Rafa Benitez gave a bizarre interview to the Times yesterday, and Liverpool fans should be worried that the pressure may be getting the better of their leader. When a manager spends time talking about the support he is getting from the management, threatening to quit, and talking about the legacy he wants to leave behind, he sounds less like a manager worried about this weekend’s game against Man City and more like a man who wants to put this whole mess behind him.
The Benitez model of management was always about thrusting your entire stack of chips into the middle of the table. With a modestly sized stadium and owners who are not oil sheiks or Russian kleptocrats, Liverpool could never afford highly-priced players from their operational income. Instead, they needed victories in major competitions if they were going to compete with Chelsea, Manu U and Real Madrid for players. Winning the Champions League, the FA Cup, and other major competitions allowed Liverpool to finance their appetite for big names. They pulled an inside straight in 2005 when they won the Champions League, which allowed them to participate in the tournament the next year even though they finished fifth in the EPL.
However, that run of good cards may be coming to an end. This summer Benitez spent £17 million on an injured Alberto Aquilani (which Benitez portrayed as some sort of bargain price because he was injured) and £18 million on the good but hardly outstanding Glen Johnson. With his soft center in the back line, limited options on the bench and a complete reliance for goals on Fernando Torres, who has had trouble staying fit this season, things look bleak for Liverpool.
Barring a miracle, Liverpool will not qualify for the knock out stages in the CL and are faced with a difficult path to get into the top four this season. If Liverpool loses the revenue stream that comes with European football, the entire operation will have a stink of death about it. Without reinforcements, the team is growing older and improved performances seem unlikely. Without success, reinforcements cannot be bought. This is the pain spiral that hits teams with limited resources that do not husband those resources wisely.
Benitez knows this, and his consternation over this reality leaked out in that Times interview. Without European football, the options are bad for Liverpool, and the job of managing Real Madrid seems to be Benitez’s escape hatch. When he threatens to resign if Liverpool sells Torres (which nobody seems to have proposed) or talks about how “I want to leave a winning legacy,” this is clearly a man thinking about his life after Anfield.
Moreover, if Liverpool finish where they seem to be headed this season, I have a feeling the Kop will be ready to accept a new manager too. Benitez high risk strategy in player purchasing always felt tenuous to even the most passionate supporter. The Benitez era has been two miraculous Gerrard-inspired Cup finals away from resulting in a barren trophy cabinet, and the fans may be ready to see a more relaible path to success.