The Rafael Benitez debate will continue long into new Liverpool managers reign, was it the right decision?
There simply has never been a manager that has caused more debate than Rafael Benitez. Love him or hate him, there wasn't much middle ground for Liverpool's marmite manager and even though he has gone, the debate is unlikely to cease anytime soon.
There won't ever be an official end to this Anfield civil war, never will there be a point where everyone decides to see eye to eye on his reign. The verdict has been given but the jury will be discussing the case throughout these incredibly important years on the horizon.
Benitez, leaves as a manager who will be just below the greats in Anfield's managerial hierarchy. The man who guided Liverpool to their greatest ever night, hoisted Liverpool back amongst Europe's elite and gave supporters feelings they never thought they would experience again. He ruled over a period when the latter stages of the Champions League were taken for granted. Fans started expecting European Cup Finals once again as trips to Paris, Athens, Moscow and Rome were planned well in advance because of expectance more than hope.
A manager who knew what Liverpool Football Club was all about; he embraced and understood the history and romance of the most extraordinary English sporting institution. A football man through and through, an adopted Scouser who was clearly privileged and honoured to ply his trade in L4.
But also a manager who ultimately failed to meet the targets required of modern day Liverpool. Someone whose Liverpool side lost nineteen matches in one season including a group stage exit of the Champions League, 3rd round exit in The F.A Cup to a side from The Championship and who gained only one victory and three points out of a possible eighteen against the top three sides.
Both the prosecution and defence have valid points regarding Benitez, which is why there will never be a unanimous decision on whether he should have stayed or whether it was the right time for him to go.
One thing the fans do agree on is that Rafa's job was made much more difficult because of the curse that was placed on the club early in 2007. Whilst the majority of fans cringed with every mention of the word 'franchise' and when George Gillet informed us that his son, Foster, 'used to be a goaltender' Benitez must have been more concerned than anyone. His job was in the hands of a pair of clowns. Not the funny clowns though, the evil ones that are part of every Liverpool fans worst nightmares. That press conference was a warning to all that the new owners were out of their depth but no one could foresee the damage they would cause.
Are the Americans preventing Liverpool's chance of winning major titles? Of course they are as they basically have to see who the richer teams don't want before assessing targets. The club are now in a position where it's looking like they have to sell their best players in return for cheaper alternatives. They just cannot compete. The longer their ownership continues, the more the club's chances of real success decrease.
Are they the sole reason why Liverpool finished seventh and out of the Champions League? No, basically, which is why the club are looking for a new manager. Rafael Benitez undoubtedly had a difficult task but he has to take major responsibility in what was the clubs worst season under the leadership of one manager since Graeme Souness.
Yet the season before (2008/2009) was the best, how did it go so drastically wrong?
Liverpoolfc.tv recently did a feature called the Carlsberg Years where it looked at each season under the sponsorship of the Danish brewer. It looked at all the transfers in and out and it was intriguing to see where Benitez's empire started to crumble. Without wanting to sound like leader of the anti-Rafa clan, it is important to understand the role he played in the current plight and decisions that would have led to his leaving of Liverpool.
The summer of 2002 was the beginning of the end for Gerard Houllier, it is clear that when he refused to sign Nicolas Anelka and bought Diouf, Diao and Cheyrou things started going wrong. Although Rafa's best season was 08/09 the long term damage had been done. Think about it.
TRANSFERS IN: Phillipp Degen, Andrea Dossena, Diego Cavalieri, David Ngog, Robbie Keane, Albert Riera
TRANSFERS OUT: John Arne Riise, Harry Kewell, Anthony Le Tallec, Peter Crouch, Jermaine Pennant, Steve Finnan, Scott Carson
Robbie Keane was obviously the biggest signing of the summer and one that definitely excited the fans. Watching his debut against Villareal was the most eagerly anticipated pre-season game since Harry Kewell played against Koln in July 2003. Keane, like Kewell at the time, was seen as that 'final piece in the title winning jigsaw'.
As we all know that didn't quite turn out like that, but it wasn't too far off. Liverpool's performance once Keane had gone was that good that to many it justified the decision to sell him. However, it must be remembered that in the final twenty games after Keane returned to Spurs, Fernando Torres only missed three of them - meaning the Irishman was hardly missed at all.
The departures of Alonso, Hyypia and Arbeloa are the ones that people point to when trying to understand how a team can go from second to seventh in twelve months, but Keane's name should be in there, just behind Alonso's in terms of importance. Liverpool had a strong title chasing finish without Keane, but they probably wouldn't have been there in the first place without him.
Of course, he wasn't great. The goals weren't as free flowing as was hoped - first in all competitions was October against PSV and first league goals came against West Brom in early November. He got seven in total but it can't be forgotten that he played in great victories over Man United and Chelsea (both without Torres) and was part of memorable comebacks against Middleborough, Wigan and Manchester City.
For whatever reason, Benitez seemed to give up on Robbie Keane, he wasn't given the chance that a twenty million pound signing should have been. Whether it was down to lack of patience, poor training performance or club politics, the signing and sale of Keane is right at the top of Rafa's ricks.
