After Liverpool’s unconvincing draw at Fratton Park with a less than full-strength squad, people are once again, as it seems now a yearly rite, piling on Rafa Benitez’s rotation policy for Liverpool. For instance, this article by Norman Hubbard on Soccernet.
You can say that the reason it keeps coming up is that it’s still what is holding Liverpool back, but I have to disagree. What held us back in the past was a combination of a lack of attacking talent and a lack of attacking will against poor teams. We have, I think, solved both of those problems at least to some extent, and so the tides at Anfield are turning.
Yes, Liverpool’s three best players, Torres, Gerrard and Mascherano were all left out of the starting XI on Saturday, and that very well may be what cost us the three points. Liverpool on the road against a good team without those three are not going to dominate; there’s no way around that.
There seems to be a belief, however, that this is something Rafa regularly does. This is simply not true. The players he rotates are the Kuyts, the Pennants, the Benayouns, the Arbeloas. Stevie G played 35 Premiership matches last year, and two of the ones he missed were at the end of the year when there was nothing to play for. The only other great players LFC had for all of last year, Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina, played 34 and 35 league games, respectively.
As you can see, Rafa doesn’t usually leave his match-winners out of the team. He rotates the players that can be replaced easily and will therefore benefit at the end of the year by being much fresher. For instance, by rotating Pennant, Benayoun,
Babel and sometimes Riise on the wing, he saves them for the last part of the season without losing much on the pitch. When you have four players like that who are so closely bunched in talent, it makes sense to rotate them to give them rest.
What happened on Saturday was an aberration brought about by very unfavorable circumstances. The Portsmouth game was sandwiched around the international break and LFC’s most important CL group stage game, away to Porto. Gerrard played 70 minutes on Saturday against Israel and then the full 90 on Wednesday against Russia. Torres played an hour on Saturday and then 90 on Wednesday. Mascherano had just flown back all the way from Australia.
Rafa has already stated, I think justifiably, that he wants to qualify for the round of 16 in the CL as quickly as possible so he can focus on the PL. So he needs at least Gerrard, and probably Torres and Monster Masch to play on Tuesday. And anyway, could you imagine Stevie-G being left out of any big European game?
Would you have Gerrard play four games in a little over a week, on a broken toe? And even though Torres and Mascherano are young, they still need some rest.
Now, if I was in Rafa’s position, I would have started Torres on Saturday, to hopefully provide that spark we were missing, and left him out of the team against Porto, but what Rafa did was perfectly reasonable. Porto are at least as good a side as Portsmouth, and in the scheme of things, the Porto game is more important. By putting our best side on the pitch against them, it’s a signal of intent to win the group (which is not extremely important but is helpful). More critically, it’s a calculated risk that we won’t have to play our best players in the last game or two of the group stage, thereby helping in what’s really important, the Premiership.
And in the end, we got a point at one of the toughest places to play in the PL. I still think of it more as two points lost rather than one gained, but it was a sacrifice worth making for the long term health of the team.