Facts For a Time Capsule

Posted by RAWK Editor on December 14, 2007, 06:32:13 PM

Facts For a Time Capsule

The distorting lens of the past is one of the most deceptive things in football; it’s easy to forget, with the foreshortening of time, how long it took rival managers to build their empires.

I thought it would be advisable to write an article before the United game, that would still apply after it –– win, lose or draw.

Because whatever happens, it’s just one game. A very important game, which will set some kind of marker and invoke a lot of passion and pride, but not a cup final, and not a title decider. And some things
in football are not fundamentally changed by the result of one game in the first half of the season. The aim was to write something not distorted by either victory or defeat, particularly with the
manager’s job said to still be in the balance.

Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, English football’s two outstanding managers since Bob Paisley’s retirement, remain in place for people to use as examples of Benítez’s “failure”, while there have also been
some bizarrely unfavourable comparisons with Gérard Houllier (the most recent being by Ian Ridley of the Mail, on Sky’s Sunday Supplement; I know Ridley is a pal of Houllier’s, but what had he been smoking? HE
said “Houllier was sacked for finishing 15 points behind Arsenal”, when it was the small matter of 30 points).

But since Mourinho departed*, Rafa is compared most with two heavily-established managers, despite still being in the initial stages of his time regarding building an empire at Liverpool. Plenty has changed in
the last two decades, but it is unfair to judge Benítez against men who’ve sorted every last details at their clubs over a decade or two, rather than when they were at the same stage of their tenures.

(*Mourinho is perhaps the only modern exception. But he didn’t really build an empire: merely breezed in, spent megabucks on an already expensive squad, taking it up to around the £300m mark, and blitzed his way to two titles. He did a great job, but it wasn’t a comparable situation to that at Liverpool. Avram Grant has done well so far, but he’s not had to build an empire, merely take control of someone else’s.)

Anyone who’s read my pieces or books knows that I’m a big fan of Arsene Wenger. And I have a grudging respect for Alex Ferguson that, even when typing, I note through gritted teeth. But the media have locked in on some lazy stereotypes: Benítez, with his crazy rotation and barmy zonal marking (which just happens to lead to hardly any set-piece goals being conceded each season, but let’s ignore that), purveys purely pragmatic football, while his tactics work only in European games.

Football is a subjective issue, but let’s concentrate on some facts:

