If there was any mystery to the question now being asked in open panic on Merseyside, the situation might not seem quite so hopeless. Unfortunately there isn't. We know well enough, and have done so for some time, the answer to "What's it all about, Rafa?" It is almost entirely about Rafa, and no team has prospered long term under such egocentric control.
Certainly it is hard not to believe that the consequences of the coach's insistence that he controls every nuance of the team's expression, first demonstrated in what seemed like rotation for its own sake, are darkening the sky above Anfield with their roosting schedule.
For a time rotation was a stick with which to beat the coach for his failure to produce the rhythm of a growing side. Now rotation is no longer an issue. It serves only one damaging purpose as it allows still another peek into an empty cupboard, a sensation made all the more stark by the riches that appeared to be on show in that spectacular but ultimately meaningless victory at Old Trafford towards the end of last season.
But then even as the indictment against Benitez grows as large as the one that led to the inevitable sacking of his predecessor Gérard Houllier, it is not so hard to understand those pockets of resistance to the idea that the man from Madrid must go with the descent of morale, even basic coherence, that has become so alarmingly steep.
Liverpool, after all, touched the stars in their first season under him and no doubt there have been times since then when Benitez has threatened to recapture some of that belief – and a little of the substance, but of course some certainties have always been elusive. They won, we have to be honest, the most prestigious club competition in the world with a team that had more holes than the waist-coat of a victim of the St Valentine Day's Massacre.
They weren't really a team at all. They were a ragbag of assorted and ill-formed talent sustained by an uncanny suspicion that, however improbably, they might just get there in the end.
Luis Garcia could score a fantasy or, as Jose Mourinho will always swear, a phantom goal but for much of the rest of the time he was a professional disaster area. His game was often nothing so much as a haemorrhage of possession. Harry Kewell was the big gamble in the final against a Milan team which so catastrophically and noisily celebrated its triumph at half-time, and, embarrassingly, he was withdrawn before the interval.
Yet when the dawn came up over Istanbul we were all agog when Benitez declared that now he would build a team.
Why wouldn't you believe in such a miracle worker who was fresh from Valencia and his breaking of the Spanish stranglehold exerted by Real Madrid and Barcelona? True, he plainly had much to learn about the Premier League and the kind of players it required, but in conjuring the great victory he had defied so many odds that a little bit of adapting to his new terrain was not so much to expect. Even then, he had acquired a player who looked as if he could conquer not only a new environment but the football equivalent of the mountains of the moon.
Xabi Alonso plays for Real Madrid now of course, and it is impossible to detach this bleak development for Liverpool with what is becoming increasingly evident as one of the two great flaws in Benitez's competitive persona. One is that he too rarely – and at Anfield now there is the cumulative evidence presented by 68 signings – recognises the quality of a player who can give so much more to the team than the sum of his individual talent. The other is that when he gets one, supremely in the case of the gifted Alonso, he signally fails to cherish him.
The disaffection between the coach and the player, which apparently arose over Alonso's demand for parental leave, was said to have been mended but the move to Madrid said differently, especially at the end of the season in which the brilliant force of the Basque midfielder was arguably as influential to Liverpool's progress as the pyrotechnics of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard.
The £20m replacement Alberto Aquilani is currently inching towards fitness, but his absence at such a crucial stage of an embattled club's season could hardly be rivalled as a damning statement about lost momentum. In Italy the word is that Aquilani has talent but a less than overwhelming playing personality, a handicap at Roma that was disastrously compounded by his proneness to injury.
Inevitably, Benitez is skewered now by the appalling realisation that without Gerrard and Torres, his team – five years after the brilliant dawn of Istanbul – is mired in profound mediocrity, a reality that no doubt provoked from the normally relentless Javier Mascherano a statement about the extent of the team's lost confidence.
One conclusion is inescapable and could scarcely be more harmful to the prospects of Benitez. It is that while an Arsène Wenger so regularly displays a Midas touch, Benitez too often shows a hand of stone. Players simply do not seem to grow under Benitez – at least not beyond the point of mediocrity. Whether such as Andrea Dossena, Lucas, Ryan Babel and Dirk Kuyt ever had greater potential is an extremely dubious claim. Nor does it help that the limited but earnestly applied ability of Robbie Keane was last season turned into such a wretched, £20m liability that the recovery of much of the original outlay did little to impose even a hint of reason.
What we are left with is the burden carried by Torres, a player who came finished in all his vital attributes, Steven Gerrard, who is a phenomenon of the football womb rather than any finishing school, and the currently strained but recognisable professional quality of those such as Jose Reina and Mascherano. Some say that defeating Manchester United on Sunday would make everything right. It won't. It can't.
The Rafa show has been running five years now. That's a long time for a one-man performance, especially when the script, as such a formidably acute critic as Jurgen Klinsmann is pointing out, has become so threadbare.
Klinsmann, of course, was once paraded as a potential replacement for Benitez. That might just make him a less than impartial witness after his departure from Bayern Munich earlier this year. Still, it doesn't invalidate his review. Or, realistically, lessen the chances of a last curtain call for its victim.Reuse content