When the time comes to look back on Rafael Benitez’s reign at Liverpool, will he be as fondly remembered as Jose Mourinho at Chelsea? That may seem like a strange question to pose to fellow Liverpool fans, for whom Mourinho was often, and rightly, viewed with no little distaste. But beyond the arrogance, the stubble and the shushing there was a born winner, something Liverpool have not had as a coach since Kenny Dalglish was in charge. That is not to knock Benitez’s achievements, for bringing a fifth European Cup to Anfield will always count heavily in his favour. But Benitez is the good cop to Mourinho’s bad, the nice guy who has yet to finish first. Five major trophies in three years, excluding most notably the European Cup, is a fine legacy for the ‘˜Special One’ and I firmly believe that any Liverpool fan who says they would rather have had the last three years under Benitez rather than the last three years under Mourinho is a liar.
The supreme high of Istanbul cannot be topped for sheer, unforgettable drama, but this is the club for whom Bill Shankly called the championship ‘œour bread and butter’. Mourinho might have had a taste for something more exotic than the founder of modern Liverpool, but at Chelsea he never strayed from that mantra. However, Benitez has, repeatedly, and question marks over his ability to manage a title-winning squad have only grown in the past three years. In the cups, the man is almost unparalleled, as was his predecessor, Gerard Houllier. But the Frenchman was sacked when it became blindingly apparent that he was not capable of mounting a championship challenge. The same questions are starting to be asked of Benitez.
In year one, Benitez attempted to sort the wheat from Houllier’s chaff by chopping and changing regularly and ultimately it was a balancing act that fell on the side of glory in Europe. Sacrificing the league was just about accepted in hindsight, given that victory in Istanbul lead to our inclusion in the Champions League for the next season. It was a high-stakes gamble that Benitez won, but no Champions League football in his second season could have proved disastrous. Year two brought a typically poor start followed by periods of unusually consistent performances as Liverpool went closer to the title than in all but one of the previous 16 years. The expected progression going into year three stalled as Liverpool again started poorly, found themselves unable to catch up and limped home in third on goal difference. It was Benitez’s first trophyless campaign, but with the arrival of American money things were looking up going into year four. Which brings us up to now and yet more arguments about Benitez’s decision making.
All the evidence points to Benitez not knowing ‘“ or not wanting to reveal ‘“ his best XI because the team he picks depends on the opposition. Now, he’s not alone in doing that and there are clearly merits in such a policy ‘“ but the other ‘˜top four’ managers do not subscribe to that theory by picking teams that worry the opposition, not the other way round. Are they right? Including Mourinho, they have all but one of the 15 Premier League titles between them. When it is mentioned that Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger also rotate their team, they do, but they rarely leave their best players out as Benitez does. If they occasionally get it wrong, they can always point to their Premier League titles to show they know what they are doing. Benitez doesn’t have that luxury. No Liverpool fan is convinced by his rotation policy because, in the league at least, it has proved to be unsuccessful as well as unpopular. I can’t believe there is any Liverpool fan out there who would have picked Dirk Kuyt and Andriy Voronin as the strikeforce against Birmingham on Saturday.
One could argue that the team Benitez selected should have been strong enough to overcome a newly promoted side at home. Obviously it wasn’t. Now it appears that Benitez is prepared to play Fernando Torres, who has already established himself as the club’s best striker by some distance, at Reading in the Carling Cup. Talk about messed-up priorities. I don’t believe there is a Liverpool fan out there who would not sacrifice a defeat in the Carling Cup with a load of reserves and youngsters for the three points at the weekend. But knowing Benitez, going out of the cups would not make him immune from his rotating ways because he will have fewer games to keep the same number of people happy. Sami Hyypia and Alvaro Arbeloa have both come out to back Benitez, claiming his policy will be proved right and that he won’t change his ways. Surely, though, the best managers ‘“ indeed, people ‘“ learn from their mistakes. To give him some credit, he appears to have cottoned on to playing Steven Gerrard in central midfield, although it has taken an eternity to dawn on him. Playing your best players, in their best positions, is not rocket surgery. Having said all that, I still expect to see Gerrard played down the right wing at some point this season (just not, please God, down the left, like at Chelsea last season).
Is Benitez the best manager for Liverpool? Sam Allardyce has criticised him and if you subscribe to the theory that the league is the most important thing, then you can’t disagree with the Newcastle manager. Benitez is lucky to have had a board that has backed him, even when he has failed to consistently deliver in the only true barometer of managerial ability. I’m not sure the new owners will be quite as patient as the old one. Benitez is developing the kind of stubbornness that did for Houllier, a belief that he alone was right and bollocks to what everyone else thinks. Ultimately, results will determine if Benitez is right. In this regard, who wouldn’t want Mourinho, the ultimate win-at-all-costs coach, in charge? It’s not as if Benitez’s Liverpool are the great entertainers by contrast. Sure, we’ve played in some high-scoring, thrilling games, but by and large the football on offer is as prosaic as the rest of the Premier League. I’m still waiting to see Liverpool play like the Valencia side that Benitez brought to Anfield in 2002 and took the piss. I think I’m going to be waiting a long time.
So, how good is Benitez? He’s the best Liverpool manager since Dalglish, yet he’s not bettered Houllier’s best Premier League finish (second) and nor has he matched Roy Evans’ team for their style of play. He’s got the worst record in the mini-league of ‘˜top four’ teams since arriving in England. He’s regularly failed to play our best player in his best position to accommodate lesser talents. Harry Kewell is still the best left-sided midfielder at the club. Benitez has squandered the best league start during his reign this season by continually refusing to play his best team, even though this will improve his chances of succeeding in the one competition in which he looks a little lost. Trust Rafa is what I’m told, but it’s difficult to trust someone who keeps making the same errors. At some point, you stop having the potential to do something because you’ve either done it or you haven’t. Benitez still has the chance to become a legend at Liverpool ‘“ winning the European Cup once should not qualify him for legendary status at England’s most successful club. But the worrying signs are that he will not make the grade and Liverpool will be back to square one again. Benitez is good, he might even be very good, but he’s giving every indication that he’s not special.