If Rafa Benítez started to follow some of the advice – and some of the orders – aimed at him from the press and public he’d find himself running around in circles as he tried to make some kind of logical sense out of it all.
It doesn’t mean all the advice is wrong, or ill-thought-out, although when it comes over as an order rather than advice it’s usually more of a rant than anything of use. Most of the advice falls under a handful of headings, but most of those headings contain advice that contradicts itself.
One of them is his prioritisation of the cups.
This is one that always brings up contradictions. Liverpool start each season entered into four major competitions. Rafa prioritises each competition; so the League Cup is the least of his worries, then the FA Cup, with the League and Champions League treated about the same.
Is it right to place the League Cup at the bottom of the list of priorities? Back when Bob Paisley couldn’t get rid of the damn thing and it was never out of our trophy room the League Cup still held a lot of respect. All 92 clubs would compete for it, the big boys coming in for the two-legged second round.
Later on some top-flight managers, like Alex Ferguson, complained it was causing fixture congestion. They’d play with most of their youth sides and lobbied for a bye to the third round. When this demand was met it freed up two midweek spots in the calendar, handy for clubs playing in the expanding Champions League.
By the time Rafa Benítez arrived at Anfield it was already treated as low priority by teams at the top end of the league system. It was still a trophy that was nice to win, but most big clubs relied on the kids to get them close to winning it.
Now some of Rafa’s critics are saying he is disrespectful to supporters and also to the club’s history by not making a serious enough stab at the League Cup. The complaints were wheeled out again on Wednesday for the game at the Emirates, but not a whisper was heard about Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger doing exactly the same. Instead Wenger is praised for finding and showcasing some extremely promising young talent.
Rafa’s side in midweek was never going to be his first eleven, even without the growing injury crisis. But that injury crisis would have been the ideal excuse to use far more of the youth players than he actually did.
Liverpool had played ninety frantic minutes a few days earlier in the win over Manchester United and some of those who took part would obviously benefit from a rest. Jamie Carragher has had a tough season, playing with a head injury early on in the season. Daniel Agger had only just come back from injury and had worked his socks off for those 90 minutes. In their place came Martin Skrtel (who is often picked ahead of Agger anyway) and Sotirios Kyrgiakos, a capable if not breathtaking late summer signing.
At right-back he went for experience over youth, even thought that meant picking Philipp Degen ahead of Stephen Darby. Degen has rarely played since he arrived at the club as he’s suffered one injury after another, but the Swiss international got the nod ahead of youngster Darby.
Emiliano Insua has been first choice left-back this season, played ninety minutes against Manchester United, but still got the nod ahead of Andrea Dossena. It doesn’t say much about Dossena but it suggests Rafa felt he needed his best fit left-back to start the game.
In midfield Rafa didn’t have a great deal of choice. Javier Mascherano was suspended, Steven Gerrard was of course still injured and Lucas Leiva was laid up with the flu. Jay Spearing was now the most experienced central midfielder available, having started two games earlier in the season, including the league match at Sunderland. He was partnered by youngster Damien Plessis, fresh from signing a new contract keeping him at the club until 2012, and literally the next-most-experienced central midfielder available.
With Aurelio injured and Torres clearly not fully fit (having required a pain-killing injection to get through that game at Anfield a few days earlier) Rafa was clearly not going to be able to stick with the same four attacking players.
Two were injured, one was dropped to the bench (Yossi Benayoun) and one stayed in the team and captained the side on the night (Dirk Kuyt). Yossi would come on for the final quarter of an hour.
One of the three attacking players that came into the starting line-up was David Ngog – the scorer of the second goal a few days earlier having come off the bench. The other two were senior players, both internationals, who hadn’t had the best of seasons so far and were getting the opportunity to show what they could do – Ryan Babel and Andriy Voronin. Nathan Eccleston made a late debut with a couple of minutes left on the clock.
Benítez also used the opportunity to give expensive new midfielder Alberto Aquilani his debut after he’d been out injured since his summer arrival, the Italian international coming on with 13 minutes left.
