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Would the grass be greener with a new gaffa?

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After our draw with City, people have started discussing who ought to replace Rafa if and when he leaves, with some even suggesting he should be sacked no later than this summer. The shocking thing for me about discussing Rafa’s replacement before the season ends (a better season than we’ve had for close to 20 years), is that it is in stark contrast to the expectations most Liverpool fans had at the beginning of the season.

And for those who say we’re only where we are this year because Chelsea and Arsenal have dropped rather than us improving, ask yourself this: why have Chelsea and Arsenal dropped this season?

Chelsea continued to have managerial instability, with their current coach only appointed until the end of the season. Hmmm. And here we are talking about sacking our coach. Ironic.

Arsenal on the other hand have suffered a major loss with the absence of Fabregas, but I don’t think that alone explains their poor record.

Everyone has noticed how the premiership has become tougher. Today, 9 points (3 wins) separates the bottom club from 11th position. 9 points seperate Stoke – a team deep in the relegation battle in 17th place – from Fulham – a team fighting for a UEFA cup spot in 8th place. United are sitting quite happily on top of the pile, but compare their performances this year to last year. Last year, United were thumping the likes of Boro, Wigan and Sunderland by 3 or 4 goal margins: Last season they won 19 games by at least a 2 goal margin, including 8 matches in which they scored 3 or more goals in comfortable wins. This year they have so far only won 8 matches by at least a 2 goal margin, and have only scored 3 or more goals in 6 premier league games to date (including the 4-3 win against Hull, by a single goal margin).

To make the point clearer, United only won 11 games by a single goal margin in last seasons’ title race. So far this year, they’ve already matched that record, with several 1-0 wins and the occasional 2-1 win.

This is solid proof that the league has gotten much tougher. Teams have gotten better at nullifying even United’s goal threats – and they have four £30M+ attackers, 3 of whom were carving up opposition at will last season, to whom they added Berbatov. These 4 magic-makers (Tevez, Ronaldo, Rooney and Berbatov) have secured many a goal out of nothing to secure a 1-0 or 2-1 win this season, in very hard fought matches (like Sunderland at home). These are the kinds of matches where we have drawn, partly because we only have 2 such players, one of whom was injured for the entire first half of the season.

Arsenal have also struggled because they have found it tougher to break these teams down. They have drawn one match more than we have, and lost 4 more than us.

Chelsea have also struggled because in addition to the league getting tougher, they’ve been experiencing a self-induced transition.

This time last season (i.e. with 12 matches left) we had 58 points. United had 69 points.We both got 28 points from the final 36 points, and we finished 11 points behind them.

This year, we are 7 points behind United.

So despite the league getting tougher for everyone, we have improved relative to the leaders of the table at this stage by 4 points. We have handled the raising standards of the premiership better than our rivals have (surpassing Arsenal and Chelsea, and closing the gap on United).

That’s progress.

Rafa has achieved season on season progression. Perhaps not in terms of silverware, because Rafa won a fair amount early on, but certainly in terms of challenging for the title and strengthening the squad. (On a side note, something similar happened to Wenger, who had 1 good season in his first 5, winning nothing in the other 4 years, while Rafa has had a CL winning season, an FA cup winning season, and even if the other final appearances don’t count, he’s had 2 silverware winning seasons, without considering the Eurpoean Supercup).

But instead of giving him time to continue to bridge the gap with United we want him fired. Instead of letting him add another match winner (or two) to Torres and Gerrard with this summer’s transfer money, we want to see him axed. Rather than speculating as to what summer acquisition(s) will bring us closer in terms of world class talent and game changers that often make the difference between 0-0 draws, and 1-0 wins, or a nervous 1-0 lead and a 2 goal cushion, we’re speculating as to which manager will replace Rafa.

And who are these replacements we’re raving about?

Let’s start with Martin O’Neill.

I have 3 very big question marks about Martin O’Neill.

One poster, GaryStew1980, sums up the first point well really well.

(1) It’s a big step up from Villa to Liverpool

‘œMartin O’Neill has found his niche, so to speak. It is something he has done since he made his name. He goes to clubs where pretty much anything is considered success. Since he went to Celtic (big club on the way down) he steadied the ship and got them going again; as soon as they lost the league he was out of there although with other issues (his wifes health). Now at Villa once again a big club with realistic expectations being just getting to Europe, never mind breaking into the big 4. Once again though O’Neill is in an ideal position where he isn’t expected to do any better – they have already exceeded anything they could have hoped for. I think MON is smart enough to realise that neither the Man U or Liverpool job will give him this comfort zone. He is a very smart, intelligent shrewd man.’

