Last week, Liverpool’s owners made the decision to fire Kenny Dalglish. At the time of writing, no replacement has been named. Since Dalglish’s sacking, there has inevitably been a lot of speculation as to who should be the next Liverpool manager.
It seems as though FSG’s approach to hiring a new manager is to identify a number of targets, speak to them all and then make a decision. There have been many names already flying around the media and the local grapevine as to who these targets are, and to who will eventually get the job, with Wigan manager Roberto Martinez and Andre Villas-Boas currently considered to be the front runners. One other name that keeps popping up is former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez.
As it stands, Liverpool have not made any approach to Benitez, and seemingly have no plans to do so. That hasn’t stopped the rumour mill from going into overdrive, and Benitez’s supporters are all hopeful he will be brought back.
Rafa Benitez remains one of the more polarising figures to Liverpool fans. Those who love him, portray him as some kind of messianic figure, somewhat akin to a cult leader, as in their eyes he could do no wrong. Benitez’s supporters go to all kinds of lengths to defend their idol, and find increasingly inventive ways to twist facts and stats that should be damning to any manager, as actually showing Benitez’s supposed managerial brilliance. Benitez could have painted the Manchester United emblem onto the Anfield pitch and his followers would still worship him. In fact, they’d probably cite his artistic skills as evidence as to why he’s the right man to be in charge of Liverpool.
There are also many, myself included, that remember just why it was correct that Benitez’s reign came to an end. There were some terrible and expensive failures in the transfer market; there were increasingly bizarre team selections and substitutions that seemed to fly in the face of logic, that were seemingly done just to prove some kind of point to no one in particular. There was his increasingly autocratic behaviour that alienated many of his players and most of the Liverpool hierarchy. There were key players leaving due to his man-management skills. Also, at the time of his departure, Liverpool were going backwards in the league and he seemed to have run out of ideas of how to change things. Under Benitez’s management, Liverpool started on a period of decline they haven’t come out of yet.
It would be easy to bring Benitez back. He is currently unemployed, so there would be no need to seek permission with another club’s chairman and no compensation to pay for his services. He also still lives just outside of Liverpool, so there isn’t a potential issue about whether or not he’d be prepared to move to the area. He definitely holds the club, its fans and the city of Liverpool in great affection; Rafa and his wife, Montse, have contributed heavily to local charities and have set up a charitable foundation of their own that benefits many causes in and around Liverpool. I’m sure Benitez would love to come back and prove his doubters wrong.
However, I feel that bringing back Rafa Benitez as manager would be an enormous mistake.
It would be churlish of me not to point out that Benitez did a lot of good for Liverpool in his time in charge. He continued the long overdue modernisation of Liverpool that Gerard Houllier started. He built a pretty strong Liverpool team, with a rock-solid defence at the heart of his teams and he had a vast knowledge of tactics and relished the chance to outwit an opposing manager. He was responsible for transforming Jamie Carragher from a full-back into an excellent centre-back. He signed Xabi Alonso, one of the best midfielders Liverpool has ever had, and he also signed Fernando Torres, one of the best strikers, if not the best, I’ve ever seen.
It also true that Benitez came about as close as any Liverpool manager has to winning the Premier League, when in the 2008/9 season Liverpool narrowly finished behind Man United, racking up 86 points (or 34 more than Kenny Dalglish’s team got this season).
Of course, Benitez’s crowning achievement at Liverpool, and one that even his fiercest critics will always be grateful to him for, was winning the Champions League in 2005. He also took Liverpool to another final in 2007.
It’s also true that while Benitez spent a lot of money (around the £300m mark), he also raised a lot of money through transfers. It’s also true, that in the latter months of his reign, his hands were tied in the transfer market as the financial problems the then-owners of Liverpool were having meant that the money had run out. This meant that as some of his bad transfer decisions were coming back to bite him, he couldn’t correct them by getting new players in.
It has to be remembered though that for all of the good he did, and for some of the boardroom politics and off-pitch turmoil that was going on at the time, Benitez was largely the architect of his own downfall.
