From Rafa to Rodgers – Back to the Future

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With Liverpool set to play host to their old manager this week, Marco Lopes explores the feelings of some fans towards the old and new regimes of management at the club.

rafa-rant

When Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool ended 4 points away from the promised land of the Premier League title in 2008-09, the club lost a mere 2 matches the entire season. But, crucially, conspired to accumulate 11 draws, including dull goalless stalemates against Aston Villa, Fulham, Stoke (home and away) and West Ham (sound familiar?). 

In similar fashion to this past week, Liverpool then managed back-to-back 0-0 draws with Fulham and West Ham, the latter producing boos at full time even though Benitez’s side stood at a dizzy height looking down at 19 teams from the summit of the table at the time. There could have been more stalemates had many a match (Sunderland, Manchester City, Chelsea, Portsmouth and Fulham as examples) not been won through the last minute heroics of Gerrard, Torres, Kuyt and super-sub Benayoun.

True, Rodgers won’t be getting any near the same sympathy by some for presiding over back-to-back goalless stalemates by comparison.  After all, he didn’t somehow win the Champions League in his first season.  Nor does Rodgers have a FA Cup trophy in the cabinet as well as collateral to protect against his critics.  Rodgers’ side isn’t sitting in the top 6, let alone fighting neck and neck for 1st place like Rafa did in that one season.

But predictably, despite the gradual, visible improvements in Liverpool over the course of the season, the knives are once again out for Rodgers after his side conspired to draw two matches in a row against opposition that a slightly above average team in transition are supposed to pummel as if they’re winning the Premier League every week.

Rafa In

Results like the 0-0 draw away to the league’s bottom club already do much to discredit Brendan.  I feel sympathy for Rodgers – it’s not the best time to play host Rafa, who is still so loved and revered by many a Liverpool fan.  Benitez’s Liverpool career, for its lack of trophies relative to its decadence in transfer spending produced significant charmed highlights, especially in Europe.  What Liverpool fan didn’t enjoy beating Real Madrid 5-0 over two legs in Europe?  When Liverpool reached the finals of 2005 and 2007, they did so with weaker squads relative to other teams.

Benitez “got” the club.  His time there stands as an antithesis to disconnected managers like Hodgson, and even to an extent Houllier.  Rafa fought battles on and off the pitch.  He supported those involved with the fight for justice over Hillsborough.  He contested the club’s health under the poisonous reign of Hicks and Gillett. His Liverpool side, featuring both extremes of the talent spectrum (Torres and El Zhar anyone?), largely overachieved given the lack of resources / size of clubs of the era comparatively.

Queue this weekend – Rafa’s return to Anfield in Chelsea blue will appear almost perverse to some. And in the context of Liverpool’s recent form, many fans have once again posed the thought that FSG should have appointed Benitez last summer, or should do so in the summer coming.

Rodgers Out

After all, why wouldn’t Rafa do a better job than Rodgers?  To criticise Rodgers is against the spirit of good Liverpool results, but now that in the last 2 games only 2 points have been collected from a “guaranteed” 6, why shouldn’t we lambast the young manager?  Some Liverpool fans even suggest that they won’t need to criticise Rodgers – his results will show up his weaknesses and lack of aptitude as a Liverpool manager.

rodgers_ustour

And for all his charismatic footballing anecdotes, Rodgers clearly has fallen short of Liverpool standards, hasn’t he?  The team exited both domestic cup competitions (one to the eventual winners, the other due to a complacent performance against a smaller club).  They conspired to exit Europe before even reaching the final 8 of the Europa League, effectively ending all hopes for silverware.  And 7th place is hardly consolation for a club like Liverpool, is it?

