Sick Of Defending Benítez

Sick Of Defending Benítez
January 29, 2009 Paul Tomkins

At times like these I feel like giving up. The voices of doom are becoming cacophonous, and here I am again suggesting that things really aren’t that bad. Because, let’s face it, they’re not.

Not that I'm happy with the way things are panning out lately, either. It sucks. I’m fed up, frustrated, disappointed. But sack the manager? Call him some pretty disgusting names? Accuse him of ‘ruining’ our club? No. Never.

Benítez’s greatest crime this season? Well, it appears to be giving the fans belief that we could win the title by having his team, dictated by his tactics (but shorn of his best signing), lead the table for seven weeks at the haflway stage. 

The bastard.

Was it always pretty? No. Was it always convincing? No. Could the same be said of Manchester United, who ground out unconvincing 1-0 wins aplenty? Yes. 

So what’s the difference? Well, one team is full of the confidence of confirmed winners dating back up to 16 years, and experience of the situations and challenges they will face. 

The other is one that, if truth be told, probably got a few too many good results earlier in the season and is now low on confidence. A paradox perhaps, but maybe Liverpool flew too close to the sun and invited pressure they were not yet ready to deal with. Of course, you cannot turn that down. You have to go for it. And you have to live with it, and learn from it. (Icarus: next time I’ll build my wings out of a heat-resistant wax.)

After arguably the best performance from the Reds in many years, and with the lead at the top looking healthy, Steven Gerrard was arrested. A Manchester United fan was involved. Since then, Liverpool have not won a league game. (That United fan will probably end up being knighted, knowing the way the honours list works regarding football in this country.)

The captain has appeared in court in between two games against Everton that tested his bottle to the limit; two hugely emotional occasions for the Red talisman, in which he scored chant-muffling goals. But those two games aside (and in the first he was generally quiet), he has not been anywhere near the player that, to me, looked the best in the world at Newcastle and many times before. 

After all that effort, in two mammoth encounters within six days, Liverpool faced a confident Wigan team three days later who’d had a week and a half off to rest and prepare. Liverpool tired, and the home side, who were desperately unlucky to lose at Old Trafford a couple of weeks earlier, came back strong. For an hour I had Tourette’s Syndrome, randomly chuntering Fuck it! under my breath.

United held on to their 1-0 wins – at times, like against Wigan, with a good bit of luck. Liverpool have been sucker-punched to lose four late points in the last two league games. Fine margins between genius and Gump. Are Liverpool tiring a little? Is a little less rotation earlier in the season proving costly? Who knows.

Did Rafa make negative, ‘protective’ subsitutions to hold on to the lead? Perhaps. 

But if he’d brought on strikers, and it backfired, he’d have been slaughtered for that, too. After all, after the first Everton game he was criticised for replacing Torres with Lucas, but half of the critics felt it should have been Mascherano, a better but even more defensive midfielder, who came on instead. 

Sometimes you can protect a lead by going more defensive; other times it’ll invite on pressure. There is no hard-and-fast rule of what definitely works. Houllier’s biggest mistake is regularly touted as taking off Didi Hamann for Vladimir Smicer in Leverkusen when leading by one goal on aggregate. 

Do I think Rafa lost the plot with his ‘fact’ speech? No. He was spot-on in what he said; Graham Poll came out and spoke of the fear referees have of Ferguson, a man since named as the most powerful figure in English football. 

However, by saying it there was always the possibility it could backfire, whether it was caused by what he said or whether events would just pan out that way. 

It was not a rant, but a calculated diatribe that was designed to have referees treat United as they treat other teams, particularly with Chelsea at Old Trafford that weekend. Or, at least, supposed to be there; they didn’t show up. But it put too much focus on Liverpool. Whether or not it backfired, it has been seen to backfire. And that’s all that counts.

Perhaps, with Rafa ill with kidney stones, he had too much time to think while kept away from Melwood. Perhaps he wanted to deflect attentions from Gerrardgate. Perhaps, if a major decision had gone Chelsea’s way that day, he’d have been hailed a genius. So I don’t think it has helped in any way (unless we now get a referee with two bollocks at Old Trafford).

Has Rafa been making some unfathomable substitutions lately? Yes. But he always has. I’ve often disagreed with them at the time, such as hauling off Gerrard last season at Goodison, but it has also often worked out. If I can’t fathom everything he gets right, I can’t be too critical of what he gets wrong.

But to see the stick he’s getting for removing Torres at Wigan is just disgusting. Here is a player whose hamstrings have been tested to the limit in recent weeks, and who is the last person we need to miss with yet another recurrance. All those who think it’s mad to subsitute him would be the very ones doing their nut if he got an 87th minute tweak or, heaven-forbid, tear. 

