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October 22nd, 2009

If Anfield is the outer appearance of Liverpool FC – its face, its skin, its very public expressions – then Melwood is its heart, its guts, its nervous system.

When Rafa Benítez personally invites me to meet him for lunch at the legendary training ground, Liverpool have just seen their six-game winning streak come to an end in Italy, but things are still looking good. There is no agenda; just a long overdue chance to say hello, and say thank-you for taking the time to write for the official site for four years.

And it is still only a few months ago that Real Madrid and Manchester United were thrashed, and a genuine title challenge was mounted, despite the 4th-most expensive squad (now 5th) and the 4th-most expensive wage bill (now 5th).

(Anyone who doubts the utterly vital importance of the wages factor, read Soccernomics/Why England Lose; the biggest payers win the biggest prizes more than nine times out of ten.)

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By the time the meeting takes place, the newspapers are full of ‘crisis’ talk, just months after the best league season that any late-teen Red will have lived through. (The kind of late-teen now spouting off on internet forums about his ineptitude, not that they can conjure such words.)

Inadvertently, I am entering the eye of the storm. Or so I expect. The world is chattering about Benítez and his future, and here I am, about to spend part of the morning and almost the entire afternoon with him, chatting one-to-one about the club we both love.

Melwood has clearly come a long way since the days Bill Shankly turned up to find a glorified flea pit. Space-age facilities, pitches that put the lawns at Hampton Court to shame, and a bold red decor; but all fenced off from the world, and autograph hunters, by the same old breeze block brick wall.

I glance across at the legendary hill, constructed for gruelling trudges up and down, and the target boxes divided into nine squares, each with a number painted, the like of which I recall from pictures of Shankly’s time. But otherwise it’s from another planet, not just another era.

Having been on the Kop for the visit of Lyon, I dread the mood as the final 20 minutes sees a win turn to defeat, and more players limp off. I half expect Rafa to cancel, and for everyone to be in a foul mood; a time for inquests and recriminations.

However, I encounter no such despair; morale seems okay (if, understandably, no-one is performing cartwheels and dancing on tables like the cast of Fame). Admittedly I have no prior experience of the place to compare it with, but I am buoyed by the aura.

I get to see some of the training, but of course, there aren’t a lot of fit senior players out there, and it’s only a short, gentle session after the night before.

Around noon, Rafa greets me warmly for the second time that day, only now I will have his full, undivided attention. We head to his office, and within minutes he’s sketching formations on scraps of loose paper.

Despite the ever-widening criticism, this is a man who, over the previous four seasons, has seen his team average 78 points in the league; or the grand total with which Arsene Wenger won his first title. The team Rafa inherited averaged 62 points and did nothing in Europe in Houllier’s final two seasons (in other words, the seasons he was sacked for).

This is a man who has raised around £100m in Champions League qualification and progress, and reached two finals; despite no wealthy benefactors pumping in unlimited funds, and despite contrasting messages from up on high during the past few years that leave many people confused.

This is a man who has never had enough money – crucially – at any one time to put together a squad to match the expense of his rivals’. More than half of what he’s spent he’s recouped in order to make that overall spend, yet he gets credited with having spent mythical amounts.

This is not the ‘70s and ‘80s, when success bred success, as two geniuses held the reins for 24 years, before two other top managers kept things ticking over (and in Dalglish’s case, to a new level of aesthetic brilliance).

This is also not the ‘90s, when Graeme Souness, enjoying the last time the club was as relatively rich as its rivals (pre-Premier League boom, pre-United marketing machine, pre-billionaire backers), broke British records on spending to try and get the Reds back to the top, only to turn them into an awful collection of overweight, disinterested no-hopers, with the odd decent skinny kid thrown in.

Once that money was spent, and the thoroughly decent Roy Evans had been cheated by another record signing, Stan Collymore, who didn’t even bother turning up for training some of the time (but who is now an ‘expert’ on management), Liverpool had become also-rans.

And so I meet Benítez during a bad spell for the club, but a bad three months; not a bad three years, to point to the record of one of his critics this week. The club are still in better shape than when Rafa arrived; that ex-manager (Souness) left things in a total mess.

Some more context. At the end of last season, having shown them their best six months in over a decade, Martin O’Neill was being vilified by the Villains. Now he’s great again. Arsene Wenger was being gunned at by Gunners, now he’s back on track. Top managers have bad spells. Shit happens. Well-run clubs stick by good men; bad ones end up like Newcastle.

Why Am I Here?

