Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t

Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t
February 2, 2009 Paul Tomkins

My thoughts on the Chelsea game are in my column on the official site, but I thought I’d share some further views on the events of the past week, particularly the media’s (and some fans’) treatment of Benítez’s every decision, and the Robbie Keane saga.

Criticism of Benítez really went into overdrive in January. 

As ever, some of the criticism was valid. Managers make mistakes, have flaws, are human, etc.. No manager has a perfect season; at times they rely on luck, and at times it will desert them. 

He will repeat mistakes because people will forget how many times those same ‘mistakes’ worked. It is not bloody-mindedness, it is believing in your own methods and sticking to your principles. 

As a result, I’ve been drowning in a sea of unmitigated rubbish that passes as punditry. In amongst the occasional good article or comment about how Liverpool can improve, there has been a whole host of jackbooted ambushes laying kicks into his kidneys.

Take the league game against Everton, and Setanta’s Craig Burley. If ever there was the perfect example of how a pundit exists in LaLa Land it was this.

Robbie Keane was playing up front with Torres. Burley said that this was a good thing, a positive thing, and what he’d wanted to see for some time. Okay, fair enough. 

But Liverpool weren’t playing well. And as the game went on, Burley started to question (in a roundabout, but clearly critical way) why Benítez had actually dispensed with the Torres/Gerrard axis that was tried and tested. The implication was clear: the manager didn’t know what he was doing.

So having been in agreement with the decision originally, it was now implied that it was a bad decision. Isn’t that called using hindsight to know it all?

And yet when Keane was substituted, and it looked like Rafa was reverting to the formation Burley was critical of him originally having dispensed with, there was dismay at what Keane must have been feeling. 

Well hang on, if you’d had your way at one point in the match, Mr Burley, you’d have had Gerrard and Torres up front and, presumably, Keane on the bench. It’s cake-and-eat-it punditry.

Liverpool then scored straight after the substitution, with the goal coming as Gerrard found a bit more space as Benayoun, now on the pitch, dragged a defender out wide as the captain moved into the area Keane had been occupying; but according to the summariser, it was nothing to do with the change. 

Ah, so a substitution only counts as positive if the player coming on scores himself? Gerrard shot from a central position just outside the area, where Keane would otherwise have been, in space created in part by Benayoun. Do we need to engage our brains here?

It drives me absolutely potty. Talk about damned if you do and damned if you don’t. 

The biggest problem Keane has is that Gerrard and Torres have a wonderful understanding, with Torres believed by many to be the best striker in the world, and the captain about as good as anyone right now playing as a second striker. 

Maybe Benítez wanted to play Gerrard deeper this season following the purchase of Keane, but the captain ended up reverting to the advanced role due partly to Alonso’s sublime form, and Torres’ injury; meaning that either Keane or Kuyt were pushed furthest forward (neither of which was 100% ideal for them as individuals, but someone had to), and Gerrard naturally moved into the role just behind –– and did so to incredible effect at times.

Perhaps the biggest problem Liverpool have had this season is that Liverpool are yet to really see a fit and in-form partnership of Gerrard and Torres beyond a few games.  

On previous comebacks, the Spaniard was lacking in touch and confidence, and the pace wasn’t there in full-throttle. Just as he got into the groove, such as at Everton and Manchester City, he got injured again. And at other times, Gerrard was injured, while the captain has had his own off-field burden to carry of late.

Tony Cascarino then piped up in his column about how insane it was to take off Torres at Wigan with the Reds leading 1-0. As far as I’m aware, Cascarino never suffered a hamstring injury as he never moved faster than slow-drying cement.  

Did Cascarino not see that Torres’ previous comeback was halted after a 90th-minute recurrence of the injury? Have I right to expect this basic level of knowledge and understanding of a subject if someone is going to give their ‘expert’ view?

Rafa hardly ever took Torres off before this problem. Now he is the limbo of having to give him games to get him match-fit, but not the full 90 minutes in a busy schedule, so as to avoid the risk of a recurrence in those dangerous final minutes when fatigue weakens the sinews. 

How can anyone with even half a brain criticise this approach? Some changes are judgement calls on tactical levels that we can all agree or disagree with, but the Torres substitution was essential in the rehabilitation of a player we need the manager to keep fit. 

Again, if the game had stayed 1-0 until late on and Torres then suffered a tweak or a tear, Rafa would be slaughtered for not protecting his prized asset. “Why not take him off, the game was as good as won?” they’d say. “How irresponsible to gamble with his fitness.”

Yes, it gives the opposition a boost if he’s removed with 15 minutes remaining.  It’s the devil or the deep blue sea.  

Isn’t it better (or at least a valid judgement call) to try and have him at his best for the six-pointer with Chelsea a few days later (as transpired) and try to see out the game with someone else?

So, as I say time and time again, I don’t preach to know it all; I merely try to hold up the hypocrisy in over-the-top criticism, often from people who haven’t even shown the basic grasp of the facts. 

It’s the same with Steven Gerrard. He is under a lot of pressure at the moment, and he had just come through two emotionally draining fixtures against an Everton side with baying fans, in which he gave every last ounce of energy. 