Gerrard wasn’t playing well either, and has had a very tiring time of late, in terms of the pressure he’s under. (Hopefully it will be proved that he was not the cause of the trouble, but that can only be conjecture to anyone outside of the court case. But he seems a man of integrity on the whole, and I’d like to trust him.)

Do I think Lucas is a bad player? No, never. He showed at St James’ Park how good he can be. Do I think he has yet to prove he’s good enough – big enough, in the cahones department, and consistent enough – to play for Liverpool? Yes. He still looks overawed a lot of the time. I’m far from convinced.

Do I think Rafa is mad for perservering with a young Brazil international who won their league’s Player of the Year at 20? No. Can I understand why he tries to give a young player he knows has ability some confidence? Yes. 

Benítez often sticks with players out of form, such as Crouch and Keane early on in their time at the club, and it baffles people; those players come good, Liverpool come good, and the second half of seasons tend to end stronger. 

We need that to start happening again, as it did from last February onwards. But unlike Villa and United, Liverpool don’t have the momentum at the moment. 

Do I think Rafa is mad for not playing Robbie Keane? No, not all all. Keane may have been bought with the idea to play Gerrard deeper, with Alonso sold; Barry may have come in and played on the left. But for the most part, Gerrard has been outstanding in the role behind the main striker – and if he’s fit (or trying to get match-fitness), that main striker will be Torres.

While Keane has done well at times, he did not do enough in Torres’ absence to make himself undroppable. Meanwhile, Alonso, who was heading for the exit, came back into the midfield and has been immense. But as one of the less athletic players (he covers a lot of ground but is not a marathon man), he needs resting from time to time, so that’s where Lucas comes in, like it or not.

Do I think there is no way Liverpool can win the league under Benítez? Of course not. But it’s a monster task, no matter who is in charge. This appeared to be a great season with some stuttering from United, Chelsea and Arsenal, but equally, Liverpool have had their own reasons for stuttering at times, too. (Torres’ injury, Gerrard’s court case, etc.)

Is the manager right to be wanting his contract sorted out, and that of a great young player like Daniel Agger? Yes. Do I know what’s going on behind the scenes? No. Do I wish it stayed behind the scenes? Yes.

But as for me, I’m just worn down by this relentless civil war amongst Liverpool fans, and my part in the middle. I defend Benítez because I believe he is a great (if not 100% perfect) manager. I defend him because I believe the Liverpool way is to not undermine the manager. I defend him because he is incredibly dedicated and cares for our club. I defend him because I believe in continuity, and how long-term managers tend to do better than those at the clubs who chop and change.

No-one knows if Benítez will land the title or not, just as no-one knew in 1990 and 1991 if Ferguson would ever even get close. Up to that point, he’d spent 75% of his time in the bottom half of the table. United fans didn’t think so; they wanted him out.

Part of me thinks, Fuck it. I keep providing reams of evidence (online and in books like Dynasty) that Rafa has done a great job overall: that his signings are generally excellent (in terms of those who are shining in the first team); that his record in terms of league wins stands up against those of Shankly and Paisley; that his first four years in charge absolutely obliterate the achievements of Ferguson in the late ‘80s, when the Scot inherited a team in a similar state and, in real terms, bought a greater number of expensive players; and so on.

The millstone Benítez carries is immense. It weighs almost 20 years. Ferguson had the same problem.

People forget that Hillsborough opened the door for Manchester United. Without that, Kenny Dalglish would not have struggled with a number of physical and mental problems relating to stress, and the empire would almost certainly not have crumbled so spectacularly from 1991 onwards.

In other words, Ferguson needed Liverpool to fail. He didn’t knock us of our “fucking perch”; we fell, in large part down to a horrible tragedy.

A refreshed Dalglish came back with Blackburn and embarrassed Ferguson, to prove a point, but by then Liverpool were recovering from the bad joke of Souness’ signings (which, in ‘real terms’, were three times as expensive as Benítez’s).

And from that point, United only grew in strength, to the point where now, unfortunately for us, they are the champions of England and Europe (I won’t say the world, as that’s a Mickey Mouse competition). 

Before Rafa even arrived, Ferguson had six key players in his current set-up in place. An uneven, unfair contest was under way. In arrears to the tune of 30 points and at least a couple of world-class players, Benítez closed the gap, even though United themselves continued to strengthen, such as when finally bringing in a top goalkeeper, several expensive midfielders, a rock to play alongside Ferdinand, and £30m men Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Bervatov. 

Benítez himself had wanted Vidic, just as he wanted Simao and Alves, two other players who’ve gone on to prove themselves. But the money wasn’t there at the time. All the while Ferguson was getting his men.

But all this is just not good enough for some.

So part of me thinks, I’ll give up the good fight. Let them eat cake – or, rather, let them have their new manager. See if I care. 

Except I will, I always will. 

And even if Joe Kinnear was appointed, I would want to see him succeed, rather than fail so ‘my’ man, Benítez, looked good by comparison.

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