With everyone from the club making me feel incredibly welcome, any nerves about meeting the man himself have ebbed away. In wandering around the canteen area, I see all of the reserve team playing table tennis and pool, ahead of their own light training before the evening’s game. Then the manager approaches me, and our meeting begins within the techno-zone that is his plush office.

Rafa makes it clear that I am here so that he can say thank-you for my efforts over the past five years, and to let me know that he’s impressed by how much I get right about him and his methods; he finds it unusual that someone takes the time and makes the effort.

Of course, this being Rafa, he points out a couple of things I’ve got wrong. (I like this: it makes me feel that he is not just bullshitting me; and he’s clearly right about what I got wrong.)

He makes it clear that he doesn’t want to colour or influence what I write, but of course, is glad that someone takes on his critics upon his behalf with actual facts, rather than spurious conceits.

I am not asked to change anything I do, nor to do anything for him. He just wants to make sure that when I talk about things like zonal marking, I am aware of the exact way the team line-up, whose job is what, and so on.

I explain that once I was made aware, from the outset in 2005, that he was a regular reader of my column on the official site, I had to make sure I knew what I was talking about; that my main aim was indeed to understand his methods rather than judge him, and that if I did judge him, I better be able to back up what I was saying.

Facts became more important to me than ever before, and when I looked at what kind of budget he was working on (compared with his rivals), or how many games he was winning, and all the other things that go to make up the context, my belief in him grew.

Even very recently, reading a book like Soccernomics/Why England Lose, I found my beliefs backed up, with its ultra-modern approach to the game. (No living in the past in that tome; it’s in a small part about why England fans expect too much based on distant history, but also about how money, and particularly wages, play a bigger part in success than people appreciate.)

Equanimous

The word I’d use to describe the manager is ‘equanimous’, which my dictionary notes as “mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, esp. in a difficult situation”.

If he doesn’t punch the air in victory, he also won’t punch a player in defeat.

But this is not to say that he is not passionate; on several topics he gets very animated. His love for the club is clear. He desire to succeed his clear. His burning ambition to get the most out of what he has at his disposal is clear.

I find him a warm, welcoming man – nothing like the ludicrous ‘cold’ stereotype – and Melwood is the epitome of professionalism. Other staff members point out that they’ve seen him give lots of encouragement to players, and certainly offers a human touch.

Yes, the conversation is almost exclusively about football, but his office has enough reminders of his family life outside the game to show that he is not some soulless robot, and his humour is clear. And anyway, he didn’t invite me there to talk about that week’s Strictly Come Dancing, did he?

We spend almost four hours over lunch in his personal meeting room, and afterwards in his office, going through tactics, personnel, and almost anything else you care to mention.

It is such a natural, easy conversation, at times I have to remind myself who I am talking with; and ‘with’ is the right word. At no point does he talk at me. And in person, his English is easier to understand than it is with a microphone thrust in his face. (For the record, I took no notes, nor made any recordings; it was just two men talking football.)

After several diagrams sketched on A4 sheets, he leads me to the canteen and shows me the day’s healthy selection. As I stand trying to decide, Alberto Aquilani taps him on the shoulder to ask about the reserve game later that night. They talk briefly in Italian. The boss turns back, and approves of my choice: paella, which I was pleasantly surprised to find amid the pasta dishes.

Later we discuss the new Italian midfielder: an independent expert had told the club that he would be fit for the end of August, but that ended up being pushed back and back. It was frustrating, but Rafa was very happy with what he was now seeing in training – the lad has vision and technique – even if he obviously still has to adapt to the pace of the English game.

(Later, as Rafa shows me around the entire complex, I am shown the special new machine that helped Aquilani train despite the injury.)

The fee is £17m, he tells me, and he points out that John Arne Riise (“a good lad”) has just texted him to once again to offer his support, and to say Liverpool have got a real gem in Aquilani.

(I like that a player the manager has sold still texts his old boss; no signs of a lack of affection there, even if Rafa makes it clear that it is obviously not his job to be best mates with his charges, just as Fabio Capello won’t be bonding with his players beyond the acceptable bounds.)

It was a difficult summer, Rafa explains, with Alonso determined to leave and Barcelona niggling away at Mascherano.

The manager certainly wanted to do more business in the market himself, but was unable to. His frustrations are evident, and he lists a few players he went in for; in most cases his interest was well known, but one less so. A shame, I think, when I hear the name. I’m also told of one world-class star in the making that Liverpool made an early approach for in 2007, but before the deal could be tied up, due to dallying, he was lured elsewhere.

