The Impossible Job

Posted by RAWK Editor on January 31, 2008, 02:08:19 PM

To my mind, managing Liverpool is currently –– by far and away –- the most difficult job in English football. It’s become an impossible mission.

Two decades without the league title is an enormous weight bearing down on whoever has to manage the team. It has become a millstone the size of the moon, and that was the case even before Benítez arrived.

It has got to the stage where even Champions League Finals are seen as “nothing”, in this almighty desire for the title at all costs, and nothing else. Believe me, I keep seeing fans dismiss Champions League Finals like it was the Carling Cup being discussed. When did we get so obnoxious, spoilt and greedy?

And now there’s a new sense of impatience surrounding the club that emanated from within, with news that Benítez’s job was under threat in November, when the side were still in a good league position but struggling in the Champions League; a threat that only recently surfaced to the public, since when things have got dramatically worse on the pitch. Coincidence?

It’s no wonder the team appear to be in meltdown right now. A self-fulfilling prophecy was put in place. And even if all parties have genuinely cleared the air between them, following desperate summit meetings, which may well have been the case (to some degree at least), the air itself remains noxious in the eyes of those viewing from the outside.

When has impatience ever been a virtue in football? Was it a virtue when Ferguson took United to 11th, 2nd, 11th and 13th in his first four seasons? Or 7th in his 5th? If memory serves, United’s board stayed strong, stayed patient.

Or what about when Arsenal won nothing between 1998 and 2002? I recall disgruntled Gooners on 606 circa 2000/2001, saying Wenger had taken them as far as he could. Did David Dein and co. get impatient? Did they speak to some recently retired international with no club management experience, and make it public?

Or what about when Everton finished 11th (complete with double European humiliation) in 2005/06, a year after the heady high of 4th? Or 17th in 2003/04, inches from relegation, a year after an impressive 7th? Did they panic?

It shames me to say it, but, Tescos aside, Everton should be proud of the way they’ve run their club in recent years. And they’re reaping the rewards.

That doesn’t mean it won’t get harder for the Toffees as expectations rise, and should they have to work out how to play distracting, high-profile Champions League games midweek and have enough left for weekend league fixtures (and the Uefa Cup is not the same, believe me). But they’re going about building in the right way. The sensible way. They’ve giving Moyes the best chance of succeeding, relatively speaking. (But of course, no-one expects a league title in a million years, even though their last one was only three years prior to the Reds’.)

Liverpool have the 3rd-most expensive squad in the league, but way behind the two most expensive ones. And Benítez has been in the job the 3rd-longest of the ‘big four’, but Ferguson and Wenger have an incredible 34 years in charge between them. As a result, no-one dares to tell them what to do. And as both Ferguson and Wenger recently said, that’s the way it has to be.

Based purely on money spent (cost of the current squad at the manager’s disposal, not gross spend or net spend), the league table should look like this:

     1 Chelsea
     2 Man United
     3 Liverpool
     4 Arsenal

What about the league table when based on each club’s wealth, and their turnover?

     1 Chelsea (based on Abramovich’s wealth, not turnover)
     2 Manchester United
     3 Arsenal
     4 Liverpool

Linked to the cost of the squad, but with the price of players not being a fail-safe barometer of their ability, is the quality of the squad. This is purely subjective, and as such, I’m presenting only my opinion. Plus, you also have a situation where Chelsea have the biggest squad in terms of depth, but Manchester United have the best XI, suggesting both might be equal overall.

     1= Chelsea
     1= Manchester United
     3= Arsenal
     3= Liverpool

How about a league table based on managerial talent? Based on all achievements in the game of football since the turn of the millennium, I would suggest the following:

     1= Arsenal
     1= Manchester United
     1= Liverpool

So, joint first for Liverpool, with Benítez’s miracles in Valencia and Istanbul proving his quality as a manager beyond doubt, and putting his overall achievements since 2000 on a par with the others. But –– crucially –– Wenger and Ferguson would rank more highly based on Premier League achievements; although, it has to be noted, that Ferguson did far, far, far worse in his first four seasons in the league at United.

