Sack Rafa? Sack Off

Sack Rafa? Sack Off
December 18, 2008 Paul Tomkins

I’ve read some rubbish in my time as a Liverpool fan, but the current criticism of Rafa Benítez just sickens me. While the word ‘sack’ hasn’t been bandied around too much, a serious lack of faith in the boss has been expressed by too many fans.

It’s not been a perfect season, and not all of the manager’s decisions have been to everyone’s liking. 

But excluding the Carling ‘reserves’ Cup, the Reds have won 16 times more games than they’ve lost this season (easy maths: 16 as opposed to one); they currently top the Premiership; they are through to the last 16 in the Champions League. This has been achieved without the club’s joint-best player, who is its main goalscorer, and arguably its most in-form defender.

Benítez’s overall league win-rate remains better than Bill Shankly’s, and virtually identical to Bob Paisley’s. The club has moved from a recent European also-ran to once again be one of the main contenders, and the days of being 30 points off the domestic league leaders look long gone. He has spent a fair bit of cash, but nowhere near that of the two teams who sit directly below. Yet he has a legion of serious doubters. 

There have been some dull, disappointing games this season, but also some incredibly entertaining ones. So on the whole there’s been a lot of exciting matches, and a lot of points accumulated. There have been loads of clean sheets, but when the Reds have conceded first, they’ve come from behind to win games on numerous occasions. Every time they’ve gone behind in the league they’ve won, bar Hull, when they drew.

So why all the abuse of the manager?

My main conclusion is that the modern fan is, on average, clearly a wanker. Maybe it’s just the internet that breeds a certain kind of wankerism, although phone-ins were propagating them well before then. The good fans remain, as do the great die-hards (of which I can’t include myself) but the wankers appear to be spreading. And I don’t believe it necessarily has that much to do with geography: there are good fans and idiots in every location, including Liverpool.  

And it’s not confined to the Reds.

Arsenal fans are unhappy with Arsene Wenger. Get a fucking grip! Jesus, how much more can one man do for a club? He’s ‘lost it’. I love this phrase; it gets bandied about with great prolificacy, and good players and managers get accused of it after one bad game: as if their talent disappears overnight, and their brains are emptied of all their acumen.

Like marriage, don’t you agree to take the good with the bad? (Actually, no, people just get divorced now, often in the hope of something better coming along. ‘The grass is always greener’ mentality has never been more prevalent. We’re all promised, throughout the media, that life is better elsewhere, that the alternative has all the answers.)

Chelsea fans are already moaning about Scolari. Get a fucking grip! 

Even United fans moaning about Alex Ferguson. Okay, so let’s have more of that, please! – but only because it’s extra stupid. Years of moaning about Darren Fletcher and other ‘rubbish’ players, but they win league titles; now some of their fans see him as one of their best players. Hmmm, maybe Ferguson saw something they didn’t? But hey, how can he, because what does he know about football, right?

There’s a difference between high standards and being spoilt little brats, and that’s what some Liverpool fans strike me as. “I want, I want, wah wah wah!”.

While I want the Reds’ coaching staff to strive for perfection, I don’t want every flaw blown out of perspective by doom mongers who lack insight and imagination. By all means nitpick a little, and look to what can be improved.  That’s natural. But to hear some people’s thoughts, you’d think we were the worst team in the world.

Yes, Dirk Kuyt’s touch is poor at times. Yes, Dossena’s been skinned on a fair few occasions. Yes, there’s not a lot of pace at centre-back, and Ryan Babel could play more, as could Robbie Keane, and Lucas can look a little overawed and, as a result, of his depth, and so on, yada yada yada. Obsess with just their flaws, and any team can sound like a bunch of no-hopers.

All teams have their faults, their weaknesses. All teams have dodgy spells when they lose confidence. All managers make decisions that don’t please all the fans. Get used to it! That’s football. 

Don’t take it so bloody personally if the manager doesn’t pick your favourite player, or make the obvious choice. Certainly don’t accuse him of having ‘favourites’. 

Because as a boss you have to believe in some players more than others, don’t you, and give them the time in the side you feel they deserve, either because they’ve earned it, or because you feel it will help them improve or rediscover their touch? 

Rafa was castigated for persevering with Kuyt, but the Dutchman remains one of our best players this season; he works his bollocks off, but he has also scored seven goals and been involved in countless others, like the two at the weekend. He’s not Maradona, but he offers something to every game.

If Rafa hadn’t persevered with Kuyt, the Dutchman wouldn’t have helped the great start to this season. Rafa has shown that if he doesn’t rate one of his own signings, or he doesn’t do quite well enough, he’ll be sold: Gonzalez, Bellamy, Kromkamp and various others weren’t kept for long. So it’s not favouritism, just the players he wants in his team because he feels he can trust them. 

If he keeps hold of players, it’s because he’s seen enough to believe in them. And even if he pays £20m for someone, he will not play him if he doesn’t feel it’s right. It doesn’t mean he’ll sell him, or doesn’t rate him, but he picks teams for a reason, and that isn’t to piss off the fans.

