Benitez failed by the players he trusted most
Untimely errors by Aurelio and Arbeloa show weight of pressure at Anfield
Different players, different moments of the game: that was how Rafael Benitez sought to rationalise his team conceding four goals on Tuesday night to Arsenal in a game they had to win. It was not much of an analysis and it gave no compelling theory as to how football's equivalent of the Grenadier Guards have turned into gung-ho street-fighters but in the circumstances it seemed entirely appropriate.
Even as they conceded four goals to Arsenal, as they fought back to make the score 4-4, Liverpool's performance was terrific: no question. They were just not terrific in the way that Benitez has moulded them over the last five seasons. Not in the way that has permitted them to out-manoeuvre Manchester United, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Milan, Barcelona and even Arsenal. They were a different sort of team, willing to go blow-for-blow with a club that has a well-earned reputation for reckless, attacking football.
When Dirk Kuyt said yesterday that it would take a "miracle" for Liverpool to win the Premier League title now, he was hoping for the kind of intervention that does not hold much water with Benitez. The Liverpool manager does not rely on miracles, he relies on brilliant strategy, on identifying a weakness in an opponent and exploiting it ruthlessly. He prepares. Wishing for miracles is left to clubs like Newcastle United or Manchester City, not the arch-pragmatist at Anfield.
When he talked about the different players, different moments, Benitez was referring primarily to two of his most loyal lieutenants, the full-backs Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Aurelio whose mistakes were, to a greater or lesser extent, punished in devastating fashion by Andrei Arshavin for the first three Arsenal goals. For any manager those kind of mistakes are difficult to rationalise but for Benitez they are particularly difficult to accept.
Kuyt said as much, conceding that: "We played a good game and we only made four mistakes in the 90 minutes but they cost us two points." He added: "All of their goals came from our own mistakes and this is something we have to change but we need to keep our focus on our next game. The point we took is an important one because otherwise we could have ended up seven points behind [United] and that would have made it almost impossible.
"It is harder now because we knew before the game that we needed to win to keep the pressure on. But at least we got a draw and didn't lose and we have to keep fighting until the very end. We have to hope for a miracle now as it has become more difficult than it already was but you have seen a team that has not given up and we will never give up. So let's hope that a miracle can happen."
Miracles take second place to preparation with Benitez, a manager who regularly infuriates his squad by stopping training sessions mid-action, by taking the play back to the start and making his players repeat their drills to a mind-numbing extent. He is, in the nicest possible way, a control-freak. A manager who would prefer the willingness to learn – or to be dictated to – of an Aurelio or an Arbeloa than a superstar full-back with thoughts of his own on how the game should be played.
That is what makes Tuesday's outcome all the more demoralising for Benitez; that Liverpool were undone by two players who have come to epitomise his style. Arbeloa and Aurelio are two squad members who have embraced the Benitez creed more than any other. They came from relatively unfashionable Spanish sides (Deportivo la Coruña and Valencia), they are both fringe players in their national teams (Aurelio has not played for Brazil since 2000) and both of them have every reason to be grateful to Benitez for the chance to play for a club of Liverpool's status.
The players themselves may argue that they were not exactly helped by Jamie Carragher's clearing header for the second goal that fell to Arbeloa, who was then robbed by Arshavin. Or Javier Mascherano's dithering for the first, after he had been put under pressure by Aurelio's bad pass. But essentially it was the lapses from the full-backs that let Arsenal into a game they had no right to draw – Arshavin's finishing aside – and if it is Aurelio and Arbeloa who are malfunctioning, that tells us something about the pressure on Benitez's team.
Arbeloa and Aurelio are the foot-soldiers of the Benitez revolution, the stage hands who do the grunt-work for the main men and their dip in form must be painful for the manager. Otherwise his team had proved completely dominant against Arsenal. Without Steven Gerrard in the last three games they have scored 12 goals. Fernando Torres took his place as the leader of the attack, Xabi Alonso has played like a man who deserves to be on the PFA Player of the Year shortlist and Kuyt was impressive again. Yossi Benayoun demonstrated that, his physical limitations aside, he can be brilliantly effective.
Only Mascherano of the key players looked beneath his best and yet even he had a better game than Alex Song and Denilson. For that reason it is difficult to come up with a definitive reason for Liverpool's failure to beat Arsenal other than Benitez's wide-ranging theory that occasionally bad things happen to otherwise reliable defenders.
The Liverpool manager made reference to the fitness of Torres who, as his side chased an equaliser at 4-3, seemed to pull up with a strain to his thigh before playing on. "If we can keep Torres fit it will be much better and you can see Benayoun is on fire," Benitez said. "Two or three players are doing well in attack and that could be a massive difference. We always have a lot of shots and lot of opportunities but now we are scoring more goals."
It used to be the lack of goals that was the problem, especially in those debilitating draws against Stoke (twice), Fulham, West Ham and Manchester City that have now had such a profound impact on Liverpool's season. Benitez's team have mastered the goalscoring aspect of their task but it is the discipline, the defensive rigour – essentially what made them what they are – that they will have to regain, starting with Hull City on Saturday.
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