Saturday January 21, 2006
Tomorrow brings a landmark anniversary for Rafael Benítez but it is not of the sort he will have marked up on his kitchen calendar. On January 22 2005 Liverpool were beaten 2-0 by Southampton, who had few other distractions of that sort as they homed in on bottom spot in the Premiership. The third defeat in a week cracked the manager's defences and there was a dam-burst of condemnation over all his doings on Merseyside.
It was unthinkable then that he would be held in such esteem as he prepares for tomorrow's away match with Manchester United. That defeat to Southampton was pored over and Alan Hansen wrote that the first-half display was "the worst I've seen in the 14 years since I left the club". The former captain decried Benítez's penchant for signing his fellow Spaniards and declared that Liverpool "are not going to win the Champions League".
Jeers for Hansen have to be stifled because every piece of opinionated punditry creates another batch of hostages to fortune and, above all, his views were shared by most people on the football scene. Liverpool overhauled a 3-0 deficit in the European Cup final but they have had to sustain the transformation in order to enjoy their current standing. With their all-round strength and consistency they will continue to be treated as the best-equipped team to keep pace with Chelsea in the years ahead, whatever the outcome against Manchester United tomorrow.
Liverpool's progress owes a little to signings and other alterations to the line-up. During the misery at St Mary's, Jamie Carragher played at right-back because the old and slow Mauricio Pellegrino was in central defence. There is no longer bed-blocking of that kind in the side. None the less, the more influential changes have occurred within Benítez himself, who has become far more flexible in his reaction to the idiosyncrasies of the Premiership.
The career of the Wales manager John Toshack includes two spells in charge of Real Madrid and three at Real Sociedad, giving him an appreciation of how odd English football looks to a Spaniard such as Benítez. "Everyone gets railroaded into 4-4-2 because if you don't play that way they call you negative," said the former Liverpool striker, conscious that such systems are somewhat alien to the Anfield manager. "There is no doubt that Rafa has adjusted, because he never used two outright strikers at Valencia."
In the defeat at Southampton and another by the same margin at Birmingham Benítez employed Fernando Morientes up front, with Milan Baros drifting deeper and wider until he reached vanishing point. At the moment Liverpool, when taking on palpably weaker teams, utilise the more assertive threat of Morientes and Peter Crouch, who made a painful impression on Benítez with his goal at St Mary's a year ago. "Against sides from the mid-table downwards he will have decided that he can afford to take more of a chance with his tactics," said Toshack.
The balance to be struck between caution and aggression is one that preoccupies every manager. Benítez would identify with the thinking of one of his Anfield predecessors, even if the idiom would not come so naturally to him. "Bill Shankly," recalls Toshack, "used to say: 'A football team is like a piano. You need eight men to carry it and three who can play the damn thing.'" Benítez has always been aware that a certain huskiness is essential and the acquisition of Mohamed Sissoko added an athleticism to the destructive work of the Liverpool midfield, although the Mali international, who turns 21 tomorrow, still tends to be indiscriminate on occasion in the passes and tackles he attempts to make.
Benítez has always been very pragmatic and if he lets his men off the leash it will be because the method is logical. With Liverpool 3-1 down at Luton he swiftly converted to a devil-may-care 4-2-4 formation which overwhelmed Mike Newell's team. The switch was born of calculation, not romance, and even as a boy he was obsessively analytical in his addiction to a military board game called Stratego.
The lack of a career as a professional player meant that he had no prior status to draw upon in management and that must have deepened his conservatism. He could not afford to take risks. "He was the youth coach at Real Madrid when I was the manager there," said Toshack. "He has had to struggle through the ranks in Spain and he was a surprise appointment at Valencia."
Benítez won two Liga titles while at the Mestalla, as well as a Uefa Cup, and depended on a robust 4-2-3-1 formation. Though Toshack's Real Sociedad side beat them in the 2001-02 championship the Welshman recalls the formidable cragginess of Valencia. "It was as if you had to be in your 30s to play in their back four," he said, "and no one could get at the defence easily because of David Albelda and Rubén Baraja. Then they would counter-attack through Pablo Aimar."
Toshack is sure Benítez's approach is essential for success at the higher levels and he has England's generally dismal record in European football over the past 20 years to bear out his argument. "You can't play 4-4-2 against Juventus, Chelsea and Milan," he says of the clubs defeated by Liverpool last season. "If you do you will get outnumbered and cut up in midfield."
The secret of Benítez's progress lies not in any radical overhaul but in the small calibrations he has made to ensure that Liverpool are bolder against the teams they should dominate. Last season, while being unduly cerebral, they could be bullied in away fixtures where they had neglected to seize the initiative. At present, on the other hand, they are unbeaten in 13 games in all domestic competitions.
The tailoring of the tactics for specific, relatively minor occasions does not mean Benítez's principles have altered. "You won't see him using Steven Gerrard as a holding player beside Xabi Alonso because it's just not in his instinct to cover that area," said the Wales manager. As Toshack indicates, there are security measures further forward in the 4-2-3-1 structure.
"One of those three men will not really be an attacker by nature," he argues. "For example, John Arne Riise is quite often the player on the left and he is more of a full-back who will help to provide cover on that side." Just before the third of four unsuccessful attempts by a goalless Chelsea to defeat Liverpool in the Champions League, Jose Mourinho commented that his opponents "do not play with an open heart". Coming from such an arch-realist that must have sounded like a handsome compliment to Benítez.
"Why not stay 20 years here?" the Spaniard said cheerily yesterday. Why not indeed when he already has a team built to last.
Copyright - The Guardian