We discuss the Alonso situation at length. Rafa made the decision at the end of the midfielder’s fourth season, in 2008; for two years Xabi wasn’t quite cutting it – loads of Kopites were even saying as much – and in Gareth Barry, Rafa had in mind a more robust player, with different qualities and, crucially, an English passport for the changing rules. And with Xabi’s wife expecting a baby, there had been rumblings of a desire to return to Spain.

A new formation was devised, to take into account Barry’s energy and his ability to get up and back, and also to cross with deadly accuracy, but for well-known reasons, the deal fell through.

By then the bridges with Alonso were somewhat burned, and although the Basque had his best-ever season, he had his heart set on leaving. Nothing new there, I know, but nice to have it explained in depth, in person. The player wanted out, and Liverpool got £30m.

Time To Go?

We are briefly interrupted at different times by Sammy Lee and Frank McParland, and I am introduced to both: intense, driven men who share Rafa’s desire for success, and the trustworthy sign of a firm handshake.

I’m not sure if the meeting is supposed to last as long as it is, and I keep asking the boss if he has something else to be doing; but he’s taken training, the physios are doing their job, and Rafa isn’t about to knock off early. It may have been a few hours, but it’s only a small part of his working day.

Even so, I can see how eager he is to have the world understand his ideas, especially when ex-players and the vast majority of the media are clearly hostile and keen to misrepresent him; he knows that unlike some of his rivals, he doesn’t have friends in high places, such as Fleet Street, Sky TV, the League Managers’ Association and the FA. (These are my assumptions; he gives no specifics. But it’s not hard to see which managers work the system for their advantage through old pals networks, and which clubs have greater influence in certain areas.)

Whenever I think I’d better leave him in peace, we get onto another subject. Zonal marking pops up. So, too, does Rafa – from his seat, demonstrating positioning, who should be where, against the backdrop of his broad office window’s glare.

This isn’t enough. A DVD from his extensive library is slipped into the machine, and now he’s showing me how what Liverpool deploy is actually a mix of both zonal and man-marking. I am shown who should be where, and what each individual’s job is; how that job changes depending on which foot the taker is using (inswinger/outswinger); and how there is as much personal responsibility as the alternative – everyone knows their job.

Then he takes me, beat by beat, through other teams, and the gross failings of some man-markers, and also points out several players who, despite being labelled man-markers, are marking zones! (men on the posts, and others here and there.) We look at a side who are very successful at defending set-pieces, and he shows me how they defend a similar way to the Reds (and holy shit, they do!); they just happen to have a lot of tall players.

Unfortunately, tall players who are also technically gifted, as all-rounders, cost more money; you can buy giants who can defend set-pieces, but can’t then play the game in the manner you require.

If you want very good footballers like Mascherano, Benayoun and Insua, then, as with most things in life, there’s a flip side. Good footballers who are also imposing physical specimens cost a premium. And even Chelsea, with their giants and noted headers of a ball, have conceded four set-piece goals in their last two away games.

Difficult

I put to Rafa a lot of the ‘difficult’ questions fans raise with me, and he answers each without a problem.

Obviously I cannot discuss all of his answers, because it was in the context of a private conversation, and I don’t want to betray confidences about certain players. He knows the balance of the team isn’t quite right, and he’s working hard to make the necessary adjustments; but issues with form and fitness are not helping.

It suddenly occurs to me that if every individual critic of Rafa’s could sit down and have a similar conversation, they’d be converted. At the very least, they’d be a lot wiser.

That wouldn’t mean they’d suddenly feel mistakes still aren’t made: every signing can go bad, every substitution comes with a risk, and so on. You can make the right decisions and get unlucky, and make the wrong decisions and get good fortune.

I sense that a big part of his job is building up the confidence of struggling players, and keeping the egos in check when they think they’ve ‘made it’. But then that’s just one of the tough aspects of management.

Stubborn

People inevitably say that Rafa is stubborn, but I don’t know one top manager who doesn’t have the courage of his convictions. Personally, I don’t want a manager who has one set of beliefs one week, and who then changes his mind the next. If you know something works more often than not, you stick with it when it’s not; changing is not the answer.

For example, four years of having either the best, or one of the best, set-piece records (defensively), is to be taken more seriously than a spell of ten games. And anyway, will total man-marking make Insua or Mascherano 6ft 5?

And people will criticise his decisions, such as playing three at the back at Sunderland; ignoring that previous deployments of the system, though infrequent, had proved successful.

