Benitez digs his own grave

This is Anfield’s Neale Graham asks fans to look beyond the blind loyalty and see Benitez for the manager he believes he is.

Loyalty. It’s a word that often counts for little in football. Players come and go from clubs, as do managers, but it’s the fans who stick around, through thick or thin. As Liverpool fans, we have been through plenty of thick in comparison with many other fans of many other clubs. Only one other English side has fans who can claim to have seen their club crowned the champions of Europe in the last 25 years. In that time, five FA Cups have been won, five League Cups, two European Cups, a UEFA Cup and plus other finals in competitions the world over. This, by any measurement, is good going.

However, the one we all want, the one by which any club is judged, has remained elusive. Short of Liverpool going on an improbable run of wins, the title wait will go on until May 2009 at the earliest, 19 years after our last one. Liverpool fans are loyal to their manager. Not for them the swift reversion to boos and jeers within six months of a manager’s arrival a la Sam Allardyce at Newcastle. That gets a team nowhere. But at some point loyalty is stretched and I think we are reaching that time with Rafael Benitez. Loyalty is all well and good, but blind loyalty is dangerous and counter-productive. Football is a results game, not a marriage. Sticking it out in the hope it gets better is not necessarily the best way forward.

Liverpool fans who blindly back Benitez can be accused of not caring about the club every bit as much as those who criticise him. Saying that ‘œwe back our manager no matter what’ seems to some as being a sign of being a ‘˜true Red’ and a ‘˜proper fan’. But stand back from the bluster and what you have are fans saying that the manager is more important than the club. We were here under Gerard Houllier and Roy Evans before him. Neither convinced that they had the x factor that it takes the win the league, although in Evans’ case at least he had the team playing the pass-and-move of old. We have reached the same crossroads with Benitez and nothing he does suggests he knows how to win the Premier League. His league finishes of fifth, a strong third, a weak third and more than likely a distant fourth do not point to progress, while the football he has offered up is for the most part prosaic, pedestrian, predictable and overly defensive. His record against the other top-four teams is appalling and with trips to the Emirates, Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford to come before the season is out that shows no sign of getting any better.

I am not saying to turn on Benitez like Newcastle fans, but ask yourself if you do truly, honestly think that we are closer to winning the Premier League than we were when he joined the club four years ago? Ask the fans of Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea (certainly when Jose Mourinho was in charge) if they’d want Benitez as manager and they’d laugh at you. No chance. Why would they? Indeed, they all say Liverpool should keep Benitez because they know full well he poses them no threat. And deep down, if Liverpool fans are honest with themselves, they know those fans are right.

Questions have been asked about Benitez’s performance since the day he decided to rotate at Portsmouth, leaving Fernando Torres on the bench and the subsequent goalless draw saw Liverpool slip from top spot, never to regain it again. Preceding that, everything looked rosy with three wins from the first four matches. Since, it’s been the predictable game of catch-up, with Rafa and his team on the defensive. Not playing people in their best positions, trying to second-guess the opposition, waiting too long to make substitutions, and picking a weakened team in a bid to outsmart a rival manager tactically have become hallmarks of Benitez’s tenure. And while some of that is possibly unfair criticism, there is more than a grain of truth to it too. Benitez would help himself a little more if he didn’t do inexplicable things like playing 4-5-1 at home to Wigan, when his trait of over-analysing the gameplan of opponents to the detriment of his own side reared its familiarly ugly head again.

The manager’s decision to criticise the club’s owners on the financial front is understandable but unwise. It’s they who hold the purse strings and Benitez’s problem is that they do not have the fans’ blind loyalty; they can’t afford – literally – to be so emotional. Nor have they taken kindly to him asking for more money when he has not been playing those he bought in the summer. Ryan Babel, a self-proclaimed striker, must be wondering what he has to do to get a run up front given the limitations displayed by fallen idol Dirk Kuyt, the ineptitude of Andriy Voronin and the mystifying cold-shoulder treatment meted out to Peter Crouch. Babel has been overlooked, just as Torres was earlier in the season. The owners might not know all there is to know about football over here, but they know when they are not getting their money’s worth. Benitez could make his case that much stronger if he was getting consistently good results. That said, the £17 million purchase of Javier Mascherano is a no-brainer, in spite of the funding problems for the new stadium. Questions about how well Benitez has spent the club’s money over the last four years – not an inconsiderable sum – will always haunt him when he is not getting results. Arguments can be made for the relative wisdom of all his buys, but Fernando Torres has been the sole outright, no-questions-asked success – and that’s what £26 million should get you. However, trusting Benitez with similar large sums of money is not something the Americans seem to want to do and if they believe that another manager could spend their dollars better then that is what they will do.

How much Benitez has spent is not the overriding factor here, either. The word ‘˜genius’ is often bandied by Reds fans around when discussing his merits. If he can topple Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain he must be able to do it in England, where his resources compared to those he had at Valencia are greater? So far all the evidence is that he can’t. A genius to my mind is Arsene Wenger, who can let go arguably the planet’s best striker in the past 10 years – and make his team better. Not just better, but significantly so, the kind of step up over the off-season that Liverpool need to make if they are to close the chasm to the other three teams. Can this be done by giving Benitez, say, £100m over the summer? It would help, certainly, but I don’t see it moving us out of the also-rans category. Perhaps it would just take longer into the season before we get filed there. He’s blotted his copybook too many times to convince me, and a growing number of fans, otherwise.

Ultimately, the interests of the club are what is paramount. To say I don’t support the manager is not to say I don’t support the club. In many respects, I could claim that I ‘œsupport’ the club more than those blindly backing Benitez because I want the best for Liverpool, not making the manager feel loved. And I no longer believe the best for Liverpool is Benitez. A few months ago, I wrote an article on this website called Benitez’s decision making far from special in which I compared him to Mourinho. However you spin it, Benitez will always come off worse in that comparison. Mourinho has won everything Benitez has won (swap his domestic performance in Portugal for Benitez’s in Spain) plus the Premier League. He is available, without the American owners needing to pay a cent in compensation, and is surely the only realistic option for the job of leading Liverpool to the promised land.

Perhaps Mourinho will hit the same ceiling encountered by Benitez and Houllier, albeit at least a little higher. There is no question the club is financially handicapped by playing in a smaller stadium than their rivals’ and that their youth policy, for so long a strong point, has ground to a halt while Arsenal‘s keeps churning out quality. Without taking a chance, though, we will never know. Success is never guaranteed, of course, but with Mourinho you’re inescapably backing a proven winner. Look beyond the admittedly irritating shushing and the ego-centric facade and see the true winner. Liverpool have become a club where fourth (or even fifth) best is now acceptable and having Benitez lead us there with the wholehearted backing of many of the match-going fans underlines this. In Mourinho Liverpool would not only have a charismatic winner in charge, they’d have a manager the other top-four sides fear, a manager whose ability to extract the maximum from his players is legendary and a manager who would play his strongest side all the time with the players in their rightful positions. And more than anything a manager who would rid the club of its inferiority complex and instill the winning ethic and belief that has been so glaringly missing in the last two decades. Title bids would last longer than the autumn. I can see Liverpool being exactly the sort of challenge he would relish and, at Porto, he proved exactly what he can do when money is tight.

The alternative is to stay as we are, maybe even get a little worse, and rather than aspire to be champions again, we can look to the example of Tottenham, whose glittering past is now so long ago that their recent mediocrity is now their overriding facet. But if we can’t prosper under Mourinho…