From King of Liverpool to the laughing stock of England – Rafael Benitez has fallen from his high perch and now the sheer disappointment (not hatred, this is not Manchester United after all) of fans and pundits alike means that Rafa is under more pressure performances-wise than at any other time of his managerial career at Anfield.
This isn’t a cliched ‘back to the walls’ moment for Liverpool. This is not a moment where Steven Gerrard or Fernando Torres can rescue them with a moment of brilliance or a cleverly-disguised dive. This is the result of a series of mistakes made by the management of which Rafa was a central part, and while you can dress it up with a free signing (Maxi Rodriguez) or a run of results that sees Liverpool win the Europa League and qualify for the Champions League, the real fix for Liverpool can only be achieved by a long-term change in how Rafa does his thing.
After the defeat to Reading, there’s no one in Rafa’s corner at the moment, and that’s unfortunate because he’s a very good manager and given time, has the ability to turn things around at Liverpool. Whether he will be given that time or not depends a lot on the replacements (Mourinho to Liverpool rumours will intensify over the next few months) available to the owners.
Since what happens to Rafa is up in the air and very much depends on what he does in the next five months, let’s look at how Rafa can make lemonade out of the lemon of a season he’s had so far,
Spend out of your pockets
The first thing Liverpool need – and badly – is to invest in the squad right now. Unlike United who are still 2nd in the table and can afford to wait for the summer without dropping out of the Champions League places, Liverpool need fresh blood and fast.
Where’s the money going to come from? Since clubs usually account for salaries and bonuses at the start of the season, I’m fairly certain that there several million quid knocking around that can siphoned off team bonuses and the salaries of the top earners at Liverpool (starting with Rafa himself).
Think about it – Rafa and the players – all who profess to love the club so much – can finally put their money where their mouths are, dip into their pockets and loan the club money to buy a player (on current form they need a defender as much as they need a striker). It’s drastic, but if it sounds strange to you then that’s an indication of how divorced players, managers and even fans have become from their football clubs.
The second thing Rafa needs is to hold on to Babel. I know that Babel has been disappointing / stifled (depending on your preference) and selling him brings in much-needed funds, but unless Rafa has hidden gems in the youth squad or can rely on Gerrard / Torres to stay fit for the rest of the season (they’ve got niggles now and are likely to pick up another injury before May 2010), selling a creative player makes little sense.
Instead, give Babel the freedom that he needs, the central position that he thrives in and let the team adjust to his style of play as well. Burnt bridges can always be rebuilt, and something tells me that Maxi alone cannot give Liverpool the creative edge they need. Babel may not be Liverpool material then again neither is N’Gonetoground, and Kuyt is at best a squad player who has adapted to the system.
Maybe it’s time for Rafa to let go and adapt the tactics to the players at his disposal? Babel is likely to fetch more money in the summer in any case.
Last but not least, Liverpool need to tweak their tactics as much as they need to perform better as a team. Injuries, loss of confidence and a general malaise has overwhelmed the team but injuries need not be an excuse – if anything, Rafa can look at his counterpart at Old Trafford for inspiration on how to handle a colossal injury crisis.
This is not Liverpool of last year – this isn’t a team that Rafa can mould to his will. They are bent and broken, and they need to find their own way to victory. Steven Gerrard doesn’t want to be there. Fernando Torres is probably reconsidering his future. Carragher can’t understand what’s happening either. Reina has stopped talking to the press (this is a guy who, every year, claims that Liverpool can win the title right around December). The senior players in the team are hurting, and Rafa needs to get them to fight again.
Liverpool play Stoke next, and then Tottenham. If Rafa can adapt Liverpool’s style of play to the players available to him (starting with playing with two genuine wide man and two front men), it could be the catalyst for a surge that takes Liverpool over the finish line with some self-respect intact.
Teams often enjoy a surge in performances when the manager is changed. This is as much due to the change of personnel as it is due to a change of methodology. In the short term, change can rescue a season from being completely derailed (ask Chelsea – replacing Scolari with Hiddink ensured that the team didn’t slide down to fourth or worse).
Rafa needs to change things, or risk being changed himself.
Rafa’s Last Stand?
It’s easy to criticise a club when they’re playing poorly – in fact it’s easy to criticise some teams even when they’re doing well above expectations – but what Liverpool fans need now is a sense of perspective. Yes, things are bad, but they’ve been worse in the past, and they will be better in the future.
Manchester United may beat Liverpool to the 19th league title, but this season, Liverpool have to fight their own sense of despair and turn their mediocrity into a final stand. Rafa has to take what he does best – winning crunch games – and imbue that mentality into players for the rest of the season. If it means giving up some control and swallowing his pride, it would be a small price to pay.