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PS – Keep the faith – YNWA
As Liverpool lurch from one crisis to another. It is tempting to blame the club’s woes on Rafa Benitez, whose six-year reign ended in an acrimonious shambles.
Tempting, but wrong. It’s time to debunk the ever-growing stockpile of myths about Benitez – a man who won the Champions League with the fifth best team in the Premier League, and came closer to winning the title than any Liverpool boss in two decades.
Myth one: He won Champions League with Gerard Houllier’s team
The argument here is that Benitez’s crowning achievement, at the end of his first season, actually belonged to Houllier. First of all, no it didn’t. In his first summer at Anfield, Benitez added Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia, both of whom were instrumental in the European run. And even if it was the Frenchman’s side, what’s the problem? Houllier didn’t win the Champions League with Houllier’s team, and surely an important measure of successful management is performing better with the same group of players than the last bloke.
Myth two: He made Liverpool worse
If you win the European Cup in your first season, you’ll always struggle to live up to it, but Benitez did take them to another final in 2007 – only Liverpool, Milan, Manchester United and Barcelona have been to more than one of the last six finals. And let’s look at the league finishes under Benitez: 5th, 3rd, 3rd, 4th, 2nd, 7th. Maybe not the steady improvement fans wanted, but certainly not a tale of decline either. Just one disastrous season, 12 months after the club’s best title challenge for 18 years.
Myth three: His transfer record was not good enough
Look at any manager’s record in the transfer market and there will be more misses than hits. That’s just the way it is, but it doesn’t matter – the key thing is to have to big successes. One Cristiano Ronaldo offsets a dozen Eric Djemba-Djembas. Likewise, poke fun all you like at Josemi, Antonio Nunez, Mark Gonzalez, Philipp Degen and Alberto Aquilani. But Benitez bought Xabi Alonso, Luis Garcia, Pepe Reina, Javier Mascherano and the incomparable Fernando Torres. When you’re bringing in quality like that, it really doesn’t matter if they are accompanied by a few duffers.
Myth four: Zonal marking made Liverpool a set-piece liability
A topical one this, in light of Fernando Torres’s lamentable man-marking job on Dimitar Berbatov on Sunday. Had Torres concentrated on attacking the ball instead of groping Berbatov’s midriff, disaster would have been averted. Of course, a single example doesn’t make man marking rubbish, just as the fact Liverpool conceded the occasional goal from set pieces didn’t mean zonal marking was fatally flawed. Both systems have their good and bad points, but the oft-stated claim that players struggle understand a zone system is clearly nonsense. If the ball comes near you, head it. That’s the system. Anyone who can’t grasp that has no place in Premier League football.
Myth five: He lost the dressing room
Increasingly, popular wisdom accepts that Benitez is a sociopath who either will not or cannot talk to his players, and has a total lack of social skills. This is largely based around inaccurate anecdotal evidence (‘He never said well done to Stevie G after they won the Champions League’), and the infamous ‘Facts’ rant that, while bizarre, categorically did not cost Liverpool the Premier League title. If his communication skills really are so bad that he actually cannot make eye contact with a footballer, how come this only became a problem over a decade into a highly successful career? Maybe because no end of top managers have made an asset out of distancing themselves from the players (Fabio Capello, Louis van Gaal, even Fergie).
Myth six: He ran Fernando Torres into the ground.
This is my favourite one, simply because it is so staggeringly untrue. Benitez, it is alleged, worsened Torres’s injury record and left him worn out and jaded by constantly bringing him back before he was fully fit. Having never got up close and personal with El Nino’s hamstrings, I don’t know the medical truth. But throughout his Liverpool career Torres has shown an amazing ability to pick up where he left off. In his final seven games last season (before his knee injury), he scored nine goals. Nine in seven. Does that sound like a man who had been run into the ground? If anyone is to blame for Torres’s current malaise, it is Spain, who insisted on fielding the half-fit striker in all seven matches at the World Cup. He did not score, and hasn’t found the net since.