  • Alex Ferguson’s first five seasons, after inheriting a team which
    had just finished 4th, were as follows: 11th*, 2nd, 11th, 13th, 6th.
    Rafa Benítez also inherited a team that had finished 4th, albeit a
    whopping 30 points behind the champions (compared with the United of
    ’86, who were just 12 points behind Dalglish’s champions), but
    subsequently finished 5th, 3rd and 3rd. (*In Ferguson’s defence, that
    first 11th-place finish came after he took charge in November 1986,
    roughly a third of the way into the season.)
  • So in his first five seasons, Ferguson took United so far
    backwards it’s almost farcical. Perhaps part of this was essential ––
    the idea of one step backwards, two steps forward. But those first
    years were five steps backwards to only one step forward. Manchester
    United had spent the previous five seasons in the top four before he
    arrived. In the five seasons following his arrival, they averaged 9th
    in the table. In the five years before Ferguson was appointed, United
    were averaging 75 points a season. In the five years after, they
    averaged an abysmal 59 –– just one point more than in Benítez’s
    Premier League annus horribilis, in year one.
  • Alex Ferguson won nothing until the end of his fourth season,
    when he landed an FA Cup. He followed this with a Cup Winners’ Cup in
    his fifth season. Benítez won a European Cup in his first season and
    an FA Cup in his second. He also made two other cup finals in his
    first three years, including a second in the Champions League.
  • In 1989, Ferguson broke the transfer record on Gary Pallister,
    spending £2.3m. Steve Bruce and Paul Ince were also fairly expensive
    signings around that time, while in 1988 the Red Devils paid what was
    then a club record £1.8m to buy back Mark Hughes. Ferguson’s capture
    of Roy Keane, at £3.75m in 1992, also broke the British transfer
    record. These fees may not seem stellar now, but they were the £30m
    deals of their day –– more expensive, by current terms, than Fernando
    Torres, who is more than £10m below the current British record, with
    roughly a dozen other players (including Ferguson purchases Rooney,
    Ferdinand and Veron) also costing significantly more than the Spanish
    striker. It took Ferguson four years after this initial heavy
    expenditure, and with a lot more further investment, to win the league
    title –– his first ‘major’ honour (league titles and European Cups
    obviously being the two major ones big clubs look to win). The season
    when Ferguson signed Pallister and Ince, United finished in 13th
    place, with a paltry 48 points. 
  • It took Ferguson between six and nine years to start reaping the
    dividends of his revamped youth system. The emergence of Giggs in 1991
    was the one early bonus, but Scholes, Butt, Beckham Neville and
    Neville first appeared between 1992 and 1995. Even now, in 2007, his
    team relies on three of those players. In those terms, Benítez would
    be relying on Gérard Houllier’s youth recruitments; alas, none proved
    good enough.
  • Only now, after 11 years in charge, is Arsene Wenger enjoying
    more than the occasional bud blossoming from his famed youth set-up,
    with half a team constructed from canny scouting work commenced many
    years ago. During his first eight years, the only youngsters to be
    regulars were Vieira, Anelka and, from 2000 onwards, Ashley Cole. Kolo
    Toure arrived aged 20 in Wenger’s sixth season, Fabregas aged 16 in
    his eighth.
  • By contrast, Benítez only began his youth procurement policy in
    earnest in 2005; there wasn’t time in 2004, when he arrived. With many
    of the key players turning out to be Benítez’s signings (Hobbs,
    Anderson, Antwi, Roque, Hansen, Ajdarevic), Liverpool won the two most
    recent FA Youth Cups.
  • Wenger, meanwhile, has spent far more money on certain players
    than he’s given credit (debit?) for. For instance, look at his major
    buys, costing £8m* or more: Jeffers (£8m), Hleb (£10m), Wiltord
    (£13m), Reyes (deal rising to £17m), Van Bronkhurst (£8.5m), Henry
    (£10.5m), Walcott (fee rising to £12m), da Silva (reportedly between
    £8m-£16.5m). Not a high amount for 11 years, but not a low one,
    either. (*Prices ‘factually’ correct based on the most reliable
    media sources. Bear in mind that, because of football’s almost ten-
    fold inflation since 1992, and two-fold inflation since the late ‘90s,
    £8m spent in 1999 is closer to £15m in 2007. £8m in 1999 was roughly
    half the transfer record in England, while £15m is half the current
    one.) Benítez has only thus far signed four players for £8m or more:
    Kuyt (£9.5m), Alonso (£10.5m), Babel (£11.5m) and Torres (£20m). And
    while Kuyt has slightly disappointed when it comes to his goal return,
    there is not a flop like Jeffers in sight.
  • If we’re talking about net spend due to recouping money,
    then Wenger has done extremely well. But of course, Benítez, who has
    also recouped a fair amount of money (his net spend this summer was
    only around £25m), is in a disadvantaged position when it comes to
    comparing transfers this way, as a) after just three years, he’s still
    building his first true team, not dismantling it; b) none of his best
    players or main signings have asked to leave, unlike Anelka,
    Overmars, Petit, Vieira, Ashley Cole and Henry, whose sales netted
    Wenger almost all of his transfer income. Some of those players
    leaving hindered Arsenal, but of course gave Wenger a lot of money to
    reinvest, while others, like Henry and Vieira, left when approaching
    their sell-by dates.
  • If Benítez wished to sell Gerrard, Carragher, Torres, Reina,
    Agger, Alonso and Babel (or was forced to by transfer requests,
    neither of which is the case), he could raise £120m and be trading at
    a big profit; thankfully that’s not his aim. Hopefully they’ll all
    leave for a small fee, on account of old age, in a decade’s time, when
    success has given them TLF (Trophy Lifting Fatigue). When it comes to
    selling inherited players, Benítez was also unlucky to be in a
    position to get only £16m in total for Owen and Cissé (whose combined
    values were £40m in 2003) due to contract length and horrific injuries
  • Arsene Wenger’s first five seasons resulted in the following
    finishes: 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 2nd and 2nd. Very impressive. But ‘only’ one
