What's it all about Rafa?

Three years ago he was the brilliant tactician who guided his side to European triumph. But now? Having again failed to mount a serious title challenge, the Liverpool manager has abandoned his rotation system and goes into this season's final few weeks with everything to prove – starting at the Emirates tonight. By Sam Wallace, Football Correspondent
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The Independent Football

It was the writing on the wall for Rafael Benitez. It appeared some time on the night of 17 February shortly after the calamitous defeat to Barnsley in the FA Cup tie at Anfield. The spelling was, by all accounts, appalling and the language was ripe but the points were fairly succinct. Painted on the wall of Liverpool's Melwood training complex, the basic message was that Benitez should abandon his principle of rotation and play his best team every game.

This graffiti that followed the nadir of Liverpool's season is by no means held up as representative of the views of all but a very militant minority of Liverpool supporters. Nevertheless, the manager did see it that day before the derogatory remarks about him, John Arne Riise, Harry Kewell and Dirk Kuyt were painted over. What did he think as the team bus passed those walls and members of his squad nudged each other and pointed at words that were so hard to miss? Did it prefigure some awful eventuality in Benitez's mind that he might be losing the single bastion of support that has kept him in charge of the club: the Liverpool fans?

Whatever happened, life has changed since then. As they face Arsenal tonight in the Champions League in the first of three games against the same opponents in a week, Benitez has settled upon a team and a formation. Once upon a time a defeat, like the one to United on 23 March, would have meant a complete reinvention of his team but in the following game, last Sunday against Everton, Benitez dropped only his two full-backs, Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Aurelio. There are minor changes. Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Jamie Carragher, Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso and Kuyt are playing regularly. Ryan Babel and Martin Skrtel are virtually assured of a first-team place. Every 4-2-3-1 formation is not identical but it is recognisable and the teamsheet is not the box of tricks it once was.

Benitez and rotation is an emotive topic in Liverpool. When you pour over the statistics of a season it is hard to acquire a completely accurate picture of which players have been rotated and which were suffering minor or more serious injuries and not available for selection. Before the letters arrive, The Independent is well aware that books have been dedicated to proving the Liverpool manager's record for changing his team is comparable to that of Sir Alex Ferguson. But even the most ardent Rafa-ista would have to acknowledge that since the Barnsley game there has been a difference about Liverpool.

Which leaves us with one remarkable possibility as Liverpool embark on these three games that will define their season: are they about to suffer from a lack of rotation? Having clung to the principle for so long, Benitez has abandoned it for the home straight. Six games remaining in the league, potentially five more in the Champions League, and Benitez is praying the likes of Torres can keep the pace until the end. He has sunk his faith in this team and, along the way, virtually abandoned the likes of Jermaine Pennant, Peter Crouch and Andrei Voronin. Yet if Benitez believed that rotating players was the solution for so long, he has picked a remarkable moment to change his mind.

In their hearts, every club's support want to believe their manager is infallible. Arsenal fans do. Their famous banner "Arsène knows" suggests a quasi-religious conviction that, however mysterious Arsène Wenger's ways, he will take Arsenal to the right place. Manchester United fans are different: they are more questioning of Ferguson, accepting his faults and his strengths – as you would tolerate a cantankerous but much-loved elderly relative. But Liverpool are different again. They want to believe without reservation in Benitez. Yet despite the outward displays of reverence towards him, you feel that never has so much devotion been spent on a manager who has also given his supporters so much private cause for doubt.

The case for Benitez: that sensational Champions League victory in 2005, the conviction that he achieved it on less money than the rest and, to a lesser extent, the FA Cup victory in 2006 and a place in the Champions League final a year later. As for the money that he has spent on players over the past four years, Benitez claimed again this week that he has spent on average at least £20m less a season than United and Chelsea. Transfer budgets are a notoriously difficult subject to pin down because the exact fees are rarely disclosed and any account that claims to be definitive simply is not. The value of players on the books of clubs reduces as their contracts run down. Some clubs spend more on salaries. And in the background are the young foreign players who filter quietly into the top club's academies, often for a price.

Nevertheless, by The Independent's rough calculations, Benitez has outspent Wenger in every one of his four seasons at Liverpool and by no small net margin: by £15.8m (2004-05); £8m (2005-06); £17m (2006-07) and £44.9m (2007-08). When Benitez talks knowingly of the money at the disposal of Chelsea and United, he has a point. When he talks about Wenger's transfer funds, he does not. Arsenal have what Liverpool crave: the gleaming new stadium, the fruitful production line of young players and the style of football to seduce a generation of supporters.

Ah, the football. When Arsenal came to Anfield in October and drew 1-1 they performed with such style that the home support, who can be a generous bunch, could barely conceal their gasps of admiration for the way in which Wenger's side played. On the other hand, and especially in European competition, Benitez's team have made a virtue of containment and caution which it is just about possible to love if it brings results. It is a style that embodies the manager himself: unyielding, uncompromising and pragmatic.

For a man who lives so dangerously it is almost impossible to reconcile Benitez with his public persona, that of a mid-ranking civil servant, and the wilful banality of most of his dealings with the media. And yet he has become a figure of note among Liverpool fans. Or rather a cult figure as opposed to an archetypal fans' favourite: cult in the sense that he is an unusual, complicated creature and very much an acquired taste. He has played his hand brilliantly at times, assuming the role of underdog whenever possible and profiting hugely from Tom Hicks' disastrous decision to disclose the talks with Jürgen Klinsmann about taking the manager's job.

In a club that is tearing itself apart at boardroom level, Benitez has stepped deftly into the power vacuum. Despite Liverpool's history, Anfield revels in an outsider role, as the ones to confound other wealthier, more-fancied opposition. Benitez has played on that expertly, casting himself as both the outsider in his own club – against the American owners – and the outsider among the other big clubs that he claims have greater financial clout. Tonight his two great gambles – abandoning rotation and claiming to manage on a shoestring budget – are put to their greatest test. Against a club that lay claim to playing the best football in the division, and doing it on the cheap.

How managers match up

Benitez v Wenger

28/11/04 Premier League Liverpool 2 Arsenal 1

08/05/05 Premier League Arsenal 3 Liverpool 1

14/02/06 Premier League Liverpool 1 Arsenal 0

12/03/06 Premier League Arsenal 2 Liverpool 1

12/11/06 Premier League Arsenal 3 Liverpool 0

06/01/07 FA Cup 3rd round Liverpool 1 Arsenal 3

09/01/07 Carling Cup QF Liverpool 3 Arsenal 6

31/03/07 Premier League Liverpool 4 Arsenal 1

28/10/07 Premier League Liverpool 1 Arsenal 1

What the big four speant

2004-2005

Liverpool net spending: £15m

Chelsea: £91m

Man Utd: £26m

Arsenal: £800,000 profit

2005-2006

Liverpool net spending: £18m

Chelsea: £35m

Man Utd: £14m

Arsenal: £10m

2006-2007

Liverpool net spending: £13m

Chelsea: £39m

Man Utd: £4m

Arsenal: £4m profit

2007-2008

Liverpool net spending: £24.9m

Chelsea: £17.3m

Man United: £49.5m

Arsenal: £20m profit

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