Let me first warn the reader here and now that I am a Liverpool supporter. I cannot be completely unbiased because like any other person, I am a fan first and foremost. With that being said, I feel that unlike many fans out there I can be honest with myself when it comes to football. I took a lot of flack from my fellow fans when I criticized the reds after a friendly loss to the lowly German side Mainz in a preseason friendly. I once criticized Steven Gerrard (he is human, you know. He makes mistakes too) and I’m sure I lost more than one friend over the comment. The point I’m trying to make is that I am biased, but I am honest too. Here is what I mean by that; I think Liverpool is the best team in the premiership (and even of all time) because I am biased. I can say the team is headed for dire straits right now unless changes are made because I am honest. For those of you who haven’t written me off yet, please read on.
The start of the premiership season has certinly been a rough one for Liverpool supporters. Only two months ago the season seemed full of promise, the team looked poised to contend for the Premiership title right out of the gate. Rafael Benitez seemingly made all the right moves in the transfer market, signing quality strikers in Bellamy and Kuyt and finally getting the speedy Mark Gonzalez into a Liverpool jersey for the first time. On the face of it, all these moves seemed to be the answer many Liverpool fans had been seeking for so long. The shadow of teams like Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal had been hanging over them for far to long, and it seemed high time for the reds to step up and claim that elusive Premiership title they have been seeking for so many years.
Sadly, the start to the 06/07 season has been, in a word, disappointing. All the hype and hoopla about the squad before the season seemed to be dashed by some of the less than quality performances they have displayed so far. A one all draw against newly promoted Sheffield United in a way was the first sign of trouble. A crushing loss to the blue scum (I’m referring to Everton, just in case I had to explain that to you.) set the team back even farther and another loss to Bolton Wanderers to the tune of 2-0 just seemed to be the icing on the cake. Naturally when a team with such potential seems to be drifting off course, questions are going to arise. The main scapegoats to be targeted by the fans, the press, and even myself are Pepe Reina, and Rafa Benitez himself. However, In this writers opinion, the majority of the blame should go to Mr. Benitez.
Benitez has a well documented history of never using the same line up twice in two matches. This revolving door policy has almost become his trade mark, as few other managers can claim the record that he has. Since being the boss at Liverpool, he has fielded a different lineup in 96 consecutive matches. While some of these changes can be attributed to injury, it is mostly due to his unique selection process. It’s hard to argue with his success; in just 3 years as the head coach of Valencia he claimed 2 league titles and won the UEFA cup. In his own words, Benitez attributed this success largely to his method of careful squad selection and substitution. ‘œIn January we were eight points behind Real Madrid and we finished six or seven points ahead. Why? Because we were fresh at the end of the season, the last two or three months we were really, really fresh and we were playing at another level.’.
There are some clear benefits to Rafa’s unique selection methods. Obviously, the less a player is used, the less fatigued he is at the end of the season. This could pay huge dividends in a closely contended title race, when you can field a fresh side against a side that has worn thin due to exhaustion. Furthermore when you have a squad with the depth that a club like Liverpool has, it provides opportunities to use different players for different situations.Luis Garcia has become the resident super sub for Liverpool and the new boys Pennant, Gonzalez, Aurelio, Bellamy and Kuyt provide added depth to an already formidable team. While young players like Agger and Pennant gain some vital first team experience, seasoned veterans like Hyypia and even Gerrard get a much needed rest from time to time.
The question still remains however; is this necessarily the best policy for this Liverpool team? In my humble opinion, this strategy of rotation works wonderfully for the cup competitions in England. The ability to pick the right squad from a pool of talented players is definitely a strong advantage for the reds. In the league matches however, something has to be said for consistency. To many Rafa’s antics come off as clueless tinkering rather than calculated planning. In a league like the premiership with the toughest competition in the world, it’s hard to justify not putting out your strongest side every week. This leads many to believe that Benitez doesn’t truly know which players make up the strongest team for Liverpool. Many of my fellow fans are baffled on a consistent basis by some of the selections that Benitez has made. I recall a few weeks ago in anticipation for the champion’s league match Galatasaray a friend of mine posted a blog on their myspace account, speculating as to which lineup Benitez would choose. At least 5 people responded with their answers and not one of them got it right. I understand that simple adjustments here and there are normal for most managers, but there is a fine line between strategy and guessing. While his record in cup competition is stellar to say the least, real success in the premiership seems to still be just out of Benitez’s grasp. It’s not a question of personnel because the talent is there. It’s a question of how to best utilize that talent to win consistently.
So should this season be written off already? Not by any means. It’s only October and there are months still ahead in the season. Should it be time to panic? Maybe. Benitez was fortunate to find favor with the club early in his tenure with a European Championship, an FA cup and scores of victories over their newest rivals Chelsea when it counted the most. He may find however his popularity slipping if his current form continues. The time to right the ship is now. Rafael Benitez is a world class manager and if anyone can return this team to glory, he is definitely at the top of the list of men who can do it. In my humble opinion, with the team already in a tailspin, the last thing the team needs is tinkering. Find the squad that is going to get the best result, and get them on the field. It seems like an overly simple solution to a complex problem but it might just be the shot in the arm that this team needs. If Rafa ever calls me and asks my opinion I will give it to him straight, but for now, I’m not holding my breath.