Rafa an autocrat? Let's drop that and have a rethink eh?

Posted by royhendo on September 28, 2007, 10:43:22 PM

If it's OK with you guys, I'd like to get a nagging gripe of mine off my chest. Before I start...

To misquote Brian's ma: Rafael Benitez is not the messiah (although arguably he's a very naughty boy for not starting Fernando Torres in every league game against all comers).

Rafa drives us all mad with some of his selections - you see the team sheet and you think "eh?". And sometimes when he changes things during a game (for example, in Athens) you're just as flummoxed. At least we're not thinking "Zenden?!" any more.

That's a given - Rafa's not perfect, he's not the messiah, and sometimes he gets it wrong. But it's not the issue this thread is about, and I'm digressing, so I'll get to the point...

In recent months, things like the departures of Paco Ayesteran and Steve Heighway from the club, the post-Athens outburst, and so forth... have led high profile figures who commentate on the club, the media, and many on this board to suggest we have a textbook autocrat at the helm of our beloved club.

I've seen that very word used on these boards, I've heard it on radio shows, and I've seen it hinted at in almost every newspaper that mentions Benitez, and this club.

This was the example that wound me up the most:


What I saw was the ultimate autocrat referring to his assets/players by their surnames when instructing them to warm-up. “Crouch, run” was one example.

That label and its many variants is now being extended to supplement criticism of Rafa's devotion to squad rotation.

I mean, we're all experts, and we want a first choice 11 out each game, and it's in the papers and on the telly every other hour, so if he isn't prepared to listen or change, then, well, he's a control freak, a Bond villain - an autocrat. He won't listen to reason and the league title, the side, and all of us are going to hell in a handcart. It'll be like "Downfall".

autocrat - A ruler with infinite, or absolute, power; a despot, dictator.

The gist of this is roughly:

  • Benitez has no people skills
  • Benitez doesn't build good relationships with his players / Benitez can't motivate players
  • Benitez doesn't like people telling him he's wrong / isn't prepared to accept that he's ever wrong / can't accept other people's views when they differ from his

And so forth. You get the gist.

I think this suggestion is out of order given the way the man comports himself every time we see him representing the club. It's probably fair to  say that Benitez is a micromanager, but an 'autocrat'? That takes things too far, to an almost slanderous degree.

Most important of all, I think it misses the point entirely of why he is the way he is, and why things at the club are the way they are.

I'd argue that things are happening for a reason, and that that reason is the long-term dominance of Liverpool football club.

So, taking each of the bullets above in turn...

Benitez has no people skills

The man's character - some observations:

  • This week we heard Rafa admit in a press conference that his players travelled more than "Willy Fogg", and there's a thread on here that's ample testament to the man's self-deprecation and wit.
  • Again, this week we've seen him on LFCTV interviewed by the Claire Rourke with a smile on his face, customarily enigmatic but polite, affable, and dare I say, charming. What's not to like about the bloke?

When you see or hear Benitez interviewed, or hear him speak in front of the assembled media, what impression do you get? Do you sense an air of fear, where the assembled media pap their pants in case he takes exception to one of their questions (as, say, another prominent manager is well known for)?

For me, there is generally light heartedness and openness - a willingness to talk about football and to get along. I get the impression of an understated man who is basically warm and polite. In fact, he's a model of politeness.

He sometimes appears enigmatic, and I suppose you could argue that betrays an awkwardness with people who ask him tough questions; however, I think that's wide of the mark.

He may be many things, but Benitez is a football man through and through. We have plenty of testimony of his long-term vision for how he wants things to work, and how he wants his team to play (the template seems to be Sacchi's Milan) and other than his family, you get the impression he's not that interested in anything else. He mixes with football people, he talks football in his spare time... you get my point.

Now, when asked questions on issues like "Will you play Torres in the next match?", he's confident enough to hold his ground, because (and this is my opinion) he doesn't want to show his hand. The media hate that, and with no clues on how to read the man and his decisions, they respond that he's a control freak.

There's nothing really strange about beign tight lipped with the media in footballing circles (Kenny Dalglish anyone?). Being tagged 'enigmatic' generally means a manager won't show his hand when prompted by the media.

None of us (as far as I know) are on the staff at Melwood, and none of us is a jobbing journo with a tape recorder shoved into his face, so none of us knows for sure, but the idea that Benitez lacks warmth as a human being is cobblers for me. Every piece of evidence we have suggests the contrary.

Benitez doesn't build good relationships with his players / Benitez can't motivate players

Some observations:
  • We saw Carra on LFCTV tell Digger that Rafa's a hands on coach with the players, unlike Houllier who stood back from things, and that he gives Carra videos of AC Milan from the late 80s and early 90s to help him analyse the play.
  • When Mascherano signed, he met the player personally and gave him an appraisal of the way he'd played for Argentina in several recent games, and impressed the player with his insight into him personally.
  • He's protective of Torres and trying to manage people's expectations (hard as that is)
  • Babel's talked of his tips on dealing with a hostile crowd.
  • Voronin told of how welcome he was made to feel.

