Onwards and upwards for Rafa’s Reds. A half-season progress report ...

Posted by Benitez on December 20, 2004, 10:48:24 PM

As 2004 is almost done, I thought I’d look back at the first 5 months under Rafa Benitez, as we look forward to the 2nd half of the season.

It’s been an eventful first few months of his reign it has to be said. Never a dull moment. Would we have it any other way?!

As always, it seems some of us have to accentuate the negatives when they occur, we like to jerk ‘em knees, and maybe that’s a healthy thing, as it makes the positives so much sweeter! So in true style, I’ll look at the problems first of all, and get them over with, as there are plenty of pluses to dwell on later.

First of all, we start with what was a bit of a traumatic summer for Rafa Benitez. The Gerrard to Chelsea saga was quickly followed by the Owen ‘will he, won’t he sign’ soap opera, which ended up with him going to Madrid, close to the deadline. Meaning it was very difficult to get another striker in, so we start the season with just 2 ‘senior’ strikers. One of them a 22 year old Czech with only around 50 first team appearance under his belt, and the other a 23 year old Frenchman, new to this club and the league.   

The first few months have seen Benitez experiment with different formations and line-ups, whereas it can be frustrating for us as fans sometimes, when we see results slip away, it is understandable that he needs to look at his options, and try different things regarding game situations. Also some of his selections maybe have made some wonder ‘what is he doing?’. The continuing appearances early on of Salif Diao especially being a favourite, and leaving Xabi Alonso out in a couple key away games another.  At least it proves that it isn’t just GH who could give us that ‘yer wha’ feeling with team line-ups!  But again, this is something he’s always done in the past. He was never afraid of leaving out his stars at Valencia. The problem is that here he doesn’t yet have the depth of quality to make the transition a smooth one. But the reason he does this I believe, is that he wants to do what he did in La Liga  - integrate all the squad players into his systems, so when we have injuries, or when he rests a player, the incoming player can fit in smoothly. This is reflected in his insistence that the reserve team plays similar formations to the first team - to allow players to get used to the roles. It may mean we struggle now due to less effective players coming in, but in time, as players learn, and as we strengthen, it will work to our favour. What Benitez wants to do I’m sure is have a squad capable of contributing over a whole season, meaning we don’t suffer burn-out later on.

The biggest problem we have had so far is the away form in the league. From utterly frustrating in terms of performances during games such as at Middlesbrough, Manchester United (first half anyway) and Blackburn, to down right infuriating at Bolton where we had a perfectly good equaliser ruled out and at Villa, when our own lack of finishing meant we only got a point from a game we dominated and should have won comfortably.  So far under Benitez, the away form in the league has been the biggest concern for me. But the one comfort is that he had the same problems at Valencia in his first season, where for the first half of that season, the team struggled badly on the road. 

I’m not going to write much on the injury situation, as it goes without saying that has been a negative, but what can you do, but get on with it. The greatest shame though, was seeing Djibril Cissé suffer such a sickening injury. Just as he was starting to settle it seems, it was so cruel that his season was cut short.

So away from the negatives of away form, and the like, and onto the positives. And there are plenty of them.

First things first, is how we’ve been playing. Yes there have been games where we have struggled to string good passages of play together, to keep possession well and to make our mark in sometimes tight, physical games away from home. But overall, I think that we’ve played far more good football than poor football, and in some games have played some excellent football, that should be just a taster of what lies ahead. We should remember that there have only been 3 regular additions to the first team so far - in the wonderful Xabi Alonso, the mercurial Luis Garcia and the two sided Josemi, - superb early on, now strangely struggling. And with Antonio Nunez only now featuring, Benitez has been working mostly with the players from GH’s time. And for a lot of them, they have been here a long time playing for a different manager with different styles and ideas, so adjusting to a different way of playing and a different mentality isn’t going to be that easy. Yet, it shows both the talent of many of them, and the effective coaching of Benitez and his staff, that they are getting to grips with the ‘new’ Liverpool.

One thing is obvious, Benitez doesn’t want the team to sit on slender leads if he can help it. When a goal is scored, the team will look for another. And another telling aspect of his coaching is that we continue to try and play football in the most pressing situations. Just two examples - At 1-1 with just 15 minutes left v’s Olympiakos and the temptation might have been there to start with the bombardment of their goal with long balls, but we carried on trying to pass it and create, and we got the reward through doing this. Same v’s Manchester City early on in the season, down at half time to a bad goal, the second half saw us playing good football which brought it’s just rewards. 

