Rafael Benitez: Early Progress Report

Posted by Paul Tomkins on September 8, 2004, 02:46:28 PM

If there's one thing Liverpool Football Club needs right now, after a period of great flux, it is a period of stability. In all areas: and that includes the fans. Unstable fans: cut back on your caffeine intake, find a dark room, and attempt some deep-breathing exercises. Stable fans: keep the faith, and have patience; hell, you're probably doing that already.

Since May, we've lost a good (but ultimately flawed) manager and gained who I believe to be the right man to lead us forward. Not only that, but the entire coaching staff was overhauled, including the unavoidable loss, to the English national set-up, of Sammy Lee, who many reckoned would get a key role under Rafa. We've lost the man who was our top-scorer for every season since 1997/98 - a former European Footballer of the Year, no less - and came perilously close to losing our best player to southern rivals. The club was centre of a financial battle which generated a lot of column inches in the papers, but no money for the club. Players left, new ones arrived from France and Spain, but none with prior Premiership experience.

A thoroughly average start to the season has ensued: won one, drawn one, lost one, and clumsy passage into the Champions League proper. In league terms, Man United have actually made a worse start than Liverpool, with a lower points average over four games than we have over three.

Rafa faced some stark choices, and thankfully he has chosen to be bold. He could have bought (with our limited budget) average English/British Premiership players this summer (even yard-dogs like Robbie Savage, with their guaranteed effectiveness), or kept the slightly above-average Premiership players, and almost certainly overseen a better start to the season. Gerard Houllier, remaining in charge (in a parallel universe), could no doubt have done the same (although his ability to motivate had waned to dangerous levels). A little cosmetic surgery, and the side would have done okay. But who would have wanted that? - because the ability to do better than okay would have been severely hampered.

Metaphors can be clumsy, but I guess it's like a faulty Formula One car. If there are radical problems, you can get the mechanics to do a patch-up job to get it back on the track again; but it won't win the race - it will merely chug around, billowing smoke. If you want to fix it properly, replacing key components, and doing a full tune-up, that will take time. It's not something you can do in an instant, in a pit-stop.

Robbie Savage, as a valid example of the Bulldog Spirit some prefer, may look a more effective player than Xabi Alonso for a few weeks, while the latter adjusts to the game here. Savage does a job, much as he is mocked. But within a month or two, you will be comparing an over-revving Mini with a top of the range Ferrari. Isn't it better to go with long term quality ahead of short-term effectiveness? Players like Alonso and Cisse, both just 22, are seen as key to the future of national teams as talented as France and Spain. Whoever else Rafa might have signed, from England or the continent, it's hard to think they'd have more potential than Alonso or Cisse. It might just take time for that potential to come to fruition; and we need to give it time. We can't wait years, but we can surely wait months?

Rafa is rebuilding the side, not tweaking it. This is major work, despite some very special components inherited from the previous regime. Already, in a matter of two months, he has promoted Academy graduates, and signed four new Spaniards and (inherited) a new Frenchman, who have to get to know the way teammates play, while simultaneously adjusting to the Premiership (which takes more getting used to than any other league). Given the fact that he wisely chose, in pre-season, to assess his team first (to make sure he wasn't off-loading players with hidden potential) before acting in the transfer market, it meant that three signings arrived only after our season had started, and arrived from Spain, where the season had yet to start, and therefore physical conditioning levels at the time of their arrival were inevitably lower. They also didn't have those pre-season games to bed in away from the spotlight, and start the gelling process before things got serious.

It is no secret that the Arsenal trio of Bergkamp, Henry and Pires took several months to adjust to the game over here, with each being written off as a waste of money; and yet I'm sure each, for all the team trophies, has won the Player of the Year award. Look at Reyes this season, after nine months bedding in. He looks a different player, and has scored in every game (all but one in midfield). However, Arsenal have the luxury of not having to rely on Reyes (with Pires, Ljungberg and Pennant all capable of filling a wide role, and Bergkamp enjoying an Indian summer), as their Spaniard beds gently into a successful side. We have to rely on our new signings, as Benitez had to replace players who had proven to be not good enough, and one who chose a new challenge at Real Madrid.

We are fools if we do not give them time. Look at another late developer - a player with similar attributes to Djibril Cisse: Pompey's Yakubu. The Nigerian was seen as a bit of a joke figure for many months, and now - with four goals in one game at the end of last season to go with several other strikes after Christmas, and a hat-trick already this season - looks as good as anyone in the top division. If we go down the route of impatience (and I've seen many Liverpool fans suggesting Cisse was a waste of money, Garcia a lightweight luxury, and Alonso an unknown quantity), we could do what Juventus did to Thierry Henry - offloading a player after just 16 games, before he'd had time to settle. Had Arsenal done the same as he initially floundered, where would they be now? Cisse is a little raw, but he has the ability in front of goal to at least equal Owen's yearly totals; it might just take a while to get into his stride.

