By Sachin Nakrani
THE last thing Brendan Rodgers would want on the back of two disappointing results is to be confronted by a ghost of Liverpool’s glorious past, but that is what awaits him on Sunday. Standing to Rodgers’s left as he watches his team try to overcome Chelsea will be the man who many inside Anfield still adore, the man they once proclaimed as a figure bordering on deity. Rafael Benitez is coming back to where he truly belonged.
While it may not compare to that chilly afternoon in December 1992 when Kenny Dalglish returned to Anfield with Blackburn for the first time since resigning as Liverpool manager some 22 months before, the sight of Benitez patrolling the opposition technical area will no doubt be a strange, even uncomfortable sight for those in attendance. This, after all, is a man who in his six-year reign at Liverpool brought not only glory to the club but also a managerial swagger which, it could be argued, had not been seen in L4 since Dalglish left the first time around.
Brian Reade once wrote that Liverpool was a club where the supporters wanted to fall in love with the manager, a desire cultivated by Shankly and carried through the eras of Paisley, Fagan and Dalglish until a sizeable bump in the road was reached during Graeme Souness’s ill-fated reign in charge. Roy Evans followed, a man who drew affection from the fans but lacked the awe-inspiring personality of his predecessors, while his successor, Gerard Houllier, was a manager most found easier to respect than cherish. It was not until Benitez arrived in June 2004 that the love-in really began again and it says much about the mark the Spaniard left on the club that close to three years since he left, and having struggled to succeed elsewhere, many supporters would take him back in a heartbeat.
Not all mind you, for there is no doubt Benitez was and remains a divisive figure, a political animal who splits opinion as much as he does camps. He detested Tom Hicks yet sided with the Texan during Anfield’s civil war because he figured it would strengthen his position and lead, as it did, to the exit of Rick Parry as the chief executive, and left some fans in a frustrated rage due to his tactics, team selection and, during the last, bitter few months, his inability to stay out of the boardroom and focus solely on putting a team losing its way back on track. His departure in June 2010 was not mourned by everyone.
Yet even those Liverpool fans who were relieved, even delighted, to see Benitez go could not dispute that he was good for the club. His period in charge saw the European Cup and FA Cup return to the club and, with a tad more luck and decisiveness, a 19th league title would also have been secured in 2009. More than that, however, was his approach to being the club’s figurehead. Those who saw Shanks hold court on the steps of St George’s Hall may spit in outrage at the comparison but there was something of Glenbuck’s finest in the man from Madrid, a strutting confidence and naked pursuit of all-out glory that cannot help but fire a supporter’s spirit and imagination. Like Shanks, Benitez also believed that being manager of Liverpool meant defending the club and the people who supported it and that is why as much as he is loved at Liverpool, he is disliked intensely almost everywhere else, including Chelsea. Sunday could see the truly bizarre sight of a manager being lauded by the opposition fans while simultaneously jeered by his own.
According to LFCHistory.net, Benitez’s record stands up well compared to that of other Liverpool managers. In 350 games in charge, he had a win percentage of 56.29%, higher than Shankly (51.98%), Fagan (54.20%), Evans (51.77%) and Houllier (52.12%), although behind Paisley (57.57%) and Dalglish (58.53%). He, of course, falls behind most of those men in terms of trophies won and in comparison to other Premier League-era managers, also maintains less-than-impressive figures. In 228 top-flight at Anfield, Benitez had a win percentage of 55.3%, lower (as of Monday) than Arsene Wenger (57.6% in 632 games). Roberto Mancini (61.7% in 128 games), Carlo Ancelotti (63.2% in 76 games), Alex Ferguson (65.4% in 804 games) and Jose Mourinho (70.8% in 120 games).
Statistics alone do not tell the whole story and in regards to his record in the Premier League, Benitez can point to a significant discrepancy in budgets between himself and his rivals. The charge often thrown back at the 52-year-old is that he had plenty of money to spend during his time at Liverpool but, on the whole, did so unwisely. That, in my opinion, is a false claim because while there is no doubt Benitez purchased a lot of players, the vast majority of his signings where at the low-end of the market, ie replacing one average full-back with another. This was done to beef up the squad but when it came to the first-team, Benitez showed a level of shrewdness that contradicts the general view of him being a man with no eye for talent.
Take the 2008-09 team for instance, which I regard to be among the best in Liverpool’s history. Of the 11 players who can be considered to have been Benitez’s first-choices (Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Aurelio; Alonso, Mascherano; Riera, Gerrard, Kuyt; Torres), nine were signed by Benitez and all bar Riera can be deemed to have been successes (yes, Auerlio was injured for most of his time at the club, but he cost nothing and scored at Old Trafford). Four of them (Arbeloa, Alonso, Mascherano and Torres) also made a profit for the club, while Yossi Benayoun, another Benitez signing, became a crucial figure during that campaign and joined Chelsea for pretty much the same amount Liverpool signed him for in 2007.
That team, a near-perfect blend of tactical-awareness, solidity, craft and ruthlessness, amassed 86 points that season, which would have been enough to have won the title in two of the three proceeding campaigns. It should also be remembered that it was Benitez who instigated the wide-scale reform of the academy which is benefiting the first-team of today and is likely to do so for years to come.
That’s not to say Benitez was faultless during his time in charge. I remember being at Fratton Park for Liverpool’s 3-2 victory over Portsmouth in February 2009, the first match played after Robbie Keane had been sold back to Tottenham (that, in fairness, was a huge transfer error). The visitors started with David Ngog and Ryan Babel upfront that evening with neither posing much of a threat to the home team’s defence. Babel was close to useless and even managed to miss a sitter in the second-half.
It took Torres, than at the peak of his powers, coming off the bench and scoring with a late header for Liverpool to beat a side fighting relegation and it became apparent then that this squad was woefully imbalanced in attack, a strange mix of the great, the raw and the rubbish. That imbalance became even more glaring the following season and while Benitez can point to Hicks and Gillett for his decreasing lack of first-team quality, he must take a large share of responsibility for the gaping lack of decent reserves that were at his disposal.
Benitez’s man-management skills also left a lot to be desired, as Alonso, Benayoun and Gerrard could all testify to, and in the case of Alonso who knows what a warmer touch from the manager could have resulted in during the summer of 2009. The midfield maestro, so stung by the club’s pursuit of Gareth Barry and Benitez’s cold response to his decision to miss the Champions League tie away at Internazionale in 2008 so he could be at the birth of his first child, may well have been persuaded to stay and not join Real Madrid, a move which hastened the demise of an excellent side.
But for all his faults Benitez remains an esteemed figure of Liverpool’s recent past and, as Mike Nevin wrote in his excellent Rafa piece for this site, a manager who is Shanklyesque to a young generation of Kopites. It was because of Benitez that I experienced some of the greatest moments of my life; even now, if I close my eyes and concentrate hard enough, I can recreate in my bones and brain the way in which the Kop shook under my feet on the night Luis Garcia’s ‘ghost goal’ sent Liverpool to Istanbul. The sensation will stay with me forever.
Saying that, I am not one of those fans who wants Benitez back – his time has come and gone and now it is for Rodgers to create his own era of Anfield glory. But ahead of Sunday, the mind cannot help but wander back to the “Rafalution”, a period of the past when the sun seemed to shine that little bit brighter.