Keane's departure meant that David N'Gog, another purchase that summer, was expected to fill in every time Torres was absent. To rely on someone so raw has cost Liverpool over the past season, especially with Fernando's absence from first team duty being commonplace. Although N'gog isn't as bad as a lot of people make out, he was not yet ready to play such a prominent role.
The signings of full backs Degen and Dossena were just disastrous for Benitez. Particularly the Italian who was signed for double the price his predecessor John Arne Riise was sold for. Riise, a one time favourite who had undoubtedly gone stale, never once got a run around like Dossena did from the mighty Bernard Mendy of Hull City in December 2008.
Albert Riera was the final signing of that summer and has proved as indifferent as expected. Either brilliant or terrible in his first season, his frustration at Benitez should never have reached the public press after lack of opportunities. By speaking out about the managers lack of interaction and communication with his players, he foolishly ruled himself out of the final months by saying something that everybody already knew.
All of the above transfers have had a role in where Liverpool find themselves today. Whether the players brought in were treated unfairly, not given enough chances or just simply not good enough for the red shirt, the damage was done that summer. Of course the worst blow was the Gareth Barry saga which apparently was the reason why Keane was bought and subsequently never worked and which definitely was the reason for Alonso's desire to leave.
Xabi was so crucial to the way the 4-4-1-1 formation worked. The freedom to attack that Gerrard had was taken away from him with the continual employment of the Mascherano/Lucas partnership. He couldn't trust them in possession like he could Alonso. The two South Americans played in the 4-1 victory at Old Trafford, but long term it was never going to work - a disaster, that everyone, but the manager could see, waiting to happen.
It is bizarre how much faith he had in them as a pair. Benitez's ethos is to control the game; they can barely control the ball. Both undoubtedly useful players if used correctly, Lucas improved beyond recognition and Mascherano is the best in his position in the world, they just shouldn't be in the same eleven. Liverpool lost eleven league games last season. They played together in ten of them and the other, that beach ball defeat to Sunderland, was when Jay Spearing played instead of Mascherano, who had been away with Argentina.
Some of the away games where they were in the same team were beyond a joke. Blackburn, Portsmouth, Wigan, Stoke City and Wolves brought a grand total of one goal and not many more chances between them. Benitez must have been told that Wolves midfielder Karl Henry was Thierry's more talented younger brother as our midfielders nullified his threat, throughout a game that broke the record for least number of shots in a Premier League match. That record was soon broken again though, at Eastlands, when Manchester City played.... Liverpool. When did Liverpool stop trying to win matches?
But playing two defensive midfielders wasn't always his style. Remember, this was a manager who started against an A.C Milan side and Kaka with out one specialist holding player in a Champions League final. Hamann was introduced, Liverpool came from 3-0 down, and the rest, as they say, is history. Some would say the German's introduction was genius, bringing on a defensive midfielder when in need of goals. Some would say it was just 45 minutes too late.
That difference of opinion stayed with Benitez throughout his tenure. For every tactical masterstroke in there is a baffling moment that leaves not just the fans but sometimes even the players scratching their heads. From the first season and the team against Burnley in the F.A Cup, Kewell in Istanbul to Lucas for Gerrard in the Derby 2007 and N'gog for Torres at St.Andrew on Easter Sunday, Benitez's reign was riddled with ridicule, whether it paid off or not.
Towards the end, the decisions stopped paying off and the belief faded. Two Anfield extra time defeats against weaker sides have shown that the same mental strength that Benitez once got from his team, is no longer there. People often said that the Liverpool players had 'stopped playing for the manager' and if that was the case, then it was surely more of a lack of belief in the Benitez way rather than a lack of desire for the shirt. The current side, with arguably more talent, seemed to lack the heart of Istanbul 05, Cardiff 06 and the Chelsea home Champions League semi in 2007.
Which perhaps is why the Liverpool board decided a fresh start was really needed at Anfield. There is enough reason for doom and gloom at the club without the bickering between what became childishly labelled as the 'Rafa out mob' and the 'In Rafa we trust muppets'. Benitez is a fine example of how a manager can totally change the mindset of a squad - who would have thought nine of Houllier's failing squad would start a Champions League victory in less than a year after he left?
Liverpool supporters back their gaffer to the hilt and it is unlikely there is a club that puts managers on such a pedestal. The Kop has more songs and banners about their bosses than most clubs' fans have about their players. The announcement of a new man in charge is apparently very close and if he gets as much backing and support from the fans as Rafa did, then he will have a chance of improving the fortunes of the club, at least on the pitch.
Liverpool's first Spanish manager came very close to getting it very right at Anfield. At time of departure though, the targets and standards the club sets, haven't seemed so far away for a long time. There is no doubt the majority will wish him well at Inter and so they should. With Istanbul immortalised and farces like Fratton Park forgotten, when the dark clouds eventually blow away from L4, history will certainly look fondly upon Rafael Benitez.