The movement and passing of this team is streets ahead of last season. We still see lulls in games, where we become static at times - the game v’s Arsenal was one, last 15 minutes the legs where starting to go and the team became a bit statuesque, which made those final wonderful few seconds of injury time even more special.  Just when it looked like we’d ran out of steam after an exhilarating performance, a stroke of Neil Mellor genius deservedly won the day.

And that leads onto other positives. As well as this new knack we have of overturning half time deficits we have also started to acquire a never say die attitude.   The last minute winner v’s Arsenal was preceded by the last minute winner v’s Crystal Palace. There was the Olympiakos winner in the last few minutes, and the Sinama-Pongolle equalising penalty in the League Cup quarter final 3 minutes from the end of extra time. Not to forget the late goals v’s Middlesbrough in the League Cup, and against Fulham when we where down to 10 men. It’s a nice habit to have.

And from that onto the League Cup teams. Now I will gladly admit, I thought it’d be a brief appearance in the competition for us this season. I felt immense pride for the way our team mainly consisting of young Academy trained players and reserve players had played at Millwall. But v’s the holders Middlesbrough, who played 6 or 7 first team regulars, I thought that would be it. So to get through that game with a couple of Mellor Moments, and excellent 2nd half showings by Darren Potter, Richie Partridge and Zak Whitbread, the next game for me was bonus football. I didn’t expect us to be there, but yet there we where, in a tough quarter final away at Spurs. And the most startling thing is - as the rounds got tougher, the more young players Benitez threw in! Spurs where going for it, playing more or less the strongest 11 they could on the night.  We could have been down and out after the first half but we hung on in there. And then the young lads realised they could play against these first teamers, they had nothing to lose. As Whitbread and Potter had done in previous rounds, David Raven did in this game - showing a maturity in his performance and a good deal of talent, to help the Reds through. Florent Sinama-Pongolle was the real star of the show though, showing a cool head, scoring 2 penalties in a few minutes. Who said we don’t have decent penalty takers? We’ve unearthed a few this season. Steph Henchoz included!

It’s been wonderful to see young lads like Whitbread, Potter, Raven, Welsh, Warnock and Mellor get a chance to show what they can do. And even if just one of these lads actually makes it here in the long term, then it’s a job well done.

It’s also being a huge bonus to see two players who’d officially changed their first names by deed poll to ‘Much Maligned’, have a good positive impact on the squad. I of course refer to Igor Biscan and Djimi Traore. Again, like the young lads, who knows if they have a long term future here, but what they have done so far this season will have given them and us a lot of confidence, and showed many that they really do have it in ‘em! Biscan and Traore’s performances away v’s Deportivo La Cornuna are two of THE performances of the season so far. Traore has played well pretty consistently and Igor has also been very strong in the Carling Cup games.

The trust  shown in players like Traore and Biscan reveals another positive in Benitez’s management. He shows faith in players, allowing them to get on with it on the pitch without fear of reprimand. Benitez wants total commitment, but in turn, he also shows that whereas players may not play to the best of their abilities all the time, it isn’t reason to discard them.

All in all, the last 5 months have been a roller coaster ride. Sure there have been disappointments, the league away form being the one big concern for me. But the positives really do out-weigh any negatives. Being in the last 16 of the CL, and in the semi finals of the League Cup through the performances of our ‘B‘ team are two huge pluses. Yes, we are probably a bit further back that we hoped in the league, but we can now look forward to some squad strengthening that should give us a push during the 2nd half of the season.  And the hugest positive is some of the good intelligent football we have played, coupled by Benitez’ obvious intelligence with tactics and his willingness to try things and change things. They don’t always come off, but it shows him to be a brave coach - the guts to take a chance is a very positive side to his character.

We knew it was never going to be easy, if that was the case, we wouldn’t have needed a new manager. This is a job that will take time, and a process of squad strengthening that may take a while to fully reap the rewards. But I have no doubt that Rafa Benitez is a man capable of this tough task. Where it leads us we don’t know, but we not only have a talented manager and coach at the helm, but a humble and intelligent man. We wouldn’t have it any other way would we?

© GKI Benitez 2004

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