Comment: The author argues that given that Benitez is less experienced
than Wenger, Ferguson that his relationship with the owners is rocky,
and that he doesn't have the quality and cash of United and Chelsea,
LFC actually are performing at their level, and that 'history' is a
dark cloud that will hang over any manager, even if Benitez is
sacked. Says the youth team has Arsenal level quality bubbling.....
To my mind, managing Liverpool is currently -- by far and away -- the
most difficult job in English football. It's become an impossible
Two decades without the league title is an enormous weight bearing
down on whoever has to manage the team. It has become a millstone the
size of the moon, and that was the case even before Benítez arrived.
It has got to the stage where even Champions League Finals are seen as
"nothing", in this almighty desire for the title at all costs, and
nothing else. Believe me, I keep seeing fans dismiss Champions League
Finals like it was the Carling Cup being discussed. When did we get so
obnoxious, spoilt and greedy?
And now there's a new sense of impatience surrounding the club that
emanated from within, with news that Benítez's job was under threat in
November, when the side were still in a good league position but
struggling in the Champions League; a threat that only recently
surfaced to the public, since when things have got dramatically worse
on the pitch. Coincidence?
It's no wonder the team appear to be in meltdown right now. A self-
fulfilling prophecy was put in place. And even if all parties have
genuinely cleared the air between them, following desperate summit
meetings, which may well have been the case (to some degree at least),
the air itself remains noxious in the eyes of those viewing from the
When has impatience ever been a virtue in football? Was it a virtue
when Ferguson took United to 11th, 2nd, 11th and 13th in his first
four seasons? Or 7th in his 5th? If memory serves, United's board
stayed strong, stayed patient.
Or what about when Arsenal won nothing between 1998 and 2002? I recall
disgruntled Gooners on 606 circa 2000/2001, saying Wenger had taken
them as far as he could. Did David Dein and co. get impatient? Did
they speak to some recently retired international with no club
management experience, and make it public?
Or what about when Everton finished 11th (complete with double
European humiliation) in 2005/06, a year after the heady high of 4th?
Or 17th in 2003/04, inches from relegation, a year after an impressive
7th? Did they panic?
It shames me to say it, but, Tescos aside, Everton should be proud of
the way they've run their club in recent years. And they're reaping
That doesn't mean it won't get harder for the Toffees as expectations
rise, and should they have to work out how to play distracting, high-
profile Champions League games midweek and have enough left for
weekend league fixtures (and the Uefa Cup is not the same, believe
me). But they're going about building in the right way. The sensible
way. They've giving Moyes the best chance of succeeding, relatively
speaking. (But of course, no-one expects a league title in a million
years, even though their last one was only three years prior to the
Liverpool have the 3rd-most expensive squad in the league, but way
behind the two most expensive ones. And Benítez has been in the job
the 3rd-longest of the 'big four', but Ferguson and Wenger have an
incredible 34 years in charge between them. As a result, no-one dares
to tell them what to do. And as both Ferguson and Wenger recently
said, that's the way it has to be.
Based purely on money spent (cost of the current squad at the
manager's disposal, not gross spend or net spend), the league table
should look like this:
2 Man United
What about the league table when based on each club's wealth, and
1 Chelsea (based on Abramovich's wealth, not turnover)
2 Manchester United
Linked to the cost of the squad, but with the price of players not
being a fail-safe barometer of their ability, is the quality of the
squad. This is purely subjective, and as such, I'm presenting only my
opinion. Plus, you also have a situation where Chelsea have the
biggest squad in terms of depth, but Manchester United have the best
XI, suggesting both might be equal overall.
1= Manchester United
How about a league table based on managerial talent? Based on all
achievements in the game of football since the turn of the millennium,
I would suggest the following:
1= Manchester United
So, joint first for Liverpool, with Benítez's miracles in Valencia and
Istanbul proving his quality as a manager beyond doubt, and putting
his overall achievements since 2000 on a par with the others. But --
crucially -- Wenger and Ferguson would rank more highly based on
Premier League achievements; although, it has to be noted, that
Ferguson did far, far, far worse in his first four seasons in the
league at United.
