A month is a long time at Liverpool for Benitez

Posted by Rushian on January 25, 2005, 12:27:43 AM

Just a couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with a Newcastle United fan about how happy we where at Liverpool to have Rafa Benítez as manager. And really, it seemed you'd be hard pushed to find many Liverpool fans disagreeing. And in turn this Newcastle fan was saying to me, how he wished they had a manager of Benítez' pedigree at Newcastle.

What a difference a couple of weeks make. All of a sudden, it's like we've stepped back 12 months in time. It's like our very own version of Groundhog Day. Again we are the most popular topic on the phone ins, as the press lap up Liverpool's miserable spell, and the fans join in and circle in a frenzy.

Recently a frequent retort, anytime Gérard Houllier was being damned was 'fans have such short memories', in reference to a cupboard full of trophies won 2001 and a runners up place in 2002. So now, how on earth can we explain away a terrible affliction affecting some of us - that we can't even remember as far back as a few short weeks, never mind 3 years. Funny ain't it, as we have no problem remembering back 15 / 20 years when we need a stick to beat our managers with.

Up until recently, the press and media have had very little to say about Benítez, which can only be considered a positive. So to go from having so little to say, to declarations that he's no improvement on Houllier and that he's not going to achieve anything, is quite a stretch. And the craziest thing is, it seems many of us start to believe it too. I admit, after the Southampton game I really did wonder what the hell was going on, and why was it I felt as if I'd stepped back in time to last season. It's amazing how quickly we push the panic button, and how quickly we start doubting something or someone we believed in so strongly just a couple of weeks ago.

Of course, there is no need to bury our heads in the sand, and believe everything is well at Casa Anfield. There is no doubt, there are worrying issues that have surfaced recently.

The big concern for me, is how Liverpool don't seem to be able to play successfully against teams who come to battle rather than play football. Versus Watford, Manchester United, Burnley and Southampton, one thing was evident - all these teams pressed Liverpool mercilessly when they where on the ball, giving them no time or space. And despite the fact none of these teams created much in terms of good football, they worked hard to cut out any space that Liverpool wanted to play in.

Whereas against teams, be they good or poor, but who‘s main intention was to play football, Liverpool have tended to play their best games this season. It’s ironic really, as in the last couple of years, we where probably the spoilers, whereas now all of a sudden, our rhythm and ability is the one being hindered. The concern is, we as yet don’t seem to have an answer to it.

The question is though - how Benítez deals with the problems we now face, of barely being able to created a handful of chances in a game, and of being unable to keep possession, due in no small measure of being harried and hassled for 90 minutes. And how he gets players who want more time on the ball - Luis Garcia being a perfect example, to adapt their games. There is no doubt of such players’ talents, and the hope is, that the talent and intelligence they do possess will allow them to adjust.

Another problem which is inexplicable really, is a lack of concentration, which seems to lead to so many avoidable errors. The goals conceded against Burnley, United and Southampton where all down to either stupid errors, or to players wanting more time on the ball, or to players simply getting caught miles out of position. All avoidable, and all things that have to be addressed.

One problem Houllier had, was by the end, he seemed to have run out of ideas of how to change things positively. If a team had 'found Liverpool out' that was it, there wasn't much we could do about it. So the quest for Benítez is to find ways of making this team, whoever the players he has available to him, play in games where they don't get the freedom they may crave. And lets be honest, that's going to be most games from now on, as it's become evident how you stop Liverpool playing. Maybe Benítez is used to being in a league, where even the poorer teams like time on the ball, and don't press so hard. So it's a challenge to him now, to integrate both his ingrained ideas about football, which has brought him great success in Spain, with necessary chances due to the style of the English game. Can he do it? Only time will tell of course.

One thing is certain though, it's going to take him a hell of a lot longer than 6 months. In a way, maybe our positive start under Benítez has heightened the feelings of despair these last couple of weeks. The first 4 months, despite some difficulties away from home was mainly positive despite all the troubles with injuries. It saw us play a lot of good football, where we attacked teams from the start, and created a lot of chances. At that time, it seemed one of our greatest worries was that we didn’t have the depth of squad to have the players to convert these chances. Oh for those worries right now.

It’s hard to pinpoint what has happened the last couple of weeks, apart from the afore mentioned, that teams now feel the best way to neutralise our game, is to press and disrupt our play by any means possible. And as yet, we haven’t figured a way to counter it. The fluidity that we saw earlier in the season, has gone. Some of this is a confidence issue I’m sure, some if it is a player issue, and two players who we miss badly right now are Xabi Alonso and Harry Kewell. Despite Kewell’s lack of form for much of the early season, before his latest injury, he’d been playing well, and his impact during games was starting to show far more positively than it had done for a while. Now we don’t seem to have players who can keep the ball, and who use it intelligently. Even the old faithfulls like Hamann and Gerrard have been afflicted by the disease that most of the team seemed to have last year - that of failing to complete even the simplest of passes.

I sometimes think that the job of Liverpool manager is a bit of a poisoned chalice. The last thing I’m sure most people want to see happen is a continuing of some vicious circle, where we have good spells, followed by a slump, followed by campaigns against the man in charge, urged on by the merciless media. What has happened to Benítez in the last few weeks is like a microcosm of a whole career. From being hailed as the best man possible for the job, and being lauded by the fans after just a few short months, to being doubted as just another coach who hasn't got what it takes. And again, maybe in part we set ourselves up for a fall, by getting carried away, by believing so much in a man who, after all, we don’t yet know that well, as he’s been here for such a short amount of time. But that’s football, and that’s Liverpool, never any half measures. We either worship and admire people, or we don’t.

Sometimes I think you get the best insight from those who don’t support the club. After the Burnley game I was speaking with someone who has been a football fan for close on 40 years. He isn’t a fan of Liverpool, or indeed any other premiership club, but watches a lot of the league, and has a pretty open view on it (despite being married to an United fan ;-) ). He asked me what I thought of Benítez, I told him my thoughts, and that of the fans I knew from going to matches, and how positive it all was. I asked his thoughts, and he simply said he liked the man and he believed him to be an excellent manager from what he‘d seen. But, he went on to say his hope was that Liverpool give him time, as he didn’t believe we’d achieve our set goals for this season, but that in time, as Benítez got adjusted to the league, as he got a squad of good strength, we would be headed in the right direction under him. I had to agree with him.

I feel down about things right now I admit, but like most, it was a managerial change I wanted. The most important thing is to have belief and trust in what the people in charge at the club, be it on the coaching side, or behind the scenes, are trying to do. It’s a rocky ride right now, and may continue to be, but there wasn’t ever going to be a quick fix. The worry is though, is that year by year, patience wears thinner in football.

© GKI Benitez 2005

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