Liverpool will want to use the disappointment of defeat in the Champions League in midweek as a motivator against recent table-toppers Arsenal this afternoon at Anfield. Arsenal dropped down yesterday after being overtaken by a Manchester United side with two games in hand. Liverpool are now in fifth place, six points behind Arsenal, with both clubs having played the same number of games.
The Reds have had a torrid time of late – managing one point from nine in the Champions League, and drawing games against the likes of Portsmouth, Tottenham and Birmingham in the league. They are – along with Arsenal – one of only two unbeaten clubs in the top flight. But they’ve even drawn criticism when they’ve won. Ignoring the inevitable bitter bile from the Everton camp, other observers criticised Rafa despite victory over the city’s smaller club last weekend.
One of the reasons Rafa got slated despite that win was because he dared replace captain Steven Gerrard for tactical reasons. It’s not that Steven was playing badly, Rafa just wanted to tweak things, and felt Gerrard was the most suitable player to make way. It was a brave decision: as if it’s not bad enough that Rafa sometimes plays Gerrard on the right, how dare he take England’s vice captain off the pitch like that? That’s the view of the pundits – but Rafa says he doesn’t listen to them.
And with an injury to Jermaine Pennant being confirmed by the club on Friday, Gerrard might find himself used on the right on a regular basis. Pennant’s been playing with a stress fracture in his shin since Liverpool beat Derby 6-0, but during the Besiktas match it took a turn for the worse and now requires surgery. He’ll be out for ten weeks.
Liverpool have had some bad luck with injuries this season – not all Rafa’s rotating has been from choice. Gerrard broke his toe, Jamie Carragher broke a rib and Sami Hyypia broke his nose. Fabio Aurelio came back from long-term injury only to suffer another injury, and Harry Kewell has only just made his reserve comeback after being out most of last season and all of this so far. Various other niggling injuries have had an impact on the squad, and Fernando Torres has still not played since damaging a muscle on duty with Spain. Daniel Agger is still out with a broken metatarsal, but Rafa is hopeful that Xabi Alonso will make his return from the same injury today.
Xabi’s availability means Rafa will feel happier in using Gerrard on the right, with Xabi able to line up alongside Javier Mascherano in the centre.
Rafa admits that Xabi and his fellow attendees of the treatment room have been missed: “It’s clear that with Xabi, Daniel Agger or Fabio Aurelio, players with quality in possession, you can improve your attack. The question is to find the balance. Xabi is a top class player. If he plays well then the team plays well. In midfield we have Gerrard now playing better and if you have Steve, Mascherano or Xabi playing well then you know the team will play better.”
He says Xabi’s speed makes a big difference to the Reds: “Xabi can play with pace. He has pace with the ball. It’s important that we have someone who can switch the play before the opposing defenders are organised, he can pass the ball 40 yards so the defenders don’t have time. Sometimes you need a player like Xabi.”
Rafa told Liverpool’s official site that hard work from him and his players will get the team through these difficult times: “The only way you can change things is by working hard. I always ask players when they are not playing well and giving the ball away, how can they change. They say to their team-mates give me the ball and they will try again. If they do not do this they cannot change. As a manager you have to do the same, keep going, keep trying the right things and hopefully you will win.”
Rafa wasn’t prepared to give too much away about the fitness of those players missing of late: “Xabi is fit. The only thing is that he hasn’t played for five weeks so we need to assess how sharp he is. As for Harry Kewell, Fabio Aurelio, Arbeloa and Torres they are all training. They are not training with the same intensity as the rest of the squad so it is only a maybe whether they will be fit. Seeing these players train is good because it means I will have more options for the team, but we will have to wait to see if they are ready for such an important game or if they need more time.”
Steven Gerrard’s form hasn’t been his best since England rushed him back from his broken toe, but Rafa believes he’s now getting back to normal. Despite the defeat in Turkey on Wednesday, he was pleased with Gerrard’s performance: “It was much better. He knows that it was better and I was really pleased with him. I was talking with him before the game and about his particular role in the team. I felt he did a very good job for us. I think Steven is coming back to his best.”
Liverpool’s “bad” run in the league has coincided with the departure of Rafa’s long-time number two Pako Ayesteran. When Sammy Lee, a former member of Liverpool’s coaching staff, recently left his job at Bolton, rumours started to spread that the former player would be back at Anfield in place of Pako. Rafa was asked if these rumours were true: “Now, at this moment I am very pleased with my staff. Sammy is a friend of mine and we have had conversations when he was at Bolton about the league and things like that, but now I am really focused on my team and I have enough people in my staff.” Sammy’s assistant at Bolton was Frank McParland, who’s also been linked with a return to Anfield as part of Rafa’s coaching team.
Some critics and rumour-mongers will have you believe that it’s not new assistant managers Liverpool will be looking for soon but rather a new manager. Tom Hicks laughed off such suggestions earlier in the week, and Rafa doesn’t feel he’s under that kind of pressure: “I would be surprised if my job came under the kind of scrutiny that Martin Jol went through. You must analyse everything and look at the big picture. This week Tom Hicks was trying to be supportive. I have a good relationship with him and George Gillette. I have had good contact with them. Sure they want to win. I want to win. Everybody wants to win. But we have the same ideas.”
Rafa says he’s here for the long haul: “We talked about the plan that will be for the next four or five years before and we continue with the same ideas. I am really pleased here. I am happy.”
In fact Rafa says that he’s careful who he listens to. The media is full of experts who’ve actually never been successful managers at the top level, all willing to throw their criticism forward, but Rafa says he ignores them: “If we make mistakes by reacting to what others say then we will have problems, but I don’t have any problems. If I need to work harder to improve things, I will do it and if everything’s okay I will enjoy it. We have the plan. The directors are really pleased with the plan.” It’s a long-term plan: “For one day you don’t need a plan. You need it for the next years and that is what we have.”
To ensure he’s not swayed by the critics, he watches match footage with the volume switched off: “This is how I work. I prepare for each game with four or five DVDs and the analysis the coaches give me. I prepare about one hour of tapes. But I see them without volume so I don’t hear anything. I can’t watch the games live because I am working. So I make clips. I keep the ones I want that are most important for the players. When I am working like that I cannot listen and work and I don’t like the players hearing anything because I prefer them to be focussing.”
Some have – laughably – even suggested Rafa is making decisions just to prove the pundits wrong. Rotating to prove a point! Unlikely, because he doesn’t really listen: “Everybody has an opinion and I don’t need to hear anybody else’s opinion but mine.”
In fact there are now so many opinions that Rafa couldn’t possibly please all his critics. Criticised for rotation, he’s also criticised for which players he selects. He kept the same two strikers on the pitch two games in succession – but is then criticised for doing so. Weeks of criticism about how changing the team prevents any understanding from being formed is now forgotten, because he should have rotated his strikers to give Crouch a chance! Rafa does well to keep to his own ideas and to learn from his mistakes himself.
Unless Liverpool beat Arsenal 6-0 this afternoon it’s pretty safe to say that Rafa will be criticised for something about what he does today, whether it’s tactics or team selection. But any win would put Liverpool just three points behind Arsenal, and would surely give the side confidence to get back on track again. If the players can follow Rafa’s lead and ignore the criticism from outside the camp they’ve every chance of closing that gap still further in the coming weeks.