Sam Wallace: Benitez the forward-thinker must stop overlooking clear and present dangers
Liverpool's season hung in the balance, but the fervour for strategy gripped Benitez again
Monday 02 November 2009
Outside Anfield on match days they sell T-shirts adorned with Rafael Benitez's face and the catchphrase "Rafa is boss. This is a fact, no?" It is a take on his unique brand of English but also it references Rafa's peculiar brand of logic, especially the forward-planning to which he so stubbornly adheres.
Benitez is the man who prides himself on being one step ahead: while his players are celebrating a goal; he is using the break in play to reorganise his defence. While everyone else is thinking about Saturday's game; he is thinking about next Wednesday's match. If the world was to witness the Second Coming, Rafa would shrug and clear a space in his diary for the Third.
The trouble with Benitez's forward-planning is that sometimes he is too clever for his own good. Never more so than when, with the score at 1-1 and 27 minutes remaining, he substituted Fernando Torres against Fulham on Saturday afternoon. He did so with a team already missing Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson. Not to mention a squad that was without Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel, Fabio Aurelio, Albert Riera and Alberto Aquilani.
If ever there was a time to gamble on Torres, then this was that moment. But Benitez is wedded to his system, to his unshakeable belief in the plan he has already decided. And so, regardless of the game, Benitez thinks thus: Torres is not completely fit, we must protect him, therefore he must come off. This is a fact, no?
But Torres was not struggling to the extent he could not carry on. On the contrary, this was a player whose bemused reaction to his substitution suggested he was ready to play on. The match was on a knife edge, the situation had changed and once again Liverpool's season hung in the balance. But the fervour for strategy had Benitez in its grip again.
On Saturday he did not make the Torres substitution, or even those of Yossi Benayoun and Dirk Kuyt, in order to beat Fulham, he did it in order to keep them fit to play Lyons on Wednesday when Liverpool must preserve their ebbing life in the Champions League. Even as every instinct on Saturday screamed out that Torres should stay on the pitch, Benitez stuck with the master plan.
Benitez will not live in the moment. Rather he prefers a constant strategising for the future, no matter how much it costs him in the present. He seems able to make any sacrifice, as long as he can console himself that his actions mean he has a marginally better chance for the next match in four days' time. He is the eternal hedger.
There would be no surprise if his team put on a heroic performance against Lyons and won the game, probably with a goal from Torres. But what would that mean in the great scheme of things? The euphoria from the victory against Manchester United has already gone. They have lost five league games; they are out the Carling Cup and they are hanging on in Europe.
The similarities between Liverpool's league form now and Arsenal at roughly the same point last season are telling. Arsenal faced United in early November, having lost in the league to Fulham, Hull and Stoke and with Arsène Wenger looking like he might be on the brink of meltdown.
Against the odds they beat United 2-1 on 8 November with a performance that showed they could live with the champions; a performance that was not unlike Liverpool's eight days ago.
Having done so, Arsenal promptly threw it all away by losing their next two league games. From the manner in which they were flicked aside by United in the Champions League semi-finals come April/May it was evident that the result back in November was nothing more than an anomaly for both teams.
It is remarkable that for all Benitez's professorial qualities, his strange lack of temper and his tendency towards the bland post-match comment, his time at Liverpool has been characterised by extraordinary brinkmanship. His teams are capable of concealing so many problems with one thrilling performance. Sometimes, like Istanbul in 2005 or the FA Cup final in the following season, they go from disaster to triumph in the space of a single game.
Yes, Benitez is capable of the brilliant result. He is capable of amazing us all with a victory over Real Madrid, or United, and modestly treating it as if it were no more than he expected. But the essential question is what direction are Liverpool heading in? This team that included Andrei Voronin, Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Philipp Degen on Saturday? The answer is that they are getting worse, not better.
In his sixth full season at Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson won his first league title, having finished second the season before. This is Benitez's sixth full season as Liverpool manager and the chances of him winning the title now are more remote than they were last season. He has produced a team of undoubted qualities, but not a team to win the Premier League.
Liverpool are more of a cup team. They reflect their manager who, for all his rigid adherence to strategy and forward-planning, has produced a team whose results steadfastly refuse to obey their master's logic.
Strudwick builds bridges in wake of Stamford battle
In the pictures of Gary Neville's argument with the police officer from the Merseyside force at Anfield eight days ago it was heartening to see one person from Manchester United trying to defuse the situation. That was Tony Strudwick, the fitness coach, whose evidence over the infamous "Battle of Stamford Bridge" in April last year – United's post-match ruck with the groundsmen – was described by an FA commission as "exaggerated and unreliable". Good to see Strudwick has learnt his lesson. Perhaps United should abolish their post-match warm-downs – they seem to cause more problems than they solve.
Insurance policy plays Russian roulette with Danny's World Cup
Remember Danny, the Portugal international signed for £25m by Zenit St Petersburg who scored against Manchester United in the European Super Cup final last year?
He has recovered from a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament sustained in May but the club's insurance policy has prevented him from playing. The terms of the policy mean that he is not permitted to play within six months of sustaining his injury. If he did so, and was injured again, the insurer would not pay out. As a result, the club will not even let him train with the first team. Danny says his World Cup squad place is now in serious jeopardy.
You may not think English football is perfect. But at least we are not yet at the point where a club are having their team picked by that dog from the Churchill insurance adverts.
Winding down Rio's wind-ups
Fabio Capello has banned the England World Cup song and surely he will do the same if Rio Ferdinand proposes another edition of his World Cup Wind-ups television programme. The time for "merking" is over; Rio needs to concentrate on "marking" people instead.
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