Sunday, 16 January 2011

Rafa's return? Why Christmas dreams highlight the importance of getting the right man

I can’t avoid talking about it anymore.

Having buried my head in the snow for a few days, it appears that Rafa Benitez’s exit from Inter Milan has only just been confirmed and as such, the inevitable speculation has peaked at a time when I had hoped it would have disappeared into the realms of Christmas fiction.

The fact that a manager sacked at the end of last season is being affectionately requested only halfway through this one says a lot about the current manager. Although absence certainly makes the heart grow fonder, a mediocre successor has had a far greater effect.

While Hodgson continues to convince people that he is not the man to implement NESV’s vision in the long-term, the sudden availability of Benitez has only acted to make Hodgson’s position even more uncomfortable.

The calls for Rafa’s return are very much symbolic of the ‘anyone but Roy’ attitude that is growing amongst supporters. However, Benitez’s suitability to retake the role should be considered in isolation. The question is whether Benitez would be the right man to take Liverpool forward under NESV, not whether he would do a better job than Hodgson.

Despite a tarnishing of his managerial reputation in the past 18 months, Rafa Benitez continues to boast a strong CV. At Valencia, Benitez won the Spanish Championship as the underdog. At Liverpool, he won the Champions League in his first season, once more as the underdog. With success both domestically and in European competition, it is ridiculous to suggest that Benitez is a manager who does not know what he is doing.

Benitez’s continued popularity in Liverpool is also a substantial feather in the Spaniard’s cap. ‘Rafa’ the man was far more popular than ‘Benitez’ the manager in the final year of his time at the club. Whereas a less popular manager would have been deemed incapable for his record in the final season, the fans warmth towards Benitez meant that they were always willing him to succeed. It is this continued warmth that has allowed Benitez’s reputation to remain intact. The blame for a mediocre final season has been firmly placed with the former owners and as a result, the belief that Benitez could be successful in the stable environment provided by NESV will remain strong.

Benitez also possesses a key card in terms of the current playing squad. Whether playing internationally or at club level, Fernando Torres’ best form has come under the stewardship of Benitez for Liverpool. With Torres struggling to replicate his best on a regular basis under Hodgson, a Benitez return could potentially increase the chances of keeping Torres in a Liverpool shirt after this season.

However, there are considerable obstacles that stand in the way of a successful return.

Firstly, it would be wrong to assume that the support for Benitez is universal. Although he remains popular, there is a 50-50 split in regard to the fans’ attitude to his potential return. A failure to produce instant success would result in a clear split in the support and this goes against the united attitude that NESV are seeking to create.

If negative relations with the fans could be problematic, the reaction to Benitez in the press would be far more significant. Benitez received a substantial amount of criticism during his tenure and the good will afforded to Hodgson in the British media would not extend itself to Benitez. Indeed, if Benitez were to replace Hodgson – one of the darlings of the British media – then a backlash could be expected at the first opportunity. While NESV continue to stress the long-term nature of Liverpool’s recovery, the appointment of a manager to whom a period of development would not be allowed doesn’t make sense. As such, now may not be the time for a Benitez return.

We should not overlook Benitez’s failings on the pitch either. In his final season at the club, Liverpool were a poor side. For every bit that Benitez’s team progressed over the preceding years, it is impossible to overlook the fact that a side that finished second in the league was considerably damaged in the months that followed. Although the ownership saga made working conditions at the club very difficult, flaws in player-relations and tactics were clear.

Benitez was always perceived as cautious. The use of two holding midfielders was almost universally criticised, not to mention the disillusionment with his rotational system. Benitez’s style is not to be dismissed as a failure, it clearly isn’t. However, whether it is what Liverpool fans truly want at this time is another matter. Many of the supporters who criticised Benitez last season are now those who see him as the saviour. Hodgson isn’t right for Liverpool but is Benitez?

His judgement of players must also be questioned. Benitez’s transfer record has already come under scrutiny, but the treatment of Xabi Alonso highlights Benitez’s failure to manage his players on a personal level. The touting of a replacement for a player who remained under contract was unprofessional in the extreme. In hindsight, the fact that Rafa wanted to replace the exceptional Xabi Alonso with the lumbering Gareth Barry is every bit as worrying. This may have been a one off mistake but it is one that many are overlooking as they clamour for a return.

While it appears that Rafa Benitez isn’t suitable for Liverpool at this moment in time, it is also fair to say that the job isn’t suited to Benitez at this moment in time.

Since Benitez left Liverpool, the structure of the club has changed. The arrival of Comolli to oversee Liverpool’s transfer dealings is something that Benitez would not be a fan of. Benitez likes to work alone in the transfer market and any deliberation is done with his closest staff. The advice of a middle man, however well intended, is something that Benitez could not work with.

We have already seen how Benitez reacts to working conditions that he does not approve of. His willingness to enter club politics at Valencia, Liverpool and Inter Milan is admirable but in reality, ill-judged. NESV need a manager to embrace their vision, not one who could oppose their ideas in the public sphere.

Rafa Benitez is an excellent football manager and one who will do a great job at a club in the not too distant future. However, he is not the answer to Liverpool’s problems, the crucial point being that the two parties are not compatible at this moment in time.

In truth, Benitez needs to take a break. Although his absence from the game need not be prolonged, he appears to be a man in need of a few months away from the rigours of football management. A complete overhaul of his managerial technique is not needed but if Benitez can make minor adjustments to his approach whilst waiting for a suitable job to become available, he will return to the game a better manager.

We should not rule out the return of Rafa Benitez to Liverpool in the future. At a later stage in NESV’s plan, Benitez’s style could be compatible with the club’s needs. This is football, we can’t rule anything out. However, the clamour for his immediate return is being hugely overplayed due to the current manager’s failings.

In reality, the Benitez to Liverpool rumour is likely to be a non-event. However, due to the desperation of many fans to replace Hodgson and the continued admiration of the previous manager, the story has received surprising levels of support.

Although Benitez is not the right man for the job in the short-term, Hodgson isn’t the man for the long-term. When the time comes for NESV to choose a new manager, whenever that may be, it is important that they choose the correct manager. If Benitez is still unemployed, Henry and Werner shouldn’t allow sentiment to cloud their decision.

Despite the club’s current position, the Liverpool manager’s job is one that can attract top names who can bring a fresh approach to the club. The chance to take Liverpool to where the club wants to be is an attractive proposition to any manager. When the time comes for a decision to be made, NESV must get it right.

Whilst this rumour has been fun for the media, increasingly exciting for the fans and a clear irritant to Hodgson, the truth is that the rumour has grown because Benitez is a popular man.

Liverpool fans must keep the club’s interests closest to their hearts. They need not worry about Rafa Benitez. Deep down, we all know that he will be just fine.

George Dugdale – You can find George on Twitter here.

Do you believe that the rumours of a Rafa Benitez return are anything more than that? Would his availability have been mentioned within the club? Do you actually think that Rafa could be the man to replace Hodgson? Let us know your feelings in the comments section below.

I would like to take this opportunity, on behalf of all at Micro LFC, to wish each of our readers a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

No comments: