There has been endless criticism for the way Liverpool has been performing in the current edition of the EPL. Most of the blame, understandably, has had to be borne by Benitez. A vast section of Liverpool supporters and critics alike are crying for his head fairly early in his tenure. That, of course, is unlikely to happen – Liverpool are not renowned for sacking managers.
Benitez has done no little to attract criticism. He is stubborn in his ways, his team composition baffles the best of predictors. He is also under the microscope for his signings – most of which have been players previously unknown to the EPL. Liverpool fans themselves cannot understand their manager at times. He appears to be over-protective of his players, stubborn with his team selections and has been fielding a very defensive outfit for most of the games this season. I thought I might take some time off and take a pot-shot at what our manager is attempting to do. I might not be very accurate, but I’ll just make my best guess.
It is long known Rafa loves to field a 4-2-3-1 formation. He used the formation to great success when he was at Valencia and has looked to emulate the same here at Anfield. His experiment up front, with Gerrard and Torres was a runaway success with the Liverpool captain enjoying his free role just behind the striker. So far so good. A glance at Rafa’s signings over the past years point to a build-up stage, where Rafa is gathering up the resources he needs in order to glue together a competitive unit. And all of the signings he has made have been keeping in mind the formation that he wishes to field. His stubbornness in this respect has, a lot of times, led to his downfall.
One might remember, Momo Sissoko as one of Rafa’s early signings and Mascherano and Lucas in subsequent years. The reason for this interest in holding midfield players is again the ‘Rafa formation’.
The 4-2-3-1 formation requires support for the striker up front, which is to be provided by the 3 players right behind him. One might notice, the formation has no true ‘winger’. They are simply wide players who more often than not have to cut infield to support the striker than drift out wide. As a result, the width has to be provided by the fullbacks who need to push up at every opportunity and deliver the required crosses into the box. One begins to see the need for the holding midfielder in order for this strategy to succeed. The holding midfielder is crucial in order to allow the fullbacks the liberty to push upfield. Momo Sissoko was brought in for the very reason and he was indeed a moderate success. Mascherano, of course, has emerged as one of the leading holding midfielders of the game.
One would also realize that the second midfielder in the practically 2-man midfield would have to be a playmaker, some one who has the ability to spread the ball and spearhead attacks when Liverpool have the ball. Rafa made an unknowing tremendous signing when he signed Xabi Alonso from Juventus. It may be remembered, those were the days when Luis Garcia was performing well in the ‘hole’. Gerrard, at the time, was the playmaker. Alonso was intended to be a backup from the moment he arrived, thereby increasing LFC’s bench strength (Rafa has been aware of Liverpool’s weakness on the bench). It explains the minimal matches that he was played for.
Things, of course, fell apart when Rafa ran out of players to play in the ‘hole’ courtesy want-away players. Gerrard had to be shifted up the pitch and Alonso made the playmaker’s spot his own. One might remember, Alonso did not perform too well in his first year there – 2005. Rafa’s concern for the same increased and he tried to sign Gareth Barry to take his place (There was also the case of EPL’s oncoming stringencies in terms of Foreign players). It is natural for a manager to talk to a player whom he is about to sell (which caused the alienation of Alonso). As luck would have it, the Barry deal fell through, and Alonso emerged as one of the stars of the following season. To make things worse, Alonso wanted to shift clubs the very next season. The result? Aquilani had to be brought in as a last-minute replacement. The confusion that the Alonso saga stirred up also blurred Rafa’s hopes of signing his remaining transfer target. Readers would do well to remember Rafa saying at the end of the Transfer market, “We were hoping to bring in one more player.” That player, I assure you, would have been a striker.
2004 saw possibly Rafa’s greatest signing, El Nino. From the day he arrived, Fernando was everything Rafa could have asked for. He could play up front alone and relished the support he was getting from Steven Gerrard. Rafa must have realized, that season, that things were beginning to fall into place for him he very nearly had all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. The subsequent season saw Liverpool accumulate its highest point tally and in all books, was really unfortunate to have missed out on the crown. Peter Crouch, as a result, had no place in the playing eleven. If one plays close attention to his performances for Tottenham, he plays more as a support striker to Defoe. He is made twice as deadly because of the potency of his striking partner. On his own, Crouch would account for little or nothing. Most definitely, he was not someone who could step into Nando’s boots. Rafa might have liked to have him on the bench though, for the threat in the air that he provides. But the thin stream of games that he was part of unsettled Crouch and he made his intent clear that he wanted a move away. Not every team in the world can pay amounts of the kind Chelsea and Barca do to keep players on the bench. In the end, Rafa had no option but to let him go.
2005 saw Rafa make two signings – Ryan Babel and Yossi Benayoun. By this time, Kuyt had settled in well on the right and he consistently did what Rafa wanted – to cut in and support the striker. Ryan Babel was signed to do precisely that on the other side of the pitch. He was a player not renowned for the width he provided but rather doubled up as a striker at times – It was exactly what Rafa wanted. Yossi was brought in because of his versitality, to play in any of the 3 positions behind the striker. Yossi, again, was brought in to be a backup – which again explains his lack of games at the beginning of his Liverpool career. Again, luck went against Rafa, and Babel failed miserably. He remained a mere shadow of his former self at Ajax. Yossi too, at the beginning, was unimpressive when played in Babel’s place. An emergency replacement had to be made – Albert Riera. Riera, one should notice, is a two-footed player, capable of going out wide as well as cutting back in. Rafa realized that Babel was taking time to settle into England and hence moved for a player who had previous experience in the country. Rafa hence went for Riera, rather than a conventional winger. The gamble paid off, and Riera, thankfully, was able to justify his place and perform satisfactorily.
