Friday, January 11, 2008

Vive la Rafalution?

From my perspective, the best thing about Sam Allardyce being sacked by Newcastle (apart from, obviously, the schadenfreude) is that it takes the spotlight off Liverpool and Rafa Benitez for the moment. To survive as a manager, you basically need the support of three groups of people: the owners, the players and the fans. From the sound of things, Allardyce didn't have any of them on side. As for Rafa...well, he used to. But I'm not quite so sure anymore.

His squabbles with the owners over transfer funds aren't exactly a secret. But I can kind of see both sides on this one. They okayed the big money for Fernando Torres, and that's proven to be a wise investment. But some of his other buys -- the second-tier players, like Kuyt or Babel -- are have been kind of hit or miss. I don't think any of the players he's brought in recently has been a flop, but there hasn't exactly been a diamond in the rough either. So should they be giving him more money?

Well, Rafa's been saying all along that his main targets are a back-up central defender and making Mascherano's loan permanent. Both of those are eminently reasonable, as is the amount of money they'd need. The announcement that Liverpool have signed Slovakian defender Martin Skrtel is certainly a good sign, but signing Mascherano is still up in the air. The owners seem to be pushing for him to sell some players first to free up funds -- and I don't have a problem with that; there are players like Sissoko who it probably makes sense to cash in on now -- but even if that doesn't happen, letting Mascherano go would be cutting off their nose to spite their face.

If they can come to some sort of compromise over this, though, I think Rafa's relationship with the owners will be fine. Apart from that, the big thing is keeping the team in the top four of the Premier League and qualifying for the Champions League and the money it brings in. Yes, the owners want to see the team in contention for trophies, but that's just it: in contention. Actually winning something would be a bonus, but the bottom line is what's important to them -- the money from broadcasting deals and ticket sales.

Which bring us to the second group: the fans. And they really want that Premiership title. If you catch them in a reasonable mood, they'll probably acknowledge that building a title-winning squad could take more time, but they're still going to want to see Liverpool pushing the top teams all the way -- certainly not throwing away games by, say, conceding defeat against the likes of Reading.

Rafa has been treated like the messiah by the fans so far -- and why not? He took the club to two major trophies in his first two years, and another Champions League final last year. But I think the shine is starting to wear off his halo. I was at the pub last weekend for the FA Cup game, and admittedly I haven't been in a while since I got Setanta, but I don't remember hearing that much criticism about Rafa's tactics last year. The thing is, though, that the fans may be quick to grumble, but they'll also be the easiest group to win back, provided the team can string a few victories together.

So what about that team? Are they good enough to win the title? I hate to say it, but probably not. They still don't have a high enough level of quality throughout the squad. But they should be doing much better than they have been recently. And yes, Rafa has made some weird team selections this year -- like that Reading game, with Crouch on the wing, for god's sake (and speaking of Crouch, can anyone explain why Rafa never seems to want to play him? Because I don't get it). And he needs to recognize earlier in a game when his tactics aren't working, and come up with a way to change it.

But when it doesn't work, I don't think it's entirely Rafa's fault. Take the draw against Wigan, where everyone was criticizing the 4-5-1 lineup. Nothing wrong with the players he picked, but that one should've been a 4-2-3-1, with Gerrard and the wingers pushing up to support Torres in a much more attacking formation. Instead, they were all playing too deep. Was that because it's what Rafa told them to do? Or the players just not doing their job? And if it's the latter, what's the reason behind it? Were they tired after playing so many games over Christmas? Under too much pressure not to lose? Or is it a subtle indication of a deeper problem with their confidence in the manager?

Lots of questions, but whatever it is, Rafa needs to sort it out quickly. They can't afford many more mediocre games.

1 comment:

weenie said...

I can't believe they leaked out that they held talks with Klinsmann! Talk about undermining Rafa! :-(