Based on time the manager has spent in the job –– another well-known and valuable barometer to judging success (in that it takes many years to shape a club from top to bottom, particularly when it comes to bringing through young players) –– the league table should look like this:

     1 Manchester United
     2 Arsenal
     3 Everton
     4 Liverpool

Also related to time in the job is stability: the working environment presented to the manager by his relationship with the power brokers, as well as the level of certainty/uncertainty surrounding his position (either real, or perceived through the media, who will do whatever they can to exacerbate the situation to improve their sales/ratings). With this in mind, the league would look something like this:

     1= Manchester United
     1= Arsenal
     3 Everton
     4= Chelsea
     4= Spurs
     4= Newcastle
     4= Aston Villa
     4= Manchester City
     . . .
     20 Liverpool (replacing Newcastle)

Whatever the reasons, and however true or not, Benítez’s position appears to be the least secure and stable in the league, now that Sam Allardyce and Martin Jol have been sacked. Rafa is under the most pressure.

The thing Liverpool desperately need is a point of difference, that will raise them above their rivals. And from these, is there one? No. Chelsea have theirs: the most money. United have theirs: the most experienced manager. Arsenal have theirs: their unprecedented youth procurement scheme. Liverpool’s strongest point is having a top-class manager, but then so too do its rivals. The youth scheme could rival Arsenal’s down the line, but it’s a case of playing serious catch-up. But even if the Reds replaced Rafa, who is unquestionably a better manager than Ferguson and Wenger? Can Liverpool ever have the most money? No. The most trusted manager? No.

So then –– with all I’ve discussed, on what criteria should Liverpool be 1st?

History. And history alone.

But that’s almost ancient history now; are we still living in the past? And does history win you trophies? Ask Blackpool, Leeds, Nottingham Forest. Recent history –– the last 10-15 years, which is more relevant in many ways –– again suggests that 3rd or 4th is the best Liverpool can hope for.

Indeed, Souness lowered the bar in the early ‘90s, finishing 6th, 6th and 8th and flunking out early in almost every cup, while Houllier managed to rise to 2nd for one season, but fall as low as 5th and 7th. Five clubs have won the league since Liverpool last did, and only one of those is new to the list since Benítez arrived: megabucks Chelsea. Crucially, indeed, super-crucially, Arsenal and Manchester United, as clubs, had grown highly used to winning league titles by the time Rafa pitched up.

And if you look at all the league tables I have produced –– some subjective, but most not –– and combine them for an average position, then 4th place is about the best Liverpool can realistically expect in the current climate, and in the foreseeable future.

I’m not trying to defend Benítez for the sake of it, or saying that he is 100% correct in everything he ever does, and that I agree with all of his decisions, merely trying to put into context the task he faces.

I honestly can’t accurately judge the side or the tactics right now, because there is this big black cloud hanging over the club, obfuscating matters. Part of that stems back to the falling out with Pako Ayestaran in September, which may have been Rafa’s fault to some (unmeasurable) degree, and which, for me, was the first unsettling moment of the season. But then came what I can only politely describe as the ‘shitstorm’, that has distorted any clear analysis.

Yes, Kuyt is having a stinker of a season, and yes, Crouch, on paper ‘deserves’ more playing time; but that would mean two spearhead strikers, something no other top club deploys –– each has at least one player working the space between the lines (United have two, in Rooney and Tevez!). And yes, Babel looks suited to the role in theory, but he’s still a kid and still new to England; so it’s not like Rafa is ignoring an obvious, fail-safe immediate solution.

Yes, it may be the manager’s fault that he doesn’t yet have a second-striker who is good enough to link play between the midfield and also score goals. But then again, Kuyt looked good enough in the role last season, and at the start of this. There are issues in the wide areas (although the two new wide men share 17 goals this season, despite not being regulars), but it’s also an area where Benítez was thwarted in the market, with Simao and Alves too expensive and Malouda opting for Chelsea.

Meanwhile you have the unpalatable sight of Gerrard showing signs of dissent with the manager’s decisions as if he’s Alan Shearer, and the previously criticism-free Carragher conceding a clutch of penalties already this season, and frankly lucky it’s not been more. Defending set-pieces, which was immaculate for nearly two years, has become a comedy of errors again. Some of this may be down to the manager, but the players need to stand up and be counted, too.

You can argue such points, and suggest Benítez isn’t helping himself at times,  and you may be right, but how can you judge his performances and decisions as if they exist in a vacuum? There is the context to consider.

Which Liverpool manager has ever had to work in such difficult circumstances? Or anything remotely as close? Kenny Dalglish had the very different pressures of Hillsborough to contend with, but that took its toll on him and his team, as his decisions seemed to become less easily understandable. But has the board ever fallen out with the manager, and the fans been up in arms and protesting about the owners? I can’t recall a Liverpool manager facing such an unsettling situation.

Examples of managers failing after being undermined are everywhere. Martin Jol was instantly undermined at the start of the season when it became known the club wanted Juande Ramos instead, so failure became a self-fulfilling prophecy; results stayed well below what Jol was previously getting, because every game was likely to be his last.

The same happened at Chelsea when Mourinho, having landed two league titles, had his job description unofficially changed by Abramovich at the start of Year 3, to be about finding a place for his the owner’s Shevchenko in the team and asking them to play pretty triangles, while, in the reverse of Liverpool, the league became less important than the European Cup.

Short of a miracle, it is dawning on me that a league title has become an impossibility. It’s why we are now seen as a cup team –– because that is the most realistic avenue open to any Liverpool manager.

The main hope for a league title in the future relates to what is coming through the ranks, and if Rafa, or any subsequent manager, can make the most of a crop of promising kids sourced in the last two-three years, in the way Wenger has at Arsenal (albeit after a few seasons of relative mediocrity, winning fewer trophies than Liverpool as they developed, and finishing below the Reds for two seasons running.)

The reserves –– a breeding ground for Benítez’s young buys –– are doing very well. The youth team hasn’t lost an FA Youth Cup game in three seasons since Rafa started supplementing it with talented, scouted players, and have just beaten a more experienced and lauded Arsenal side. Quality is bubbling below the surface, and the first team has a superb (and still relatively young) spine.

But confidence has been lost –– by, it seems, pretty much everyone at the club: the players (in themselves, and possibly the board and the manager); the manager (in the owners, and possibly himself), and the fans (in just about everything connected with the club). Crucially, do the players have confidence that the board has confidence in Rafa?

If it ends up that Benítez has to be sacked, it is because the situation at Liverpool has become too messy to make it a stable working environment –– for him at least. That wouldn’t make immediately replacing him the correct or decent thing to do, because it’s not necessarily his fault that the club is in apparent turmoil, even if he did first make the tensions public. 

Maybe someone else can come in and do a better job at this point in time, and for a few months, but the problem is that Tom Hicks has hinted with his actions over Jurgen Klinsmann that he’s quick on the draw with regard to replacing managers; if that is true, Liverpool will be in danger of becoming like Newcastle (with their myriad farces of the last decade, where they would chop and change from ruthless disciplinarians to kindly men who “understand the club”, all to equal levels of mediocrity), unless the American duo have learned their lesson. And have they? Who knows...

But I now see no easy solution to this quest for the holy grail. Because, by next season, Liverpool will still have, at best, the 3rd-most expensive and 3rd-most talented squad in the league, and, at best, the 4th-most experienced manager in his current role. And with the club approaching 20 years without the title, the manager, whoever he is, will have the hardest job in the land.

And even if Tom Hicks was to marry Benítez and the pair adopt children together, the media would stir and stir, so that I can’t see Benítez ever being secure enough in his job to make it work. He might well still be the 20th-most secure manager in the Premier League.

None of this means I want him replaced (far from it), but right now I see him, and the club itself, caught between a rock and a hard place. It seems like a vicious circle.

All we can do now, as the manager undertakes his increasingly impossible job, is to dream the impossible dream, whatever the fuck that might be.

© Paul Tomkins 2008

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