Except that all of that, while factual in certain respects, is important to understand in context, especially when comparing to Rafa.  When Rafa took over, he inherited a far better side than Rodgers did.  He didn’t inherit a club that other clubs have now chosen to exploit with ludicrous transfer demands because of over-spending the summer before.  Rafa came with more years of experience, having spent a few more years than Rodgers cutting his management teeth before managing that Valencia side that won the league title in 2002 and 2004.  That Valencia side, previously managed by Hector Cuper, had managed to reach consecutive Champions League finals the seasons before.  It had established and rising stars like Ruben Baraja, Canizares, Roberto Ayala and Pablo Aimar.

Benitez’s arrival at Valencia was fortuitous given the team and resources he had available, but nonetheless Benitez produced an aggressive and defensively disciplined team, building on the work of Cuper before him. That’s not to diminish Rafa’s achievement; league titles don’t win themselves.  But by comparison, Rodgers has hardly inherited a squad remotely as balanced and strong and competitive in its own league.  Rafa’s start at both Valencia and Liverpool featured much more favourable circumstances, ironically.

Rodgers In

I don’t believe enough Liverpool fans really appreciate truly the challenge that faces the current Liverpool manager.  One can argue his managerial skill and whether or not he is out of his depth, but given how the squad and its performance have evolved over the course of the season, it’s important to notice the progress and blame the poor results on the right elements.  Liverpool have become a far more effective attacking side under Rodgers in most cases.  Last season’s hi-octane, direct style sometimes seemed a case of “bomb the ball forward and hope for the best”.  Rodgers has brought in players that are more effective at penetrating defences that try and sit back against Liverpool, and the team’s attacking shape and movement is far more effective at turning dominance into goals.  Two goalless draws don’t change the facts.  Liverpool have pummelled their fair share of opponents this season (number of wins by 3 goals or more = 8 in the league alone).  The issue, as most aptly point out, is consistency.

It wasn’t Rodgers that missed so many good chances against Reading.  Suarez’s magnificent right footed bending shot near the end of the game would probably have been better served as the clinical finish he needed in the first half when his chip was headed off the line.  Yes, McCarthy was outstanding in goal, but the Reading game stank of another match rank with Liverpool’s impotence in front of goal.  Simply put, the game was there to be won, and it would take a supremely cynical person to ignore that Liverpool were indeed set up to win the game.  The finishers didn’t do their job for once (or twice).  That’s not something that can be exclusively blamed on Rodgers.

Considering the squad he inherited – which lacks depth, balance and some of the inherent technical qualities his style of play desires, Rodgers has done well to at least getting Liverpool to be dominant in most of the games they’ve played.  In a previous blog, I cited how the margins have been unkind to Liverpool this season, something that Rodgers cannot take fault for.  He’s made mistakes, no question.  He’s been tactically stubborn and naive about certain team selections in particular.  But he’s prepared the team well enough to compete and win in most of the games they’ve played this season.

That they haven’t won isn’t just about him – it’s about the players as well.  He’s also amended the tactical style to suit the players he has, rather than the style he wants to force on them.  Doing that, however, exposes other vulnerabilities.  For example, Liverpool have to sit deeper in defence to accommodate the lack of speed in Carragher – but Jamie’s excellent form of late merits inclusion.  It does mean Liverpool play with wider gaps between attack, midfield and defence, causing them to play far more direct as opposed to Brendan’s preferred compact, narrow style.

It’s something which will be addressed over time, largely through transfers, but Rodgers then needs to be afforded that time.  It also means ceasing with these irreverent accusations that will no doubt raise their head during the visit of Benitez to Anfield with Chelsea.  So Rodgers didn’t win the Champions League in his first season – or the Europa League.  Point to the fact that he doesn’t have a squad that compares to those in the top 4, unlike Rafa in his first season.  So Rodgers didn’t a domestic trophy in his first season – neither did Rafa.  So Rodgers will finish outside the top 4 in his first season – so did Rafa. So Rodgers apparently spent too much on Joe Allen – but Rafa spent fair amounts on “flops” Morientes, Cisse, Sissoko, Pennant, Babel, Dossena, Keane, and Aquilani.