As a fan, it’s easy to carp both ways: Kuyt only plays because ‘Rafa spent nearly £10m on him’, and yet when he doesn’t play his £20m striker, he’s ‘pig-headed’. When players are left out, Rafa is ‘stubborn’ and ‘stupid’; when he changes his team to include those players, he’s ‘rotating’ and ‘tinkering’.

But the players he signed that he does stick with –– Torres, Reina, Mascherano, Riera, Arbeloa, Skrtel, Kuyt, Aurelio and Alonso –– all offer something that he wants. The same might apply to Agger and Babel. If Agger doesn’t get selected, and Hyypia does, that’s because Hyypia warrants his place in the side at this point in time. There doesn’t have to be a sinister reason.

Again, last season Alonso was written off, and the manager was unusually tempted to cash in on one of his key men; but now the playmaker is once again one of the league’s best players.

What I don’t get is that the manager’s decisions have been behind the quite brilliant start to the season, and the reason the team is still top of the table; but when his decisions don’t make sense, or don’t work out in a handful of less impressive results, some fans are calling for the baby to be thrown out with the bath water.

The fact is that with any manager you have to accept the good with the bad. As fans we can all cherry-pick the right decisions to replace what it appeared the manager got wrong, and ignore the hundreds that worked, but which may have been well beyond our comprehension.

Although I didn’t mind the changes Rafa did make against Hull (even Lucas, a box-to-box midfielder, was a more adventurous alternative to Mascherano, so it wasn’t without logic), I would have brought Robbie Keane, just as I’ve brought on Ryan Babel before David Ngog against West Ham. 

But if you had to rely on my decisions all season long, Liverpool would probably have been relegated. And had Keane come on and missed a sitter, I’d have been called an idiot for signing him. You can always blame the manager for something.

Sometimes managers see something beyond what we see as obvious. Experts work that way. The recent Horizon programme where Professor Brian Cox talked about time was a prime example; time to us mere mortals is a simple concept, but to particle, quantum and astrophysicists and their ilk it is a hugely more complex issue. They see things we cannot, and yet we think we know how time works. Because, well, we experience it, right? Just as we understand football because we can see it.

Against Everton last season, Rafa made the most baffling change I’ve ever seen: replacing Steven Gerrard with Lucas, who came on for his league debut. But it worked beautifully. Sure, Everton might have snatched a late equaliser to cast it in another light, but the fact is that Liverpool had a better shape without their best player, and finally took advantage of the Toffees’ ten men. How many of us saw such a change, let alone would have dared make it?

This is just one example. Every game the manager makes selection decisions, tactical tweaks, that have worked in the Reds succeeding times. Every week in training he works on stuff that we wouldn’t even begin to know how to suggest, let alone implement. He’s accused of over-thinking things, but then that’s always levelled by people who don’t have the capacity to think as deeply.

The renaissance of Xabi Alonso has meant a tactical reshuffle, as has the injury to Fernando Torres. Robbie Keane started the season as the second striker, but then ended up in a less comfortable role as the out-and-out forward. Ryan Babel was injured, then went to the Olympics, and Rafa was looking for a new left-winger anyway, so the introduction of Riera created a new dynamic. It was working very nicely, but a little less so of late. Even so, Riera was in the team on merit.

Babel might have featured on the other flank more, but Kuyt had scored and created numerous vital goals from the right, and helped keep a fair few out as well. This led to him doing well on a few occasions in his old role of striker, even if his most recent games there haven’t been as convincing; that said, he had a big hand in both goals at the weekend. Yet people still say he was ‘rubbish’. Take Kuyt out, and those two goals wouldn’t have been created.

I desperately want Liverpool to win another title. But I also accept where we are coming from these days, and that is the 4th-best club in England over the past 18 years, and far from the richest. So when every statistical analysis reveals the Reds to be the best team in England this season at home and on the continent, let’s give the manager credit for that, not berate him with bile over what hasn’t gone right.

To read plenty of fan reactions, you’d think Graeme Souness was in charge, and systematically screwing things up. If Liverpool were clearly regressing under Benítez, I’d find the criticism understandable. But when we’re doing so well and hitting our objectives? I mean, we’re in the position we’d all have killed for in August, and now there’s widespread misery. 

It’s frustrating to start stalling a little when we’re flying so high, but it’s this manager who got us into the air to start with. And even gliding, we’re still at a greater altitude than all the others, who are all gliding, too.

Benítez has built this current ‘success’. It’s not furnished with silverware yet, but it’s very much success by the standards of mid-December – which is, after all, all you can do by mid-December.

"Tomkins not only shows why he is a prolific, talented writer but also cements his status as very knowledgeable and passionate Red. In my opinion this is Tomkins' best work to date; a thoroughly excellent read."

Vic Gill, Shanks' son-in-law and former LFC trainee

“The project that Tomkins has taken on here is highly ambitious: assessing each of Liverpool’s managers since Bill Shankly. He does this in his own irrepressible style of analyzing in detail every area that falls within a manager’s remit. And whilst Tomkins has a talent for such a task, where he excels here is in approaching each manager without any apparent pre-conceived ideas.”

Paul Grech,

"A unique analysis of the club's managers, which is no mean feat given the extensive bibliography of the club… informative … another perspective on the last 50 years at Liverpool."

Programme & Football Collectable Monthly