We discuss the irony of the boos over removing Benayoun (whom he felt had played well, but run himself to a standstill) when a year earlier, the general consensus was that ‘he wasn’t fit to wear the shirt’.

And of course, there was the issue of confidence. The night before, Liverpool had at last found some of this precious elixir after taking the lead; but as soon as Lyon equalised, you could see it visibly drain away. That happens when things aren’t going your way.

Rafa tells me of Luis Aragonés’ saying “You can’t buy confidence in Marks & Spencers”. There is no magic wand, no secret message, no miraculous injection; you can only keep plugging away, doing the right thing, and hope that it changes.

We’ve all seen a striker who can’t score for love nor money, then one goes in off his arse and he’s bubbling again. That same thing can happen with a team; except on top of individual struggles, that undefinable “wavelength” confidence goes askew as well. Everyone is hesitant, in their passing and in their movement.

The same group of players who were passing-and-moving to near-perfection in the second half of last season (even when Alonso was absent) haven’t suddenly forgotten how to play football.

With candour, Benítez admits to some mistakes, particularly in the transfer market, but points out that he had to gamble on cheaper players when his first choices (whom his rivals could afford) were beyond the finances of the club. He knows that he’s often had to sell in order to buy; something that’s also not true at other major clubs.

He tells various stories of players who, despite big reputations, surprised senior Reds by their lack of understanding of what they were asked to do, and those who couldn’t adapt, or couldn’t (or wouldn’t) learn English, or whose wives wanted away. There are those who demanded guaranteed first-team football or they’d leave; so they left.

Then there are the agents, hangers-on, etc, and you realise that controlling a group of disparate, super-rich and in some cases egotistical men (Everyone’s Got One – only some more than others), half of whom are going to be unhappy with you that week, is a minefield. And for a clear outsider like Benítez, who doesn’t have his cliques within the English game, it’s certainly no easier.

We discuss who could still be at the club if he could afford to give contracts in line with Chelsea, Man Utd and Man City. He names good squad players at other clubs who are kept happy by handsome salaries.

We talk of how nice it would have been to have someone like Peter Crouch still at the club, but he obviously had to be behind Torres in the pecking order for front-line striker, and the manager couldn’t offer him big wages to try and make him happier (if not ‘happy’) on the bench.

We discuss several major players, now at rival clubs, whom he thought had been signed (dating back to 2005), only for the deal to fall through for reasons beyond his control. Again, mostly well-known stuff, but some surprises, and an insight into how he felt his hands were tied.

We discuss actual transfer fees, not what the media claims he has spent. And he points out that he often didn’t set the fee; after all, the negotiating wasn’t his job. He was surprised at how much the club ended up paying for players he had been told in his initial enquiries could have been got for less.

We discuss how, for example, people accuse him of wasting money on Dossena (“a top pro”, he says, but one who has struggled with the system), yet one reason the Italian isn’t in the side is the emergence of Insua – a very shrewd buy.

Whether or not Dossena would eventually come good (if given playing time) almost becomes moot; Insua, for around £1m, is excelling.

Insua could now well be worth much more than the fee paid for both him and Dossena, but people will only focus on the negative. Although he doesn’t say so, if Insua had cost £7m and Dossena £1m, there’d be no problem. So … what’s the problem? (And that’s before adding Aurelio, a free transfer; three international left-backs, two of whom can also play in midfield, for £8m.)

Rafa is surprisingly candid as we speak about pretty much every first team member, followed by every reserve, and even a number of youth players. He lists their strengths, and talks with admiration about many, but even the best he wants to improve in certain areas. It’s perfectionism that drives a hunger in individuals; there’s surely a reason that Steven Gerrard’s best form as a footballer has come under Rafael Benítez’s stewardship? Who cares if Rafa gives him a cuddle or bakes him a cake?

Later on, as I get the full tour, we pass one lesser known teenage reserve, and Rafa, pulling me to one side so the kid can’t hear, makes it clear that this lad has something about him. “Look out for him.” But sometimes it’s better if the kid doesn’t get ideas above his station.

Overhaul

One subject that I bring up is the number of players he’s accused of buying.

He grabs the white A4, and draws out lists of how many first team players he inherited that were just not good enough (roughly half). He does the same with the reserve team (almost every player), and then the youth team (every player bar one). It turns out to be around 50 players in total.

So when he is accused of buying far too many players, he points out that he had little choice; that many were bought because they were better than what was already there, even if, with youngsters, you can never guarantee who will make the grade, or how quickly they will progress.

And even a 17-year-old needs a professional contract.