Some Liverpool fans are spoilt by the fact that Rafa won the Champions League in his first season.  For all the credit we give to Benitez, there is no sense in condemning future managers that don’t somehow wave a magic wand, or don’t benefit from alleged ghost goals that may or may not have crossed the line.  (Ironically, one visit to debatabledecisions.com and you may even believe that Rodgers is suffering the opposite extremes of bad luck, in fact).

Back to the Future

Liverpool cannot afford to keep going with the knee-jerk reactions.  I for one hope that the patronising tweets aimed at John W Henry do not force his hand to sack Rodgers – if nothing else for the financial and cultural impact it will have on the club.  Nazareth Da Gama’s excellent piece on Liverpool’s finances highlights that parting company with Rafa (£7.78m), Hodgson (£8.39m), Kenny and Comolli (£9.8m) and their respective teams cost the club in excess of £24m – and all that occurred in the last 3 years.  Is it really good sense to dismiss Rodgers?

LFC owner John Henry

Consider the financial and footballing impact of each new regime bringing with it dramatic changes – Hodgson damaged the club’s core and disenchanted some of its most important players, while bringing in poorer players.  Kenny and Comolli overspent on players and ultimately left an unbalanced and overpriced squad to Rodgers that was never going to deliver results relative to its value.  As the cliché goes, a new broom sweeps clean, and while Rodgers has improved certain players and bought some decent talent of his own, his own style and regime makes the Rafa years unrecognisable even though they were a mere 3 years from today.

The truth of the matter is that for all the petty comparisons we can make between Rodgers and Rafa, the club is in need of stability – and that means sticking with Rodgers, and trusting what he’s trying to do.  There are no guarantees that Rafa will work out a second time – Kenny didn’t work out perfectly, for example.  Rafa’s record since leaving Liverpool hasn’t exactly endeared him as such a strong candidate when compared to other managers either.  Benitez doesn’t appear exactly enthralled by his current circumstances – and while Chelsea have had good cup runs and are within touching distance of the top 4, they are hardly playing like the force they were under Mourinho, Hiddink or Ancelotti.

As for Rodgers, Liverpool fans would do well to back him and be patient.  Those well informed supporters will recognise this as the true season of transition and next season as the pivotal one by which we judge Brendan on results.  Hodgson’s time was masked as a season of transition – what happened of the pitch was more crucial to the future.  Kenny’s season nearly looked the one of transition – but instead it left more questions than answers, and only added to the complexities preventing the club from moving forward.  Since Rafa’s departure, the Top 4 has become a Top 5 + 2 (at least, that’s the only way to realistically justify Liverpool and Everton’s inclusion in the hierarchy) so that means Rodgers’ job is also much harder than the others had it.

The club is one of the richest in Europe, but 5th richest in England.  It has spent plenty of transfer money, but it’s also been far less effective at seeing a return on those transfers compared to other clubs with less money (e.g. Tottenham).  The club has top level expectations set upon a squad of players, some of which capture our hearts with passion and determination, but play alongside others who would barely justify warming a bench at Old Trafford or the Etihad Stadium.  The club has fans who happily call those in Chelsea plastic – but some demand a 5th manager in as many years due to short term perspectives.

Time to back the manager.  Rodgers’ first season hasn’t been great, but those with context knew that would be the case.  Pay attention to all the positive nuances.  The way the team dominates most opponents.  The way the goals flow when the plan works as it should. The way we’ve seen the best form appear out of new heroes, and old.  The true promise of youth in abundance, compared to 2-3 years ago, when a youngster with serious potential seemed to be all too a rare a thing for Liverpool.  And a footballing culture, a philosophy of playing, integrated with the way the club scouts and buys new players, that is shaping the club to be something formidable in the future.

I’ll believe in that – and try and avoid the nonsensical comparisons to Rafa this week.  Rafa had his time, and he won’t be walking alone.  But if someone needs that kind of support from Liverpool fans, it’s Rodgers.  I hope he gets it.

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