One problem facing our new players is that they are trying too hard. That might sound illogical to those who think football is 100% effort. But confidence as a sportsman is all about being relaxed. If you are too eager, or anxious, you cannot perform to your best levels. You cannot get into "the zone".

First, look at Cisse: he has tried to run with the ball and make an impression with his awesome pace, but has either overrun the ball or run into areas where defensive cover was strong; and yet once he's relaxed he'll be able to choose the right moments to run with the ball. He has snatched at a couple of shots, when in time he will tuck them cooly away, as he did so often for Auxerre.

Then there was Alonso against Bolton: the Spaniard was hugely impressive, and put in some Molby-esque 50-yard passes to feet which had me purring (as well as dealing well with some appalling late tackles). But he also went through a phase of trying too many of these passes when there wasn't much chance of them coming off (thankfully, he is mature beyond his years, and got back to more simple passes; once the other players realise his passing ability, they can make more daring runs in the trust that they will be found).

Garcia was full of tricks and spins, but I sensed many of them were down to a case of showing the Liverpool fans what he could do, rather than hurting the opposition. When he did the turns and flicks in the final third, it was merely to be dangerous, and he came close to scoring on one occasion after flicking the ball around an opponent in the box, and actually did on another (thank you to the myopic linesman).

All three are quality additions to the side. Cisse's pace and finishing ability - seen in recent seasons in France (where he would have felt comfortable and relaxed in the side, and able to play his natural game) - will be a huge asset once he settles. Alonso's clever positioning and excellent use of the ball - long and short - will be a massive benefit to the way we play, as he can defend and attack. And Garcia's ability to make clever runs and ghost into goalscoring positions, coupled with his ability to create something with his skill, will help make our cutting edge all the sharper - unfortunately against Bolton, Baros failed to play Garcia in for what would have been two more goalscoring opportunites. Josemi is more of a 'steady' player rather than someone capable of the spectacular, but we've already seen glimpses of how good he can be. Nunez remains an unknown quantity, but he will give us options - if only in reserve - once fit.

But they are under a lot of pressure at a time when they are going through personal upheaval, learning a new language, and trying to fit into a new style of football, whilst gelling with teammates. You can understand these players being too anxious to impress. Anyone who's started a new job - even if in the same line of work as a previous one - knows how difficult it can be to find your feet. Imagine the pressure multiplied by the fact that several million people watching your every move. Yes, these are professionals. But they are also human. Judge these players, and the team, at the turn of the year.


So What is the Best We Can Hope For This Season?

This two week break has come at a terrible time, with the team under pressure. Rafa has had a mere handful of players to work with for the last ten days - Traore, Biscan, Hamann and Warnock, and I'm guessing at Garcia - and on Thursday, upon their return (assuming flights leave foreign shores on time), the players on international duty (including U21s like Pongolle) will be resting and stretching, not training. That leaves Friday. At least Rafa can study the games we've played in detail to further analyse where we've been going wrong, but it leaves little time to work on the mistakes this time around.

West Brom, who are already a more tightly-knit group (mostly the same squad as last season, and the same manager), will doubtless have had a far bigger contingent at training - to work on spoiling tactics, as lesser sides rightly do (from their point of view) ahead of coming to Anfield. Of course, we should be beating teams like West Brom at home. But it has to be a 'leveller' if one team gets to prepare for a game and the other doesn't - especially as the one thing Rafa needs in order to affect improvements is time on the training ground. Greece proved that it's easy to stop good teams with good organisation. It will take Rafa time to get our organisation to the level where we can relax and let our superior flair players win these kind of games.

In many ways, Rafa has to learn what we, the fans, already know: we've seen 80% of this squad week-in, week-out, for a number of years now. We know their weaknesses, their strengths. The mental approach of the team needs improving, and that will take time. The team seems entrenched in an inability to rouse itself against lesser opposition. It also has to learn how to keep the ball when leading so that the opposition are rendered impotent. Rafa will be addressing these issues.

To me, it is clear that this is no usual year. Arsenal are on the best run of games in English league football history - an unbeaten season, followed by a quite stunning start to the new campaign. We are playing catch-up with a team breaking all sorts of records; not a relatively 'average' championship-winning side like Leeds or Blackburn (who proved their "averageness" with truly awful title defences the following season), or, comparatively-speaking, the worst-vintage Liverpool and Man U title-winning sides. What this Arsenal team have achieved, domestically, is up there with the Liverpool sides of 1977, 1984, and 1988, and the Man U side of 1999. Arsenal are at the top of their powers, playing with the kind of self-belief and expressiveness that you just cannot instill in a side overnight.

