At the end of the 2003-4 season Liverpool had finished 4th in the Premier League and had not won a trophy. It was to be Gerard Houllier’s last year in charge and Liverpool began the search for a new manager. At the end of the 2003-4 season Valencia had finished 1st in La Liga and won the UEFA cup. Much like the Portuguese winner of the Champions League that year, Valencia’s manager was in held in high regard and both were about to make a move to England.
Liverpool are considered an historic team in English football having dominated at different periods between 1970 and 1980. When Rafael Benitez was chosen to succeed Gerard Houllier it was considered a smart move by both parties; Liverpool had signed a master tactician who had proven success in Europe. Benitez had left behind the politics and looming spectre of debt hanging over Valencia, it is now six years hence and much like Mourinho before him Rafael Benitez has left his club by “Mutual consent”. Unlike Mourinho though Benitez will not be held in universal regard, Mourinho’s time at Chelsea was a success, could the Rafa era also be considered one?
(Firstly, I must say that I am not comparing Mourinho’s time in England to Rafa’s, there is a parallel between both their appointment and departure but the similarities cease there.)
To determine how successful Benitez was we would have to clarify what success means for a manager. First and foremost success can be measured in Trophies, with teams at the elite level Trophies are to be expected and in this regard Benitez is only modestly successful. The stand out moment on his tenure was the Champions League win in 2005. Many words have been written about the night in Istanbul and I will only add to say that regardless of the years since no-one can deny that to inspire a team at half-time with the game seemingly finished was and is Benitez’ greatest success. An FA cup and UEFA super-cup were to follow but for his 6 years only the Champions League was a major trophy in Liverpool’s cabinet.
Trophies cannot be the only hallmark of a manager if they were to be Arsene Wenger would be out of a job, another measure of success for any manager is to leave the team in a better shape than when you took over. It is here that Rafa Benitez has been most successful. The turnover of players was high with many not suited to his style of management and yes there were some horrific signings (chiefly Morientes) but Rafa was not alone in this regard, Jose Mourinho signed Mateja Kezman and Shaun Wright-Phillips in the same time period and neither could be considered a success. If you were to look at the squad Rafa inherited and compare it with that he leaves there is a stark contrast.
In the summer that Rafa Benitez took over Liverpool’s talisman, Michael Owen, was leaving for Real Madrid. The squad itself was left with only one world class player in the form of their captain. As Rafa Benitez leaves Liverpool he leaves behind at least 4 world class players, a Goalkeeper who I consider to be one of the top 5, a destructive midfielder who was misused at West Ham and the world’s best and most prolific striker. All of whom joined under Rafa Benitez, the next manager to take over at Liverpool has a much more solid basis for success than Rafa himself had.
It is his greatest failing though that due to some circumstances beyond his control and some solely of his own making Benitez was never able to form a Premier League winning team. After finishing second in 2008-9 pundits felt that Liverpool could go on to win the Premier League. In reality it was wishful thinking, in the summer just passed Liverpool merely replaced the first team players that were transferred out. In doing so Liverpool were unable to take any forward steps much like the transfer window’s before. Benitez was always forced to supplement any signing’s by letting other players go. A winning squad cannot be built in this fashion it needs improve on the first team whilst retaining players for flexibility should any injuries occur. It was the lack of this flexibility that saw Liverpool fall so far this season without a direct replacement for Xabi Alonso ready for the beginning of the season many of their games got bogged down in Midfield as a direct option such as Alonso was missing. Fernando Torres was injured on international duty (again) and with no viable alternative due to the enforced transfer policy Liverpool suffered dramatically. Liverpool fans were disappointed to see Peter Crouch, Craig Bellamy, John Arne Riise and Sami Hyypia all have more successful seasons.
Under normal circumstances Rafa Benitez would only be considered a moderately successful manager with a terrible season a perfectly valid reason to appoint a new manager. However over the last 3 years the highly leveraged American buy-out has removed the cashflow necessary to continually compete at the highest level and maintain a strong squad. The embarrassment to be asked whether Liverpool could fulfil their fixtures for the upcoming season is a damning indictment of the ownership. In the end Rafa Benitez leaves the Liverpool team in a much better position but the Liverpool club in a much more dire one, none of which can be blamed on him. It is interesting to note that Rafa Benitez leaves another club due to board room politics and the grim spectre of debt, if he is appointed Internazionale manager he will probably pray that Massimo Morratti does not give way to a foreign investor, he’s dealt with too many before.