Diego Cavalieri got a rare chance in goal, but Pepe Reina was named as the sub keeper rather than one of the youngsters.
Without risking too much Rafa took the game seriously and although it ended in defeat Liverpool did play well on the whole. Rafa didn’t treat the competition with contempt and clearly felt his starting line-up was capable of winning the game. But it just wasn’t to be.
Amazingly, a few days after being criticised rather unfairly for his treatment of the League Cup, Rafa found himself being criticised for putting too much importance on the Champions League!
A number of the usual suspects rounded on Rafa for his substitutions on Saturday, saying it proved Rafa thought the Champions League was more important than the League. It was reminiscent of similar accusations when Liverpool ended a five game winning run, in which they’d scored 22 and concede just one, with a 3-1 defeat at Reading. It was at the time that Jurgen Klinsmann had been having those interviews with the owners, and George Gillett was due to be in Marseille a few days later for the must-win Champions League game. Liverpool won that one 4-0.
Saturday’s game didn’t come in the middle of some impressive wins, apart from the one against Manchester United a week earlier, but the accusations were much the same. Just a few days after being told he should be putting out his strongest team for the League Cup, regardless of how it might cause problems for the next league game, he was now being told that he should stop putting the Champions League ahead of the league. Does that mean the League Cup should be put ahead of both the league and the Champions League?
One of those who had a big moan about Rafa supposedly putting the Champions League ahead of the domestic league is former Reds midfielder Ronnie Whelan.
Whelan is an undoubted legend in terms of his achievements in a red shirt, his goals a big part of the happy memories of many a Liverpool supporter, his medal haul huge. As a coach he was far from successful and had very little to write home about, but he’s been outspoken about Benítez more than once.
His latest outburst came on Irish TV where he was working as a pundit for RTE. It was an astonishing outburst, even allowing for people speaking in the heat of the moment. He said: “It’s all gone wrong with the manager. He’s shown exactly where his priorities lie. He wants to win the European Cup. He wants to be the man who wins the European Cup so he can get a job anywhere in Europe.”
The suggestion is bordering on defamatory, and certainly isn’t thought through. Is he really suggesting that Rafa only cares about the European Cup, and he only cares about that because he thinks it’s the ticket to get him a job at another European club?
Is that how the top European clubs do their recruitment now? They just wait for the European Cup final then approach the winning manager? Surely that doesn’t yield too many candidates.
Then Whelan remembered Rafa had already won the European Cup for Liverpool: “I think after winning the European Cup with Liverpool he will get a job in Europe anyway but, for me, now, his days have got to be numbered at Liverpool.”
Would Rafa have signed a new contract if he was looking for a new challenge? He signed that new contract shortly after beating Real Madrid twice, when Real were about to begin the change in their presidency that saw them spending crazy amounts of money in the summer. Rafa could have walked into the job at Real and put his own list of demands in too – but he signed to stay with Liverpool for five more years.
Whelan isn’t the only critic laying into Rafa for putting the European Cup ahead of the league. But he’s the most well-known and that’s why his rant has made the papers in England. He continued accusing Rafa of only being interested in winning one competition: “He showed me that he wants to win the Champions League and that’s all he cares about – because of the team he picked. He’s taken players off who are the only players who are going to give you a chance of winning the game. And he drags them all off because he’s got a game on Wednesday.”
Torres was, of course, only playing at extreme risk to his long-term fitness and was only risked because there were so many injury problems at the club. He was brought off, as planned, after an hour. And although the Benayoun switch was more difficult to understand, it wasn’t impossible to see a method to the apparent madness.
Apart from the possibility he was being rested for the Champions League game, it’s also possible that Rafa wanted to change formation for what was left of the game, in search of the equaliser. He brought Nathan Eccleston on, a striker – was Rafa trying to play two up front?
If he’d wanted to keep the same formation he’d have almost certainly swapped Voronin for Eccleston. To keep Voronin on and add an extra centre-forward he needed to take off one of the three who aren’t centre-forwards – Kuyt, Babel or Benayoun. Babel had only been on for 15 minutes, so it was a straight choice between Yossi and Dirk.