Arsenal are, to my mind, a miraculous side - perfectly balanced, with Wenger's labours over the last eight years bearing fruit. Wenger was able to win the title here within 18 months as he inherited a fully-functioning strikeforce of Bergkamp and Ian Wright, plus the famed defensive unit upon which earlier titles had been constructed. Wenger's ideas were revolutionary in 1996. His side is so good now as he was ahead of the game back then, and has been able to tweak a little here, add a little flair there, and oversee a stunning evolution. And yet in October 2001, after three years of finishing runners-up (success by Arsenal's standards over the majority of the last few decades, but seen then as a sign of stagnation), Arsenal were languishing eighth and Wenger was a spent force. I know: I heard Gooners on 606 tell the world as much.

Nowadays, it's impossible for a manager at a big club to have that kind of cultural impact and turn donkeys into free-thinking ball-playing liberos, and to be alone in mining the European backwaters for hidden gems, such as Patrick Vieira, rotting in Milan's reserves; nowadays, all managers do that. Even Sam Allardyce - a clod-hopping English centre back from the 1970s - manages using specialised fitness coaches, psychologists, dieticians, alternative medicines, and so on.

At Liverpool, Gerard Houllier had made all these beneficial changes; it still left us short, so action was required. Benitez cannot come in and have an instant impact in that sense. The players were already ultra-professional (with one or two exceptions, such as Diouf, now shown the door), so it was more a case of tinkering with things on the pitch, not off it. Those changes include adding width to the side, defending higher up the pitch (not easy without pace at the back) and getting back to attractive (but potent) possession football. The latter is not something that suddenly clicks into gear overnight, but the second half against Man City proved the potential is there. Consistency will only come once it has become second nature to the players.

Chelsea, meanwhile, have spent £200m in 12 months, with - for the first time ever - no limits to a club's spending power. What problems did Mourinho have to solve even before he gave his chairman a list of players to sign? Not many, and the squad has been bolstered by nearly £100m this summer. We've spent with relative largesse by previous standards, but £32m looks small change compared to Abramovich's expenditure. William Gallas has been one of the best centre backs in recent seasons in this country, and can't get a game.

They didn't get Steven Gerrard, thankfully, and we should appreciate our captain and stop worrying that he might leave next summer; surely when he agreed to stay, he wasn't under the illusion that the team would transform into championship material within a month? Are we saying he's that stupid? Now Madrid are rumoured to be lining up a bid next summer; if they do, so be it. The lure might be too much for Steven, but they won't get him on the cheap. We'll cross that bridge if we ever come to it. As for him looking miserable - well, he smiled pretty widely after scoring against Man City, and if fans expected him to be happy during the two subsequent defeats, then surely we are talking about a different player? (Just think of all those times Roy Keane looked unhappy during the 1990s, as he strove for perfection).

Both London high-flyers were already well ahead of us (20-30 points, as well as making the quarter-finals of the CL) before this season even started. In some senses, Rafa - even once he has re-built the side - will be sending his Formula One car onto the track several laps behind the competition. Even Man United, who have had their worst start to a season for many years, have been able to go out and spend £27m on a striker, while awaiting a £29m defender to return from suspension. Our entire strike-force cost just over half a "Rooney", and they can also field £6m Smith, £13m Saha, and £19m Van Nistelrooy.

If we can finish ahead of any one of these three sides, we'll have had a very good season. One aim for this transitional season has to be to finish behind no other team than those three (distinctly possible, once the anomalies of an early-season table disappear) and in finishing fourth at worst try to make sure we end up with a more respectable points tally than last time. It is almost impossible to make much more of an impact than that.

The other aim has to be to make sure that, come May, Rafa has assembled a well-oiled machine which can begin the following season capable of mounting a serious challenge from the starting grid. Where Rafa has his work cut out is in the fact that last season's top three already ally a hard-working ethic to a possession football game - which can also counter-attack at pace (Chelsea's early-season tactics notwithstanding; it's hard to believe once Robben and Duff are fully fit they'll remain so dull). Madrid and Barcelona, for all their talent, were there to be beaten due to the lack of heart for a fight, and the over-reliance on attacking talent at the expense of decent defenders. Benitez's Valencia got the balance right. He needs to do the same at Liverpool, but purely to play catch-up.

So while his task is even harder at Liverpool, at the very least I trust he can make us competitive again. It may take time, but patience remains a virtue, and patience was something Liverpool fans used to be famed for.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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