Managers live and die by the players they buy. That has a nice ring to it but is ominously true in the high powered money stakes of the Premiership these days. For the teams in contention or capable of being in contention there is little margin for error.
If you are delivering silverware you can get away with some mistakes and hence Ferguson and Wenger, although generally both with excellent records in the buying department, have been forgiven the occasional dud over the years.
Mourinho found himself with so much money that he could hardly fail, and again he delivered enough silverware to paper over the odd crack.
But not everyone escapes the pressures. It’s where the expectations are greatest and the challenge to get on the pace equally so, that the noose dangles most menacingly. All of which leads us to Anfield.
With a couple of generations of fans who ‘were there’ in the glory days of the late 70’s and 80’s still around, the desire for success burns feverishly on Merseyside. Silverware in the various cup campaigns in recent years has calmed the masses to some extent but the Holy Grail that is the Premiership is what the fans crave, not having won the League for over 17 years. The stinging salt in the wound is Man Utd’s 9 titles over that period and only raises the stakes for whoever is in charge at Liverpool.
For a number of years Liverpool just weren’t at the races financially in competing with United, Arsenal and (later) Chelsea. There was a period in the latter part of the Houllier days where they were hanging on by a thread in terms of staying competitive at the sharp end of the Premiership. The Houllier era dragged on too long, again bolstered by the arrival of some Cups, but the gulf to the Premiership’s top two grew ever wider.
For my money, and I think many Liverpool fans agree in hindsight, it took way to long to get rid of Houllier. It was not as if he didn’t have funds available to spend. Maybe not on the same level as his main rivals but good money nevertheless. In reality Houllier made a whole series of disastrous buys and it would make you wince to revisit some of these even now (Xavier, Baros, Diouf, Heggem, Biscan, Cheyrou, Vignal and that’s only a sample!).
Ultimately Houllier proved a disaster in the transfer market and failed to get even close to seriously competing for the Premiership. So goodbyes were given in exchange for bad buys as the axe finally fell and so entered Rafa Benitez with an excellent track record in management.
With the arrival of American investment the stakes have been raised and the money available increased. Good news for Benitez but a twin edged sword that’s razor sharp. Rafa has limited time to deliver or he’s out the door. The fans expectations at the start of this season knew no bounds; this was to be their year. They were happy with the transfer activity and believed they had the squad. Too emotional to be objective, let’s step back and look at Rafa’s transfer record over the last two seasons.
At the end of the ’05/’06 season the mantra coming out of Anfield (following a defensively solid season) was ‘get us a couple of quality attacking players and the Premiership is ours’! Benitez duly tried to oblige.
In came: Pennant, Bellamy, Gonzalez and Kuyt, Paletta, Aurelio, Mascherano.
An obvious indictment of his judgment is the fact that 1 year on Bellamy, Gonzalez and Paletta have already departed. There was also the here I come there I go comedy cameo from Fowler (we have to assume that Rafa was forced to bow to nostalgic pressure on that one.)
For most people’s money he was asking for trouble in the cases of Bellamy, Pennant and Fowler. All around long enough to have firmly established their (bad) reputations and level of quality, all three were bad moves in my opinion. Although Pennant remains, he is inconsistent and most Liverpool fans do not believe he is the required quality to help deliver what they want. Of the other buys last year, Aurelio is average and Kuyt decent but never going to be great. Mascherano is a good player who may have more to offer. Overall you couldn’t give Rafa more than 2 or 3 out of 10 for his transfer performance last year.
But then the big money arrived and the optimism soared.
Torres: Outstanding but has served to highlight the mediocrity of the other strike options.
Voronin: Part of that mediocrity. Brings nothing extra to the party.
Babel: High potential but hasn’t delivered yet. Compare him to Nani’s impact at Old Trafford.
Benayoun: Good player but with Gerrard, Alonso, Mascherano and Sissoko, central midfield was not a priority. Does he really add an extra dimension to the team?
Lucas and Leto: No impression yet but don’t look like world beaters.
Itandje: Cover keeper. No impression yet.
So having spent big, the initial results are disappointing. If Babel starts to fire and at least one of the other buys can make some difference, Rafa may get a mark of 5 or 6 for this year but right now he only scores 3 or 4. Not good enough I’m afraid if you’re the one signing the cheques. Equally the unrest among the faithful has started.
The loyalty will remain for a while but if Liverpool are out of the Premiership race by January, and I believe that they will be, then expect the pressure to grow on Benitez. Departure from the Champions League at the group stage would also be a disaster and now looks more likely than not.
Its either Good Buy or Goodbye and right now for Rafa the pendulum is swinging towards the latter. Don’t be surprised to hear ‘Adios Amigo’ when we reach next summer, if not before.