Has Benitez actually improved Liverpool?
Rafael Benitez arrived at Anfield almost six years ago with a glowing reputation following his successful time at Valencia and wrote his name immediately in Liverpool folklore after their dramatic Champions League victory over Italian giants AC Milan. Liverpool fans all over the world hailed Benitez as a genius and genuinely believed that the glory days of the 70s and 80s were just around the corner. However, since that eventful night in Istanbul, the best Liverpool have achieved is FA Cup success in 2006, another Champions League final against AC Milan in 2007 and were runners-up in the Premier League last season.
Liverpool were widely expected to go one better this campaign and end their 20-year wait for the title. Unfortunately this season has been one to forget for Kopites. Four defeats from their opening nine league games had them on the back foot from the off but worse was to follow when they were dumped out of the Champions League before Christmas and then Championship strugglers Reading compounded their miserable season by knocking them out of the FA Cup at Anfield. And with four games left to play it looks as though Liverpool are going to need a miracle to secure Champions League football next season.
Rafa’s bizarre signings, tactics and substitutions have raised more than a few eyebrows during his time on Merseyside but while the fans haven’t publicly turned on the manager there are enough disenchanted Kopites out there who would love to see the back of him.
The Spaniard has reportedly spent £231 million during his time at Anfield and he is pleading for new investors to give him a war chest of about £60 million to improve the squad and boost their title chances. But how long does it take to build your own squad and, given the tough economic situation right now, would you trust him to spend such the money wisely?
When Rafa took over from Gerard Houllier in 2004 he inherited a squad which included the likes of Michael Owen, Sami Hyypia, John Arne Riise, Jerzy Dudek, Emile Heskey, Dietmar Hamann and Danny Murphy. Not forgetting of course the mainstays of the team Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. It wasn’t a bad squad but with the likes of Bruno Cheyrou, Traore and El-Hadji Diouf in the ranks there was plenty of room for improvement. But after almost six years in charge has Rafa actually improved the squad?
Fernando Torres is arguably the best signing Benitez has ever made. A few people baulked at the £26.5 million price tag but El Nino has proved to be worth every penny. The Spaniard has also brought the likes of Reina, Bellamy, Crouch, Alonso, Pennant, Garcia, Sissoko, Mascherano, Keane and Agger to Liverpool over the years, but at least half of them have moved on to pastures new. Whether it be for a new challenge or they became fed up with Rafa’s managerial style I don’t know. What I do know is that the likes of Alonso, Bellamy and Sissoko could all still do a grand job at Anfield. And let’s not forget that for every Torres there has been a Voronin, for every Alonso there has been a Lucas and for every Agger there has been a Dossena.
Rafa’s foray into the transfer market last summer came under intense scrutiny. He spent £18 million on Glen Johnson and £20 million on Alonso’s replacement Alberto Aquilani, despite the Italian being injured, when everyone was crying out for him to sign someone as back up for Torres.
But let’s see if the team Liverpool of today is any better than the one he inherited in 2004. Only Carragher and Gerrard remain from Houllier’s time on Merseyside which illustrates the amount of dealings Rafa has been involved in.
Dudek v Reina: While Dudek’s heroes in Istanbul will always be remembered, Reina is one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League. Steady, assured and a brilliant shot stopper, I don’t think there’s a Liverpool fan in the world who would swap him for Dudek.
Riise v Insua: John Arne Riise had one of the hardest strikes in football and his left foot was feared like the plague. He wasn’t afraid to shoot from distance and goals against the likes of Manchester United endeared him to the Kopites. Then we have Insua. The Argentine international is only 21 and is one for the future but he has been at fault for a number of goals this season. For me Riise wins this contest hands down.
Hyypia v Kyrgiakos: The former Liverpool captain enjoyed a successful time at Anfield winning the FA Cup, Champions League, UEFA Cup, League Cup and Super Cup. The Finish international was Mr Reliable at Liverpool and wasn’t afraid to put his body on the line for the club he supported as a boy. This season Greek international Krygiakos has come in to the heart of defence and his impressive displays have led to many pundits calling him the new Hyypia. The Reds have been hard to beat when the former Rangers man has been playing but is he better than Hyypia? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
Finnan v Johnson: Liverpool fans were angry when they heard Finnan was being moved on as he was a solid right back who did what was asked of him. Rafa spent a lot of money of Johnson and although his attacking exploits have led to goals he was ideally bought to defend, a part of his game that he has been roundly criticised for. Finnan was a decent player but Johnson just edges it for me.
Hamann v Lucas: No contest. Hamann every time. Even with one leg he is twice the player that Lucas is.
Biscan v Mascherano: Igor Biscan made 29 appearances for Liverpool in the 2003/04 season but was never what you would call a world class player. Mascherano on the other hand could walk into any team in Europe. The Argentine international throws himself into tackles, distributes the ball well and is a wonderful ball winner. The former West Ham United man has this battle in the bag.
Smicer v Benayoun: Vladimir Smicer was a skilful player who struggled to realise his potential due to the nature of the game in England but gave the fans some magic moments including scoring the decisive penalty in Istanbul. Questions were asked when Benayoun arrived from West Ham United but the Israeli magician has become one of the club’s most vital players. Great close control, difficult to defend against and always looking for players, Benayoun wins this match up.
Kewell v Rodriguez: At Leeds Kewell was awesome. At Liverpool he spent most of his time on the treatment table. Maxi is a seasoned international and has done well since he arrived in January. It’s too early to say whether he will be a big success at Anfield or not but if I had to choose between Maxi or Kewell Maxi would get my vote.
Owen v Torres: While Owen enjoyed the best part of his career terrorising defences at Anfield, Torres is simply different gravy. The Spaniard can score from anywhere on the pitch with either foot, loves the physical demands of the English game and has struck up a golden relationship with Gerrard. Owen was good, but Torres is far better.
Heskey v Kuyt: Both Heskey and Kuyt are unselfish players who have the team’s best interest at heart. Heskey had the size and speed to hold the ball up and play teammates in, occasionally chipping in with a few goals of his own. Kuyt is deployed more on the wing by Rafa but he is a willing runner and, like Heskey, pops up with vital goals now and then. This is another battle that I’ll let you decide.
By my reckoning that gives Rafa the advantage with at least six players better than the ones he took on in 2004. However, considering the amount of money he has spent at Anfield, the performances they have put in this season – particularly away from home – and that the 2004 squad finished 30 points off the champions Arsenal, he should have done a lot better than what he has. The personnel may have improved but displays certainly have not, which does not look good on the manager.
There’s no denying that there is a lot of talent at Liverpool and they have not played to their full potential this season. Injuries have played their part but so has Rafa’s baffling team selections, tactics and substitutions. There has been a lot of speculation in the past few weeks that Rafa has lost the dressing room and that Juventus and Real Madrid possibly wanting to lure Rafa away from Anfield. Maybe that would be the best solution for everyone concerned. After all he cannot dine out on the 2005 Champions League win for ever.
· Calling all Liverpool fans. How would you assess Rafa’s performance at Anfield over the past six years? What do you think of his transfer signings and has he improved the team during his spell? Why do you think Liverpool have performed so badly this season? How would you feel if Rafa left this summer? Whatever your view I’d love to hear from you.