in one week. You need months and if you cannot change it then maybe you will play for trophies and you will lose.”
Rafa wants his side to be strong for the title run-in and for the cup finals: “We are playing for finals. We want to play the last game of the season in the Champions League final. You cannot play the last games, the FA Cup and the two Champions League finals that we have been in, without the team being fit, without changing players. That is clear. The last 10 to 15 games I need Fernando Torres fit. I don’t need Fernando Torres fit for playing against Birmingham now if I have Kuyt, Voronin and Crouch. I need maybe the speed of Fernando Torres in the last game of the season, in the final of the Champions League or to win the Premier League. These are the decision the manager needs to take.”
One reason Torres may miss games regardless of Rafa’s decisions is if he is injured. The manager hopes tomorrow’s ref Mark Clattenburg offers more protection to Torres than he got against Reading on Tuesday: “What puzzles me is why people are talking all the time about Torres and when he plays, when they should surely be talking about how we can protect him when he plays. There was lots of talk about how Torres coped so well with the kicking he received, but why aren’t people saying that kicking was wrong? I’m surprised people aren’t talking about the need to protect players of quality, because if we want to see exciting matches with real quality for the fans, then we must ensure the quality players are allowed to play, and not kicked out of it.”
Clearly unhappy, Rafa continued: “With Torres, defenders feel they have to stop him by kicking him, and it’s up to the officials to stop that. I won’t comment on the referee at Reading, but you could see for yourself. He was kicked badly in the first minute. It was a challenge that could have kept him out for a month.”