There were some of his tactical decisions, where he seemed to be hell-bent on doing things his way that he often ended up cutting his nose off to spite his face. One abiding memory that immediately comes to mind when I think of the latter days of Benitez, is in extra-time in the Europa League semi-final against Atletico Madrid. Liverpool had scored and were leading 2-1 on aggregate. Daniel Pacheco, a forward, was waiting to come on when Diego Forlan scored and Atletico now led on away goals. Liverpool needed a goal and everyone was expecting Benitez to sacrifice either a defender or holding midfielder for Pacheco to try and get the goal Liverpool needed. Instead, Benitez sat Pacheco down and brought on Philipp Degen, a right-back.
Benitez’s man management was a big problem during his first tenure in charge. Benitez is a man who motivates his players through criticism, which many of his players have attested to. However, this only works on players with a certain type of mentality, his approach doesn’t work for everyone. It got to the point where some players got fed up of listening to him go on and on at them and couldn’t take listening to yet more criticism, so they just tuned him out, nodded at the right time, then went away having taken no notice to what he was saying. The best managers know which approach to take for their players. Some need a kick up the backside, some need an arm round their shoulder. Benitez's inflexible approach to his players meant that a lot of them felt alienated and untrusted by him, and as a result didn't trust him back.
What this means is that for Benitez to succeed, he needs to have a high turnover of players, as some will not take to his methods and simply stop listening to him after a while. This is an approach to management that is anathema to the methods preached by FSG, who value the approach of buying players who can provide maximum value for money, either through service to the club or resale value. Also, as FSG are huge advocates of the Financial Fair Play rules that are coming into force imminently, it is unlikely that he would get a large amount of money to spend, and he has never really succeeded without funds to spend.
Then there was his performance in the transfer market. He definitely signed some excellent players for Liverpool, but there were a host of terrible and expensive mistakes too. Whether his fans accept it or not, the fact is that he was given almost £300m to spend in his time in charge and largely wasted it. The squad he left upon his departure was horribly unbalanced and filled with players who were not good enough but on huge contracts that made it hard for them to be moved on. One of the reasons for Benitez’s departure was that he was no longer trusted in the transfer market and it would be hard for him to convince FSG that he can be more responsible with transfers.
Benitez has a reputation of being a control freak to a point where it was detrimental to others. Ryan Babel, a player whose confidence was slowly destroyed under Benitez, is on record as saying that he wasn’t allowed to do any extra training at Liverpool. If he asked permission to stay after training and do more, he was told he couldn’t. If he just started doing it anyway, Benitez would send someone to order him to stop. It seems incredible to me that a player would not be allowed to do a bit extra to try and improve their game.
There are some pretty huge roadblocks to bringing Benitez back. Even though Liverpool have not yet replaced Damien Comolli, they are still in favour of the management structure that would see a Director of Football working with a head coach, having input on transfers and day-to-day issues with the playing squad. Benitez would not tolerate working under those conditions. He is very much his own man and wouldn’t like to have to justify his decisions to anyone else.
Benitez has a history of falling out badly with club directors when he doesn’t get his way, and of airing his dirty laundry in public. In his last few seasons in charge he had no problem playing the fans off against the owners. That will be off-putting to FSG as there is already some residual bad feeling towards them for sacking a club legend in Kenny Dalglish, so the prospect of potentially being in a position where they could find themselves diametrically opposed to a manager who would have no problem criticising them publicly and who enjoys such vociferous support from his followers.
Football fans in general are guilty of looking backwards and confusing it with looking forwards, and Liverpool fans are more guilty than most of doing that. Kenny Dalglish’s appointment turned out to be one based on little more than sentimentality, and FSG cannot afford to make that mistake again. The next appointment the club makes is crucial, as Liverpool cannot afford to be out of the Champions League for too long. This has to be an appointment based on sound reasoning, rather than one based on sentiment, which means for Liverpool there can be no more looking back.