He wonders why there is this obsession with all these signings, when every big club stocks its youth and reserve teams with imports and purchases.

My take is this: if you have 50 players at a club (from top to bottom) who you believe are not good enough – and therefore they need to go – you will not replace them sufficiently with 50 signings.

The law of averages say that some new purchases will get injured, some will not settle, some will turn out to be ‘not as advertised’ (i.e. they couldn’t do what was asked of them, or, though well-scouted, were not as good when seen in your team. Some will have been poorly scouted, hence Benítez’s desire to improve that side of things.)

Make 50 signings, and maybe, with a good wind, 25 will be successes of varying degrees, from acceptable to outstanding; far less if you’re talking about teenagers, who can fail to develop or lose focus.

It might take three years to make those 50 signings, and you may still be very short at every level of the club. So to get the next 25, you might need to buy 50 more, by which time some of the successes have left for varying reasons. So it’s a constant process of improvement, hampered by the financial inability to shop for more than the occasional established world-class player.

How can it go wrong?

He talks glowingly about Francisco Duran’s ability, but after three cruciate injuries, there’s a chance the Spanish younger, who was coveted by Arsene Wenger but chose Liverpool, will never be the same again. Wonderful prospect in 2007, but fate has handicapped his development. He may not have become the next Cesc Fabregas, but then neither would Fabregas had he had three such horrible injuries.

He mentions young players now at other clubs that he thought he had done enough to sign, but when not enough urgency was shown by those he was asking to do the business.

I am invited around to look at his PC monitor, to see his database of the full Melwood cast list, and who he has in mind for each position, from first team through to young prospects. I learn which kids are showing a great attitude, and which ones are disappointing him; the kind of thing you just don’t get to see unless you’re part of the club. It’s great information, but something for him to discuss with the players in question (and not for me to mention). Some, it saddens him to see, seem to have entourages already. He dreads good young players losing their focus, or having their heads turned. That’s why mentality is so important.

He rates Pacheco, the fans’ darling-in-waiting, but although he doesn’t say as much, he is another small, clever player, the like of which is already in abundance in a team lacking height. But Pacheco definitely has a chance, if he can span the great gap that exists from the reserves to the first team.

I mention Nemeth, and Rafa clearly likes him; but he needs first-team experience to toughen up. He’s definitely not out on loan to be offloaded, but at this stage Voronin, with his added experience (given that the first team is still very young, on average), was felt to be the better option as back-up second-striker.

Gulacsi (whom I earlier watched close up in a one-on-one session with a goalkeeping coach) is another prospect he has high hopes for; but young goalkeepers can get crucified after a mistake, and 20 is very young for the bench in that position.

Finally, Ayala is singled out for praise as someone with a great attitude and a very bright future. (Having walked past the 18-year-old, all I can say as I’d have hated him marking me! Jesus Christ, I almost shat myself when he looked my way…).

The difficulty, of course, is in finding loans for promising players that will see them get games; we discuss incentives for those clubs taking these young Reds, such as San Jose’s year in Spain.

Send them to rival Premiership clubs, as happened in the past, and it’s likely to be a struggling side who shows an interest (Chelsea aren’t going to want your best reserves, are they? – and nor will they get them), only for the manager to then panic (or get sacked) and the club jettison them to their own reserves when the going gets tougher. It happened with Mellor and Le Tallec. So the aim is to find clubs who will definitely develop them.

Finally, we discuss the sell-on clauses that some younger ‘flops’ (who are now succeeding abroad) have in their contracts. Again, I won’t go into details, but it’s nice to know that profits will be made on small investments.

Adios

Before I leave, I get the full guided tour by the boss (known simply as ‘boss’ to every player), and at the front doors, Rafa shakes my hand not once but twice.

He smiles warmly, wishes me well, pats me on the shoulder, and I can’t help but think “crisis? what crisis?”

Buoyed by his calmness, and after another can of Red Bull, I drive home thinking that even if we can get a half-decent team out on Sunday we can give United a good test, and what a difference a win would make. Then even the naysayers might be saying “crisis? what crisis?”

© Paul Tomkins 2009

Note: Due to the important nature of this article, I have made it fully public. However, I will answer questions for Subscribers (the only people who can post on this site), but obviously will not discuss any off the record comments. It’s a long piece, written in a very tired state, so I’m now trying to correct one or two typos.

I also have another piece to finish, looking at my day Melwood in other way, that will available on here for Premium members ahead of an edited version going to the official site (and ahead of a bloody long rest).



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