Some examples of natural warmth there. Attempts to actively build relationships with players? Who knows? All I'm suggesting is he comes across as a good bloke who's decent with his staff and players - he's considerate up to a reasonable point. The point is that he considers professional football 'work', but even beyond that, these examples hint at someone who's decent in a working context, where the goal of their collective work is gradual footballing improvement.

On the other side of the equation, you get the impression from some players that they want a more 'hands on' approach.

Bellamy is a recent example of this (you got the feeling he grudgingly admired Benitez - he had to admit that Rafa was good and that he learned a lot, but at the bottom of it, Bellamy wanted to hear how good he was, and he wanted to play every week).

Steven Gerrard's former incarnation is probably the best example there is. The storm that blew around the whole 'will he won't he leave for Chelsea' saga centred largely around the idea that Rafa didn't have a great relationship with him (see the misquote in my signature). Gerrard has grown since then, but at that time, he was unhappy, so it is an issue.

It's probably a fair profile to say that Rafa's a decent bloke, and that he's decent, polite, and fair with his players. As such, to cast him as purely 'bad cop' to Ayesteran's good is probably well wide of the mark.

However, with some players it's clear that this approach only takes things so far. He's no Harry Redknapp, and he won't lavish praise on those who demand it. Some players can't perform to their highest potential without that kind of treatment, so it's clear some players won't last long at Liverpool under Benitez.

But here's where the significance of his demeanour comes in for me. He might not feel he needs to bother with motivation, but there's a reason for that. He's setting the system and the squad up to let motivation take care of itself.

We're getting closer every year to having two quality players in every position. We're not there yet, but we're close. For every game now, there's a growing number of players who aren't sure if they're going to play - and they all want to play. They find out on the day of the match whether they've made the team. Everyone knows they have to maintain their standards, and as a result, consistency becomes more natural.

How do you maximise your chances of a starting slot at Liverpool under Benitez? You train hard, show commitment, show a willingness to learn, and conduct yourself professionally. You get up every morning, you look yourself in the mirror, and you tell yourself you're going to improve and improve and improve.

Part of that is taking pride in your level of professional performance, and that involves giving everything you have (physically and mentally) in every training session, and in every game, regardless of the situation or the opposition.

A manager who 'puts his arm around a player' is prepared to put matters like that aside, and while that's fine, and it raises certain players' games when they need that extra 10%, it's also a short-term thing. It's potentially divisive for the squad, and it's a potential hinderance to long-term improvements in performance.

Benitez doesn't like people telling him he's wrong / isn't prepared to accept that he's ever wrong / can't accept other people's views when they differ from his

This one's a bit more compelling. Ayesteran and Heighway are two words that for many people close the case versus Rafa here.

However, there's evidence to the contrary. He's clearly stubborn, but it's not a case of cutting off his nose to spite his face. Ayesteran and Herrera were examples of him working with mates whose opinions he respected. Macia and Pederzoli are other examples. More recently, he's appointed a long-term friend in Angel Vales to a key position.

Clearly when you're a leader trying to implement a vision, you look to work with people who share your vision, but if you want yes men, it's unlikely that you'll ask those you respect - those you call your friends.

For Benitez to work with these men over a period of years to have suffered so little acrimony hints that he's no autocrat. Would you put up with that kind of treatment over a number of weeks, let alone years, if you were at the top of your professional field? If your boss dismissed your views without a thought if they conflicted with his views? Would you hang around? I've been in that position before and lasted roughly two months. I've never looked back.

At the same time, Benitez is the boss, and he has to make tough decisions whenever he overrules these men he considers friends, men he respects, in what he considers the interests of the club. That takes maturity and sensitivity, as well as ruthlessness when needs be, and he's demonstrated his spirit in ample measure with the decisions he's taken.

People are pissed that we've drawn three games recently, but to be honest, after overruling Ayesteran and lightening pre-season, we're sat a point behind Man U with a game in hand, having already played Chelsea and Villa away, we're unbeaten, other than the Carling Cup game with Itandje between the sticks we've conceded no goals from open play, and meanwhile we've suffered two (arguably three) of the worst refereeing performances in recent memory, conceded four daft pens, have suffered five broken bones (and a collapsed lung) to key players... some might argue we'd have snapped the hand of whoever offered us that before the season started.

Lightening pre-season would clearly have been a tough decision to take - do you think he would have done that lightly? Balague/Bascombe say the relationship between Benitez and Ayesteran had deteriorated over a period of time anyway, and there's probably a lot more to it, but I really doubt autocracy's the root cause. If it were autocracy, Ayesteran's finger would have been raised to Rafa a long long time ago.

I know a lot of people disagree with me on that (hence the thread) but for me it's a half-assed allegation.

On 5 Live this Monday they had some journo hack on (I never caught the guy's name - was in the car with my wife talking over it), and the guy said something along these lines:

'Benitez is a complete control freak whose levels of influence in any project that he's involved in have been almost unseen in football. The team will be growing organically when he gives players a run, and then he can't help himself - he has to put his stamp on things, get his shovel out, and ruin it all'.

I think that's total rubbish, and to suggest that he picks peculiar lineups from game to game as an expression of a fragile ego (which is what the bloke and most of the media seem to suggest) is just utter nonsense.