Now I happen to respect what O’Neill has done (especially at Celtic), but I agree with GaryStew1980 that it’s a totally different task to take a team that are fighting for an Intertoto cup spot up 3 or 4 places in the league to fight for a Champion’s League spot, vs making a team into title winners. Arsenal‘s demise has helped Villa this year, but the work at Liverpool is a lot more intense with a lot more pressure than the job at Villa, and I have my doubts O’Neill could handle the expectations at Liverpool.

My second issue is regarding (2) the transition period O’Neill’s appointment would put us into:

The question over how much of a transition period a new coach would need I think boils down to how different their tactics are from their predecessor’s. You have to realise how different Rafa’s tactics are from O’Neill’s. O’Neill has relied on very pacey wingers and a big target man. Agbonlahor and Young are two of the quickest wingers in the premiership, and they were aiming for Carew in the middle and are now aiming for Heskey. So it’s fair to assume that O’Neill would require quite some time to change Rafa’s team of possession hogging, game controlling, but not the quickest attackers with no real target man, and change our style of play to suit his.

Last but not least, there’s the issue of (3) What to do when teams park the bus:

Villa sometimes play good football, and I respect O’Neill for that, but it’s easier to play that kind of football when teams try to attack you. I don’t know how well O’Neill would cope when teams show up to park the bus. He never had to deal with this at Celtic, and no team arrives at Villa to defend. It’s a totally different kettle of fish. You only have to look at Arsenal to see how their free-flowing football has struggled since the ‘œweaker teams’ started adopting increasingly defensive strategies. Would O’Neill be able to adapt to this new challenge? I have grave doubts.

I highly doubt O’Neill would do much for Liverpool, except oversee our decline. Appointing O’Neill would be like having another Roy Evans era. We’d probably play some good football, but while O’Neill was getting his team together (with a very limited transfer budget mind you), United would be growing stronger and stronger, Gerrard would be ageing, Carra would be ageing, and United would surpass our title record quite comfortably.

The disrupted continuity from Sacking Rafa and appointing O’Neill wouldn’t give us much more than some more attractive football, and, most importantly, a greater gap between us and United.

This brings us to the other name being bandied about: Jose Mourinho – a top quality coach by any stretch of the imagination. His tactics also aren’t that different from Rafa’s. His teams control possession and dictate the pace of the game as do Rafa’s, and Jose also likes to play 4-2-3-1. So arguably, Mourinho wouldn’t need a huge transition period.

But we all know about Mourinho’s ego. He would want to make changes to the team so that he could call it his own team. And it’s difficult to imagine him having anything like the Abramovich budget to spend.

But aside from that, even if we believe he is so Special that he could pull it off in very little time and without much money, you have to ask yourself this: Having been forced to end his love affair with Chelsea because of an egotistical, meddling owner, would Jose Mourinho really want to come and work for Hicks, Gillett and Rick Parry?

Can you really see that happening? With all the media circus about our ownership saga and the issues with Parry, it’s hard to imagine Mourinho wanting to deal with this mess.

Who’s left? Rijkaard? Please spare me. Why would we want to abandon a coach who is figuring out the premiership and is making steady progress, to experiment with a man who is untested in the premiership and who’s style of play is so radically different from Rafa’s that he’d require a long transition period? And Rijkaard’s man-management is quite questionable (see the saga at Barca). One can only imagine what sort of relationship he’d have with our owners. The thought is quite frightening. I can see him quitting in mid-December.

In fact, most coaches would have quit a long time ago if they had to deal with our ownership situation. But Rafa hasn’t because (as he has repeatedly said) he wants to stay and win things. He is determined to be here for many more years, because he loves the city and the club.

So is the grass really greener on the other side? Understandably, people are frustrated that we haven’t done better this season, given our league position in December. But as I’ve said elsewhere, there’s a major learning curve to becoming champions. Nobody has ever done it over night – gone from not challenging to winning. Just about every title winning team first loses a title challenge and then builds on that learning experience before becoming champions.

I hope I’ve shown that it wouldn’t make sense to sack Rafa anytime soon because:

1) We are making steady progress under him – it takes time to build a championship winning team, and we’re moving steadily along the learning curve.

2) The alternatives aren’t that great – assuming any of them would want the job (a rather hefty assumption given the uncertainty in the boardroom), there are major question-marks as to whether any of them would do better than the man we have in charge.

3) Rafa has built an excellent core of players, with 2 great game changers and a strong supporting squad, with an excellent defensive core and CM strength. The addition of a few finishing touches, one more gamechanger on a par with Torres and Gerrard or Ronaldo, Tevez, Rooney et al, and we’ll be right up there with ‘“ perhaps even ahead of ‘“ United.

So why derail the train now?

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