Based on time the manager has spent in the job -- another well-known
and valuable barometer to judging success (in that it takes many years
to shape a club from top to bottom, particularly when it comes to
bringing through young players) -- the league table should look like
1 Manchester United
Also related to time in the job is stability: the working environment
presented to the manager by his relationship with the power brokers,
as well as the level of certainty/uncertainty surrounding his position
(either real, or perceived through the media, who will do whatever
they can to exacerbate the situation to improve their sales/ratings).
With this in mind, the league would look something like this:
1= Manchester United
4= Aston Villa
4= Manchester City
. . .
20 Liverpool (replacing Newcastle)
Whatever the reasons, and however true or not, Benítez's position
appears to be the least secure and stable in the league, now that Sam
Allardyce and Martin Jol have been sacked. Rafa is under the most
The thing Liverpool desperately need is a point of difference, that
will raise them above their rivals. And from these, is there one? No.
Chelsea have theirs: the most money. United have theirs: the most
experienced manager. Arsenal have theirs: their unprecedented youth
procurement scheme. Liverpool's strongest point is having a top-class
manager, but then so too do its rivals. The youth scheme could rival
Arsenal's down the line, but it's a case of playing serious catch-up.
But even if the Reds replaced Rafa, who is unquestionably a better
manager than Ferguson and Wenger? Can Liverpool ever have the most
money? No. The most trusted manager? No.
So then -- with all I've discussed, on what criteria should Liverpool
History. And history alone.
But that's almost ancient history now; are we still living in the
past? And does history win you trophies? Ask Blackpool, Leeds,
Nottingham Forest. Recent history -- the last 10-15 years, which is
more relevant in many ways -- again suggests that 3rd or 4th is the
best Liverpool can hope for.
Indeed, Souness lowered the bar in the early '90s, finishing 6th, 6th
and 8th and flunking out early in almost every cup, while Houllier
managed to rise to 2nd for one season, but fall as low as 5th and 7th.
Five clubs have won the league since Liverpool last did, and only one
of those is new to the list since Benítez arrived: megabucks Chelsea.
Crucially, indeed, super-crucially, Arsenal and Manchester United, as
clubs, had grown highly used to winning league titles by the time Rafa
And if you look at all the league tables I have produced -- some
subjective, but most not -- and combine them for an average position,
then 4th place is about the best Liverpool can realistically expect in
the current climate, and in the foreseeable future.
I'm not trying to defend Benítez for the sake of it, or saying that he
is 100%% correct in everything he ever does, and that I agree with all
of his decisions, merely trying to put into context the task he faces.
I honestly can't accurately judge the side or the tactics right now,
because there is this big black cloud hanging over the club,
obfuscating matters. Part of that stems back to the falling out with
Pako Ayestaran in September, which may have been Rafa's fault to some
(unmeasurable) degree, and which, for me, was the first unsettling
moment of the season. But then came what I can only politely describe
as the 'shitstorm', that has distorted any clear analysis.
Yes, Kuyt is having a stinker of a season, and yes, Crouch, on paper
'deserves' more playing time; but that would mean two spearhead
strikers, something no other top club deploys -- each has at least one
player working the space between the lines (United have two, in Rooney
and Tevez!). And yes, Babel looks suited to the role in theory, but
he's still a kid and still new to England; so it's not like Rafa is
ignoring an obvious, fail-safe immediate solution.
Yes, it may be the manager's fault that he doesn't yet have a second-
striker who is good enough to link play between the midfield and also
score goals. But then again, Kuyt looked good enough in the role last
season, and at the start of this. There are issues in the wide areas
(although the two new wide men share 17 goals this season, despite not
being regulars), but it's also an area where Benítez was thwarted in
the market, with Simao and Alves too expensive and Malouda opting for
Meanwhile you have the unpalatable sight of Gerrard showing signs of
dissent with the manager's decisions as if he's Alan Shearer, and the
previously criticism-free Carragher conceding a clutch of penalties
already this season, and frankly lucky it's not been more. Defending
set-pieces, which was immaculate for nearly two years, has become a
comedy of errors again. Some of this may be down to the manager, but
the players need to stand up and be counted, too.