The accusations then come out that Liverpool are over-reliant on him (but they acknowledge that all players need to be rested at some point), and yet if he’s left out or taken off (and the game isn’t totally won), there’s outrage. Parliament is adjourned, workforces down tools and the world stops turning on its axis.

If it was me, I’d never take Gerrard off or leave him out. Because I live in a world where I don’t have to suffer the consequences of those decisions, and exist only in my nice theoretical bubble. 

It’s almost like a football management simulation game: I’d be dealing with this fictional creation –– a computerised version of Gerrard who never gets injured or tired, and who always, always wins the game in the last minute because he’s done so before.

I’d never have taken him off at Everton last season, but Rafa did, and his replacement won the penalty that won the game.

Then there’s the issue of man-management. Which, let’s face it, is hard to judge completely as we only observe about 3% of the full weekly ‘interaction’.

It was only a few weeks ago that Harry Redknapp’s method of telling all the Spurs’ players they were great was being heralded as the perfect form of man-management; an example to Rafa to follow. 

Redknapp Snr was a genius for lifting Spurs off the floor, although statistics show that almost any new manager will experience an upturn in his first 5-10 games. Just by having a clean slate, the players tend to respond. But he did make a massive impact, so kudos for that.

Now he’s saying his wife could take a chance better than an expensive striker (near-£20m-man Darren Bent), and criticising the squad in public, saying many of them aren’t good enough. Oh, okay.

I’m not knocking Redknapp, merely pointing out that there’s no right and wrong. What worked at one point in time may not at another. And clearly Redknapp’s original plan of talking up the players didn’t work for very long, as I suggested might be the case. Telling players they are great can breed complacency, after all. So no style is perfect.

Then his son offered his views on Robbie Keane: “You don't treat people like that, especially £20m players.”

Best get on the phone to your old man, then, Jamie; after all, I don’t recall Rafa publicly slating Keane and saying that Montse could take chances better.

And Bent, Spurs’ top scorer, has been left on the bench on many occasions. 

I believe Jamie to be a decent, likeable man who was a great professional at Liverpool. Not the bravest in the tackle, he never hid from the ball. But I will always be irked by any pundit who cannot apply the same criticism to all managers. If you’re going to speak out and be highly critical, as is the vogue, it has to apply to everyone. 

With his father at Spurs and his cousin at Chelsea, you end up with both never criticised by Jamie; apparently Xabi Alonso was to blame for getting Cousin Frank sent off, which was insane.  

Getting back to Keane, I keep hearing how outrageous it was to leave Keane out after a goal against Arsenal and two against Bolton, even though the Newcastle game was part of the crazy Christmas schedule. No-one seems to mention that the game was won 5-1, in an outstanding attacking performance.

So was Keane dropped, or rested? Well, he was back for the next game, at Preston, meaning he started three out of four in the space of eleven days; so he was rested, clearly. But he missed four glorious chances in that next game. 

If he is going to lose his confidence so quickly, then Rafa has a right to be concerned. Keane’s persecution complex worries me, also. I don’t mind seeing players pissed off at being withdrawn, but the ‘I bet it’s me’ stuff irks me. He has played two-thirds of the Reds’ league minutes this season, so it can’t be said that he hasn’t been given a chance.

If Rafa wants to give him time to come good, fine by me. If he wants to cut his losses later on today, fine by me also. He knows what he wants, and who can give it to him.

If a manager wants to leave a player on the bench, or not have him in the squad, that is his call. He is not doing it to lose games, is he? And if any player is too ‘big’ to leave out, the manager does not have full control. Equally, if a manager perseveres with anyone who is not in top form (especially if he happens to have bought him for a high price), then he is accused of playing that individual for the wrong reasons: favouritism, or to prove a point. We’re back to damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Is Rafa bloody-minded and pig-headed? Well, ask ex-Liverpool players how many arguments they won with Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley or Kenny Dalglish, or how often they or the fans made them change their mind. You can count the number using the fingers on the hand of a snake.

Do Liverpool fans want a manager who is afraid to make big decisions? Or one who will do it his way, and not be swayed by a thousand varying opinions? 

And it’s not like he is intractable. He has rectified his ‘mistakes’ in the transfer market by buying better players, like Torres supplanting Bellamy, Riera ‘replacing’ Gonzalez, Mascherano taking over from Sissoko, and so on. He doesn’t stick with his own poor signings, so he is not stubborn; he just knows what he wants.

Now the revisionism is that Liverpool weren’t actually that good in the first half of the season after all, and didn’t deserve to be leading the table at New Year.

Woah, back up. 

There were some iffy displays and some late goals, granted. But then that’s what Manchester United have built most of their recent charge upon: 1-0 wins, late goals, opponents hitting the post at crucial times in matches and having players unfairly dismissed. That’s football.

However, there were also some great performances by the Reds, such as against United, Chelsea (now twice), Manchester City, Everton, Bolton (twice), West Brom, Arsenal and Newcastle (plus in defeat at Spurs), and plenty of never-say-die spirit to deservedly earn points when not at their best. 

So come on, cut the manager some slack, and keep any necessary criticism within the bounds of fairness.


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