Then there was the Robbie Keane disaster. His signing baffled me as it did many others. Keane fitted nowhere in Rafa’s formation. The best bet is that Rafa wanted a backup for Torres as he was showing signs of injury towards the latter half of the season. Unfortunately, Keane seemed to have left his finishing boots back home on most occasions and was left wanting when he was played as the lone striker. The lone striker needs strength to hold up play while support arrives – Nando is prime example, while Keane relies more on nifty touches. Rafa quickly realized his mistake and sold Keane off before things went awry. A less highlighted transfer was made in the subsequent window – David Ngog for 1.5 million. The youngster is in El Nino’s mould. He possesses strength, pace as well as an awareness of the goal. He has showed glimpses of his ability to hold up play and his finishing touches in the past few games – something that would have pleased Rafa greatly. Ngog, despite everything, is the future Torres for Liverpool.
Contrary to popular belief, Rafa is an attacking manager. A look at his full-back signings tells us the story. First up was Fabio Aurelio, available on a free transfer. A Brazilian full back who could double up as a winger but prone to injuries. Rafa took a gamble and signed him – he had the EPL’s best medical and training squad at his disposal. In his defence, Aurelio has looked exciting when fit. Unfortunately, he has been too prone to injuries and has spent more time on the injury table than on the pitch. Over the years, the left back has been accused of ‘leaving gaping holes at the back’. But that was part of the plan. The first sign of Rafa giving up on Aurelio was when he signed Andrea Dossena – Italy’s first-choice attacking left back. Who could blame Rafa for signing him? But he turned out to be another disaster. Riise was too unpredictable to be persisted with. He did have a capable long range shot but his runs were far from threatening. Thankfully, Insua has come through the ranks to cement his place. Rafa is obsessed with the youngster for his ability to push up the field without the blunders of Dossena and injuries of Aurelio. He might not be the greatest when it comes to defence, but that is why Rafa has holding midfielders in the team.
On the other side of defence, Rafa made another gamble – Philip Degen, who has made only a handful of starts for the club. He is seemingly forever on the table. In the meantime Rafa had Arbeloa, who gave solid performances at the back. But again, he failed to impress while coming forward. As a result, Liverpools right hand side were found wanting with Arbeloa and Kuyt. 2009, Rafa dished out a huge amount for what whom he wanted in the right back position. Glen Johnson, has proved to be a dream come true for Rafa. If Alonso had not left, Rafa would have moved for Glen and a striker/ Attacking midfielder for the position that Babel was supposed to enjoy. I would not be too surprised if he decided to spill the cash on a single transfer. But Liverpool left back problems haven’t ceased and he will be forced to make room for a fullback in his transfer kitty soon.
It is no secret that Liverpool’s transfer funds have never been enough to make tongues drool. Manchester United’s 4 man midfield had more value, at one point, than Liverpool’s entire playing eleven. Rafa hence has been forced to take gambles and move for less known players. Players in the EPL are way more expensive than similar styled players elsewhere. If Torres were playing in the EPL for, lets say, Wigan, Rafa would have had to pay up at least twice the amount. Glen Johnson was a classic example. “17m for a fullback?!” pundits cried around the world. But that was the amount Rafa had to fish up in order to not take gambles. The ‘minor changes’ that he had foretold at the beginning of the season have to come in for big money.
Coming back to this season, Rafa has been overprotective of his players in spite of there being an injury crisis. Rafa has been forced to play Ngog up front as lone striker much earlier than he would have liked, for the lack of options. Honestly, he hasn’t disappointed too much. Rafa, I believe, wants to keep things tight before he can field his best playing eleven. Aquilani is being kept on the bench as he is known to be injury prone (We all know what happened with Aurelio each time when he was brought back early from injury). Also, Rafa knows Johnson and Insua could be faced with problems at the back. As a result, he is playing two holding midfielders in the form of Lucas and Mascherano in each game. His case may even be justified with Liverpool’s poor defensive record this season. His protective approach has backfired this season, and Liverpool have found themselves wanting nearly all over the pitch. Here, I believe, lies Rafa’s greatest weakness – his inability to react quickly to developing situations. He is stubborn in his approach and wants to persist what he believes is the right way to go. It is a mindset that has settled in over the years of his coaching career and something that he must look to change.
As the January transfer window approaches, Rafa would be under pressure for results. But I still feel he will move for a player who can fit in the role that Babel was supposed to make his own. Whom he will sign is a mystery known only to Rafa himself. The left back role would still be shuffled between Dossena, Aurelio and Insua for the rest of the season.
Rafa’s dream formation:
Benayoun, Lucas, Skrtel, Insua, Ngog, (Babel/New), Cavelieri
My guess is that he will wait for the Summer transfer window to sign a backup for Torres and a left back.
PS: The entire article is based on guesses and is open to debate. I have just put forth views that I have come to see after watching Rafa over the past 3 years.