If anything, it's a lack of ego and intuitiveness that lets him down - he maybe goes too far the other way into a world of stats and graphs, technical analysis and sports science. He believes in his methods and he won't budge to boost his profile with the fans or with the media. To suggest it's to put his personal stamp on things is ridiculous.

If Torres was a robot who was impossible to injure, and whose performance could not be diminished through overwork, then yes - maybe we'd see him start more games, and maybe we'd only need three strikers. But that takes Rafa's belief in 'possibilities' out of the equation, and the fact he'd rather have 4 strikers deliver 15 goals than one delivering 20. That's another weakness he has - too often he worries about what might cause most headaches to the opposing manager. My personal feeling is that for some games, he should put out the side with the strongest form and let the other manager deal with us. Maybe that lesson will come in time. The pre-season lesson has put paid to the sluggish start (although hopefully that doesn't affect our traditional surge late in the season), so that's maybe a sign he's learning his lessons.

However however however... the concerns are based on certain short-term assumptions we have about our squad and its quality.

Perceived weakness 1. Rotation means we have to play players who aren't as good on a regular basis, and leave out players who are magic on a regular basis.

Perceived weakness 2. Rafa needs to stop worrying about the opposition and stick the best side out - let them worry about us.

These weaknesses are based on the fact that Voronin and Crouch just aren't as good as Torres, that Lucas and Momo just aren't as good as Gerrard and Mascherano.

Now - every transfer window that passes is going to weaken the foundations of that perceived weakness. In the first year, we could worry that Mellor wasn't as good as Baros, or that Welsh wasn't as good as Hamann.

In year two, we could worry that Kromkamp wasn't as good as Finnan, or maybe that Cisse wasn't as good as Crouch. We had a little less to worry about.

Now we're worrying which of our four starting strikers at the last World Cup is going to be most effective. Do you see a trend here?

If we stick to our guns, we're going to end up with two or more truly scary players in every position on the park. It'll get more and more difficult to complain, because we'll be just as excited about the player coming in as the player who's been rested. Torres ain't the last player we're ever going to sign, and he won't necessarily be the best. That's the most exciting part of all this for me.

Compounding this excitement is the fact that the players we're retaining are the players who are responding most to the working environment that's been put in place.

We've kept hold of Steven Gerrard, and under Benitez, he's grown as a man and as a professional. From a young fella whose emotions dragged him all over the place, and to the brink of a move to Chelsea, we now see a model professional who is self-motivated, who talks naturally about work rate, and dedication in training, and about the balance of the side - how he's happy to play for the good of the side, not talking about how he's dying to play in the centre for his own personal gratification.

We've seen Jermaine Pennant grow in a similar way, and while he's very much still a work in progress (discipline wyse there's a long way to go, and he still needs more consistency for me), he's become a key player in the squad, and he seems to have sorted out his personal problems and dedicated himself to taking his chance and improving as a pro.

The model pros we had under Ged are flourishing, with Sammi seemingly set for an Indian Summer to his career (and loving the rest he gets), and Carra just seeming to improve with age. Finnan is another example for me.

Some players fall by the wayside because this environment doesn't suit them, but the fact is that those players don't fit our long-term plans, because we need honest players who are prepared to work consistently hard to improve as players and men. That's something that builds momentum in any organisation when it's implemented properly, and you end up with an environment in which talented, dedicated people flourish, and where the right behaviours are rewarded. Standards improve and improve and improve.

That's the reputation and working conditions that have attracted Torres, Alonso, and Reina. The Spanish internationals know how Benitez operates. They've spoken to those who worked with him in Spain. They know they'll get back what they put into their game - and more players of that quality will follow (and not only from Spain). This isn't the season to end all seasons - things are going to keep improving. We're going to go close this year, and there's a good chance we'll win the league, but one thing's for sure - we'll get stronger and stronger and stronger if we stick to the formula.

It wasn't so long ago that the press were gushing over the talent and professionalism of Jose Mourinho, Frank Lampard, and John Terry. Chelsea were in the grip of a personality cult - in fact, arguably two - and when that happens, it's bound to end up in a ball of flames.

So now we're hearing how Terry hamstrung Mourinho, how he's demanded unlimited parity in his contract for a further decade, and how he wants the manager's job when he hangs up his boots. Meanwhile we have Lampard, Cole, and Drogba in the huff because their leader has left them, and the camp is split in two.

What behaviours were being rewarded there? Was long-term planning to the fore? Sure, they've won 2 titles and 6 trophies in 3 years, but what now? They have a quality squad, but it's fractured and vulnerable, and it looks like the other cult leader, the one with the purse strings, wants to make it another version of Hearts.

The truth is, there were 'favourites' and 'cliques' and resentment galore, while all the time the media reported talk of the Chelsea 'family'. Turns out it was so much garbage.

It might seem cold, but Benitez is setting things up precisely to prevent that kind of thing at Liverpool football club. It's the system and management process that motivates, and that promotes professionalism. My opinion, for what it's worth, is that we should put silly allegations of autocracy to one side and focus on how scary we're in the process of becoming.

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