It was arguably a positive substitution. Rafa said after the game that the injury to Torres meant they were unsure if he’d actually only be able to come on as a late sub rather than play the first hour. Had that happened, and had it been Torres coming on instead of Eccleston, would anyone have complained like they did about Yossi being the one to make way?
And if Liverpool had not been down to ten mine, then nine men, one and four minutes later, would Eccleston have had time to impress like he has for the reserves? It hardly shows much respect to Eccleston, and hardly encourages Rafa to blood more youngsters (another of the categories he’s criticised for, not blooding the youngsters often enough).
Whelan sounded extremely bitter: “He’s putting all his eggs in one basket. If he loses in Lyon, he probably won’t qualify for the Champions League knockout stages. So, he’s out of the Champions League, he’s not going to win the Premier League anyway – so he’s messed up completely.”
It’s not the first time Whelan’s launched an attack on Benítez. In 2008 he claimed Rafa had been “backed to the hilt” by the American owners, giving Hicks and Gillett credit for providing Rafa with far more money than he’s really had. He said of the Reds: “They’re having a lot of struggles at the moment, they have no chance of winning the league and I think the manager is under a lot of pressure now.”
He thought the manager was under a lot of pressure so thought it wise to add to it. He did that by praising Tom Hicks and George Gillett for giving Rafa plenty to spend: “He spent an awful lot of money on an awful lot of players and they haven’t been very good signings.
“And people are shouting, ’get rid of the Americans’. The Americans have backed the manager to the hilt. They gave him forty-six million or something to spend in the summer.”
How much? £46million? Who did he get that figure from? And this one: “He’s spent nearly 140,150 million and he still cannot get close to Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea.”
Of course this is now moving into the territory of another of those categories where Rafa is criticised without any real balance: transfers and that dreaded “net spend” phrase. But it’s only Rafa’s critics who hate that phrase, because it tends to make their fantastic-sounding figures sound relatively ordinary again.
Whelan was speaking around 12 months after the new owners he’d just been praising had arrived at the club. Some of Rafa’s signings had been gambles but some of the names that worked out included Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano. Xabi Alonso – now credited with being the one man in a one-man team last season – was another, although he’d arrived in Rafa’s first summer at the club, 12 months before Pepe Reina, another of Rafa’s signings. But Whelan wasn’t impressed: “The players he signed I don’t think are good enough. After all the money he’s spent they’re still further behind than they were last year.”
“So,” Whelan said, “then you have to start looking at the manager who is buying the players and picking the team.”
Whelan has been known to praise Liverpool during Rafa’s reign; in fact he was full of praise for one of Rafa’s earliest signings, back in Rafa’s first season: Fernando Morientes. Whelan said at the time: “Morientes scores plenty of goals at the very top level. He is good in the air and good on the ground and he brings players into the game. He is everything a good centre-forward coming to Anfield should be and what is needed.”
Not quite how it turned out of course.
This isn’t an attack on Whelan; he says what he thinks and will always be a legend because of what he did on that pitch. He was still playing for the club when Graeme Souness came back as manager and knows first-hand the damage that caused. And his outburst on Saturday was clearly from someone who cares about the club. But that doesn’t excuse it.
To suggest Rafa’s main priority is to put himself in the shop window for a top European club is a step too far and he owes Rafa an apology at the very least.
But in many ways his rant helps Rafa because all Rafa needs to do is point to it, the part where he’s accused of job-hunting on Liverpool’s time, and say “see what I’ve got to put up with?”
He can then point to the confusion over whether the League Cup should be put ahead of the league, but the league ahead of the Champions League, before asking if he should just send the youth team to Lyon. Maybe one of the academy coaches could take his place for the trip, whilst he and his battered and bruised first team spend a few days recovering from the mental and physical pain they’ve endured of late.
What will really happen of course is that Rafa, his staff and his players will ignore the hysterical rants and work on finding their own solutions to the problems they face.