You can argue such points, and suggest Benítez isn't helping himself
at times, and you may be right, but how can you judge his
performances and decisions as if they exist in a vacuum? There is the
context to consider.
Which Liverpool manager has ever had to work in such difficult
circumstances? Or anything remotely as close? Kenny Dalglish had the
very different pressures of Hillsborough to contend with, but that
took its toll on him and his team, as his decisions seemed to become
less easily understandable. But has the board ever fallen out with the
manager, and the fans been up in arms and protesting about the owners?
I can't recall a Liverpool manager facing such an unsettling
Examples of managers failing after being undermined are everywhere.
Martin Jol was instantly undermined at the start of the season when it
became known the club wanted Juande Ramos instead, so failure became a
self-fulfilling prophecy; results stayed well below what Jol was
previously getting, because every game was likely to be his last.
The same happened at Chelsea when Mourinho, having landed two league
titles, had his job description unofficially changed by Abramovich at
the start of Year 3, to be about finding a place for his the owner's
Shevchenko in the team and asking them to play pretty triangles,
while, in the reverse of Liverpool, the league became less important
than the European Cup.
Short of a miracle, it is dawning on me that a league title has become
an impossibility. It's why we are now seen as a cup team -- because
that is the most realistic avenue open to any Liverpool manager.
The main hope for a league title in the future relates to what is
coming through the ranks, and if Rafa, or any subsequent manager, can
make the most of a crop of promising kids sourced in the last two-
three years, in the way Wenger has at Arsenal (albeit after a few
seasons of relative mediocrity, winning fewer trophies than Liverpool
as they developed, and finishing below the Reds for two seasons
The reserves -- a breeding ground for Benítez's young buys -- are
doing very well. The youth team hasn't lost an FA Youth Cup game in
three seasons since Rafa started supplementing it with talented,
scouted players, and have just beaten a more experienced and lauded
Arsenal side. Quality is bubbling below the surface, and the first
team has a superb (and still relatively young) spine.
But confidence has been lost -- by, it seems, pretty much everyone at
the club: the players (in themselves, and possibly the board and the
manager); the manager (in the owners, and possibly himself), and the
fans (in just about everything connected with the club). Crucially, do
the players have confidence that the board has confidence in Rafa?
If it ends up that Benítez has to be sacked, it is because the
situation at Liverpool has become too messy to make it a stable
working environment -- for him at least. That wouldn't make
immediately replacing him the correct or decent thing to do, because
it's not necessarily his fault that the club is in apparent turmoil,
even if he did first make the tensions public.
Maybe someone else can come in and do a better job at this point in
time, and for a few months, but the problem is that Tom Hicks has
hinted with his actions over Jurgen Klinsmann that he's quick on the
draw with regard to replacing managers; if that is true, Liverpool
will be in danger of becoming like Newcastle (with their myriad farces
of the last decade, where they would chop and change from ruthless
disciplinarians to kindly men who "understand the club", all to equal
levels of mediocrity), unless the American duo have learned their
lesson. And have they? Who knows...
But I now see no easy solution to this quest for the holy grail.
Because, by next season, Liverpool will still have, at best, the 3rd-
most expensive and 3rd-most talented squad in the league, and, at
best, the 4th-most experienced manager in his current role. And with
the club approaching 20 years without the title, the manager, whoever
he is, will have the hardest job in the land.
And even if Tom Hicks was to marry Benítez and the pair adopt children
together, the media would stir and stir, so that I can't see Benítez
ever being secure enough in his job to make it work. He might well
still be the 20th-most secure manager in the Premier League.
None of this means I want him replaced (far from it), but right now I
see him, and the club itself, caught between a rock and a hard place.
It seems like a vicious circle.
All we can do now, as the manager undertakes his increasingly
impossible job, is to dream the impossible dream, whatever the fuck
that might be.
(c) Paul Tomkins 2008