    league title and no other ‘major’ trophies, so while ahead of him on
    average league position, on a par with Benítez after just three
    seasons in terms of major honours. I also feel that the rival managers
    to Ferguson and Wenger at the top of the league in the late ‘90s were
    inferior to what we now find: Roy Evans was a great backroom man but
    never proved himself as a top-class manager, while Ruud Gullit,
    Gianluca Vialli, and David O’Leary are all still relatively young but
    unable to get near a top job, having gone into high-profile positions
    in the late ‘90s without any real management experience or coaching
    pedigree. This was also the era of pre-Roman Abramovich Chelsea.
  • Wenger’s points tallies in his first five seasons were 68, 78, 78,
    73 and 70. Benítez managed a superior 82 in just his second season. It
    doesn’t mean that 2006 Liverpool were better than 1998 Arsenal, who
    won the league with just 78 points, but it does show, with the use of
    those pesky facts, that Benítez is not this naive man who struggles to
    win games in the Premier League while Wenger understands everything about
    English football. Additionally, in the last two seasons Benítez has
    finished above Wenger in the league.
  • Wenger’s Champions League record is not a patch on Benítez’s. In
    just three seasons, Benítez has reached twice the number of finals
    (two to one), and unlike Wenger, has actually won one. In 15
    successive years of qualifying (in itself a notable achievement),
    United have only made it to one solitary final. Until Benítez started
    doing so incredibly well in the European Cup, it was seen as being of
    massive importance to the big clubs; it may be coincidental, but it’s
    as if his success has led critics to downgrade that importance.
    Perhaps it’s my paranoia (and not necessarily a fact), but if Alex
    Ferguson had made two finals in three years, even his pet labrador
    would have been knighted by now.
  • Benítez has yet to fail to qualify for the Champions League, and
    has made the knockout stages for the fourth successive time, halfway
    through his fourth year. Before he arrived, Liverpool had failed to
    reach the competition at all (2003/04) and gone out in embarrassment
    in the group stage the year before (2002/03).
  • Wenger is a world-class manager, but it does seem strange that he
    has somehow ‘never signed a flop’, and that all his young signings
    have been ‘inspired’. In July 2007 The Times ran a piece about how
    Benítez had pipped Arsenal for Ryan Babel, which also intimated that
    Arsenal had lost interest in the Dutchman. Its author, having praised
    Wenger’s record in scouting young players as “proven and largely
    unblemished”, suggested that: “As a procurer of young talent, Rafael
    Benítez’s record has been somewhat hit and miss since he took over as
    Liverpool manager three years ago. Daniel Agger, the accomplished
    young Denmark defender, may be one of Benítez’s better acquisitions,
    but the failures ring a little louder than the successes. Gabriel
    Paletta anyone?”
  • If we’re talking about players in their late teens and early 20s,
    then as well as Agger, what about Xabi Alonso, Pepe Reina and Javier
    Mascherano, all just 22 when signed? Or Scott Carson, who’s now worth
    ten times his original fee? Even Momo Sissoko, whose stock is low at
    the moment, had two excellent seasons aged 20 and 21. How does
    Paletta’s name, alongside that of the disappointing Mark Gonzalez,
    outweigh all the successes when it comes to players aged 22 or under?
    Meanwhile, teenagers like Jack Hobbs, Emiliano Insua, Gerardo Bruna,
    Marvin Poure, Sebastian Leto and Daniel Pacheco have not had time to
    prove themselves; but each has looked the part at either youth or
    reserve level. After three and a half years in charge, Wenger had only
    fully blooded Anelka and Vieira, while relying heavily on older
    players he inherited, like Bergkamp and the back five. Since the
    Times’ piece, Babel has proved a big hit at Liverpool, as has another
    20-year-old, Lucas Leiva.
  • Which brings us back to perceptions; or perhaps just
    misconceptions. How does the £10-17m failure of José Antonio Reyes, 21
    when signed, fit in with this picture of Wenger, the master, and
    Benítez, the failure in the art of procuring young talent? Wenger’s
    judgement is undoubtedly up there with the very best, but would even
    he call his judgement ‘largely unblemished’ when thinking of Cygan,
    Stepanovs, Wreh, Diawara, Chukwunyelu-Obinna, Danilevicious, Luzhny,
    Volz, van Bronckhurst, Boa Morte, Wright, Jeffers and Wiltord? –– many
    of whom were youngsters when they signed for the Gunners, and plenty
    of whom weren’t cheap. And the list doesn’t even include those who
    came and went without even being noticed, or only proved medium-level
    successes, like Senderos.

So, just a few facts to bear in mind, both before and after the United game, about where Benítez ranks against his main rivals at the same stage of their tenures.

Quite simply, Rafa Benítez has to be the man to lead this club forward, for two more seasons at the very least (unless things go really pear-shaped). Arsene Wenger, after one early success, only made Arsenal a truly great side in his 6th season, and Ferguson –– a man who also laboured under two-decades of pressure to win the league title –– took until his 7th to do just that.

If Rafa is going to be under pressure to keep his job following every defeat –– and here I’m only going on what’s said in the papers, which may or may not be reliable –– the club is in grave danger of shooting itself in the foot. All managers lose games; it’s an inescapable part of football. No manager is perfect.

Liverpool FC needs strong and consistent leadership right now. It has it on the pitch and in the dugout, and now is the time to prove that it’s the case behind the scenes, too.

Until genuine peace is officially (and festively) announced at Anfield, I’ll continue to throw a few facts around and call for common sense. I am not saying that anyone within Liverpool’s hierarchy lacks this crucial trait –– in my heart I want to believe they don’t –– but if Rafa is sacked, or made to work under unbearable pressure and with unreasonable demands, then I’ll have to revise that conclusion.

© Paul Tomkins 2007

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