Rafa the Rotator

Posted by Paul Tomkins on June 16, 2004, 06:59:09 PM

At long last the wait is over, and we have our man. And he is the right man: a winner who wants nothing but success. He has made no silly promises, other than to do the right things and see where it takes us; knowing that it will be a long way if the commitment matches the talent. He knows what he wants, and you can just sense that will be a very strong leader. I repeat that he faces an enormous challenge, but if anyone is up that challenge, it is Benitez.

I think he'll be perfect for us; he seems to understand what's required. I still have some doubts that all of his methods will work the wonders they did in La Liga - in his press conference he touched upon my fears when he said he made Valencia more focused and gave them a greater team-ethic than Real Madrid and Barcelona; Rafa acknowledged that Liverpool already has some of that; unlike Valencia when he arrived there, we are not lacking in that department. English football tends to involve better team spirit than the continent, so if you add that to great players, you will stand a chance. That's precisely what he did in Spain, to phenomenal effect (we just need a few more good players). So while it's encouraging that he believes so totally in team spirit (and he just needs to look at how Arsenal celebrate goals to see it is already in evidence in England), and also totally appreciates the English mentality (he is not coming here to play airy-fairy football with no basis in the reality of hard word and getting 'stuck in'), it will be in other areas we can hope he improves us.

Having said that, for all the great team spirit under GH (remember the huddles?), maybe it wasn't as strong lately; somehow it reached its zenith when GH had his heart problems, and maybe the team - from thinking he was superhuman - suddenly realised GH and a few of his methods were flawed (not wishing to sound too negative about Houllier, as he did lots right; but this is about improving the areas where he fell short). So maybe Rafa will need to re-ignite that collective will to win. After all, it must have been hard for the top Liverpool players to feel united with their colleagues when too many of them weren't putting in the same effort. At times only half the team appeared fit to wear the red shirt; Rafa will have to infuse the other half with the same desire to win, or set about replacing them. In reality, it will be a mix of both: some will stay and improve, others will be shown the door.

One main benefit we'll surely enjoy is that Rafa favours width, and you have to say that all the best sides do: maybe not solely from wingers, but from somewhere : Arsenal get theirs from Cole (a winger-turned-full-back) and Thierry Henry drifting to the left. Man United's best teams of the 1990s had Kanchelskis and Giggs as wingmen, and Beckham staying wide on the right to deliver crosses. It's about using the width of the pitch to stretch teams, and then you can pass around them more easily; Anfield is not a big pitch, so you need to open it out a bit to break packed defences down. For too long under GH the full-backs stayed back, and the wide midfielders wandered infield. There's nothing wrong with Harry Kewell doing that, for example - Robert Pires does it to devastating effect for Arsenal - but he was the only real wide-man in the squad.

Benitez also likes to rotate his players, although one or two escaped being left out (the Spain left winger Vicente, for example). I am not a huge fan of rotation, as you can lose team cohesion; but there was not enough cohesion under Houllier for my liking even without rotation - the understanding wasn't evident, however you looked at it. A small-to-medium amount of rotation can work well. In 2000/01, GH rotated most of the attacking players (strikers and midfielders) to keep them fresh. I'm not a fan of leaving out players who've just had great games, as they tend to lose their momentum. GH left out strikers after they scored hat-tricks, and I do find that bizarre, as it just dents their confidence; at times it can be better to have an average striker full of confidence than a top one totally lacking it. Claudio Ranieri made too many changes to his teams at Chelsea; his best three players last season were Lampard, Terry and Bridge - the only three who played all season. The benefit of rotation - if done correctly - is that it keeps people on their toes. However, a strong squad can do that too (although, of course you need to keep them happy, so they will need games).

The problem GH had in later years was that he no longer had the players to rotate; or even rest his key men when they needed it. Could you rest Gerrard for Diao? Owen for the out-of-sorts Heskey? Would you opt for Cheyrou ahead of Kewell? There was simply no competition for places. You wouldn't want to rotate Gerrard, but there will be times he could use a rest.

The best thing about Benitez is that he likes to attack as a team and defend as a team. Under GH, we defended as a team, but attacked as a couple of individuals chasing a long ball (not always, but too often). I recall applauding off the Valencia side that won 1-0 at Anfield in the Champions League a couple of years ago - I'm not sure if people watching on TV could get the full sense of their movement off-the-ball, and the way they outbattled, out-run and out-passed us. They were the perfect team - eleven men playing together, with spirit and (crucially) understanding. Michael Owen believes they are the best team he has faced, and it's easy to see why. Steven Gerrard will feel exactly the same, I can assure you. They will both be hugely excited by his arrival; and Cisse will have been delighted to read (if he didn't know before) Guy Roux's comments that Benitez is a big fan of the young French striker. On top of this, Benitez's track record this millennium, coupled with Liverpool's reputation, will help attract top quality players to Anfield.

Overtaking Arsenal, Man U and Chelsea will not be easy - especially as they will all strengthen too. But as long as we are close to being on a par with them, then we will stand a chance of winning the title. Arsenal could have lost NINE games they actually won last season, and still finished above us; we were not even close to being in a position to capitalise on the top clubs slipping up. Benitez can get us challenging again; and that is why he is the best man. The next few years promise to be hugely exciting, and hopefully we will add some significant silverware on the journey.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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