Rafa: Making The Difference - by Paul Tomkins

Posted by RAWK Editor on December 1, 2005, 03:51:10 PM

So how much difference does a manager really make? Surely it's the players who are the most important thing, right?

I don't know why, but I'm getting this sense that Rafa could send out the Hartlepool reserves in red shirts and have the team playing his style of football, and succeeding.

What I find most fascinating is just how similar to Rafa's Valencia this Liverpool team are becoming. Not identical in terms of individuals, but a great resemblance in the way results are achieved. Such is the defensive organisation that even if the side isn't playing at its best, results can be gained without ever looking even remotely in trouble.

How can you get four defenders to behave so similarly to their Spanish counterparts? What kind of drills must a manager do to get the kind of unity and understanding the backline is currently exhibiting? And why can't all managers do the same thing?

Liverpool's defence is not the strongest in terms of personnel. After all, there's not a lot of pace there, and John Arne Riise has hardly been noted for his defensive skills. But even when Warnock came in, the clean sheets continued.

Tactics are one thing; getting the players to adhere to them, and to be capable of carrying out the instructions, is another. This is a totally different team to Valencia  obviously, there being not one single player from that side is in this (after the failed experiment with Pellegrino) and yet the same characteristics are starting to become evident.

The main one being that the team is bloody hard to beat.

Yet again at the Stadium of Light Liverpool controlled the match and created by far the most chances. Okay, so that's not saying a lot, given the opposition. But this was also a potential banana skin. From not being able to win an away game, the Reds have now won three in a row. Games were won with Alonso out injured, and he doesn't seem missed; then he comes back and provides two of the best assists you'll see all season.

Can the manager really influence everything to such an extent? And is the ability to do so what marks him out as a 'great'? Why do only a very small percentage of managers win most of the honours in football? And an even smaller percentage achieve great things at more than one club or in more than one country? Neither Valencia nor Liverpool were favourites to win the prizes now listed on Rafa's CV.

Rafa has partially rebuilt the side he inherited, but it is still not a complete refit. There are players filling in where, ideally, they wouldn't have to.

There are others, like Djibril Cisse, who appear very talented and have plenty to offer, but are equally unable to fully integrate themselves into the side. The 'Benitez ethos' doesn't allow individuals to rock the boat, in whatever way, big or small, and it's hard to see a long-term future for the French striker. His fate isn't sealed, but it's on the cards.

While Cisse might feel hard done by, Rafa only cares about the team. By leaving Cisse out, the message to others is clear, and you get an increased sense of focus.     

Cisse is probably the club's most sellable asset, excluding the players you'd never want to sell in a million years. French clubs would still pay a hefty fee for Cisse, and I can't help but think Rafa is edging ever closer to cashing in, and reinvesting, just as he did with Milan Baros. I'm a big fan of Cisse's, but if he's not going to fit in, in terms of style of play or character, it's better that we trust this manager to find players who do.

I feel sorry for the no.9, especially as his first few months at the club included the sacking of the manager who pursued him for three years and a terrible broken leg, and since then he's been played on the right quite frequently. But it is not the manager's job to concentrate on one player. He has to perfect the blend, not care only about one ingredient.

Whereas Crouch has made himself central to Rafa's plans without scoring, Cisse has scored a few goals without doing enough to cement a place in the team. It's a strange situation, but results suggest the manager is right. Cisse excites more than Crouch, but Crouch gels things together.

While most Fantasy Football managers would prefer Cisse or Milan Baros, the team are showing better form, week-in week-out, with Peter Crouch. In fact, the manager's insistence on playing Crouch, despite the lack of goals, shows how important his own system is.

If players want to get into the team on merit, they have to either perfectly complement the system, as does Crouch, or to be so outstanding that the system is altered to suit them. If Cisse was scoring a hat-trick every week he'd stay in the team. If the system was less effective with Cisse replacing Crouch, but Cisse scored enough goals to win games to compensate, it would be a different scenario. But Cisse only has three league goals, one of those a penalty, another a mishit cross.

Cissˇes problem is that he seems one of those players who needs to be 100% guaranteed his place in the side to feel relaxed and confident enough to shine. It has to be all about him in order for him to feel important, and potent. He's a superb finisher, when feeling confident, but he can't quite find that feeling at Liverpool.

At Auxerre he was the first name on the teamsheet, and I doubt he was ever subbed off. Benitez rotates players and makes substitutions early in matches, and has many different approaches to games. Cisse appears to take it too personally. Fernando Morientes went off for Kewell after only 60 minutes last night. He was taken off against Anderlecht on 51 minutes, the same as Cisse at the weekend.

What Cisse offers, that only the raw Sinama-Pongolle can replicate, is electric pace. Whatever happens in January, I'm desperate to see quick strikers on the books somewhere, as they provide a different dimension. But I'm sure Rafa doesn't need to be told that.

The more I see Rafa at work, and the more I read about him, the more I realise how much there is to try and understand. He simply does not work along rigid lines of picking the best XI and saying "go out and play your natural game". His approach is so detailed, so involved, that we only get a glimpse of things.

So what are the limits for Liverpool this season?

Teams have come good in the second half of the season before. When I heard Rafa had won as many of his first 50 Premiership games as had Arsene Wenger, I was slightly shocked, given Wenger won the title in his second season, when his first season saw him arrive only in the autumn. Rafa's difficult first season only involved 17 wins out of 38 games.

Then I remembered that Arsenal were in a pretty poor position come the start of 1998, and only an incredible run took them to the title. Most seasons it's in the New Year that the big teams click into gear.

Nothing can be totally discounted, as Istanbul also proved. The kind of run the Reds went on in the Champions League, against three of the best sides in the world, showed what is possible, although the underdog card was always easily played in that situation to diffuse pressure.

I still think the 70-point marker is what we should be aiming at, although as the season progresses that could change; get there, and then reassess, as hopefully there'll still be games to follow. But given Chelsea got 95 points to win the league last season, even 80 points might not get us close. But 80 points would be a great return.

Meanwhile, qualification for the knock-out stages of the Champions League has not only added money for transfers but also prestige. The higher the Reds are in the table, the more easily newcomers can be attracted. Success in Japan will only help that. So in a way it's important that the Reds hit their stride now, rather than after Christmas.

I've always felt that the season will disappoint in Europe, as the expectation increases, and as defending the title becomes a burden. The Reds are still seen as outsiders, despite comfortable passage out of the group, so not a lot has changed since last season. But from a team that was inconsistent in either qualifying or progressing under Houllier, the second successive knock-out phase has to be taken as another sign of consistency.

However is it all held together by a delicate balance? Injuries to a couple of key players and suddenly the balance could be skewed. Unlike Chelsea, there is strength in depth only in certain areas of Liverpool's squad.
It'll be interesting to see how different the team looks in 18 months, especially if the boss has a lot of money to spend. Whatever happens this season, it'll be hard to believe that evidence of progress won't be all around us.

© Paul Tomkins 2005

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