Note: this article was written before Rafa’s ‘milk’ press conference this week.
With the financial turmoil at Anfield eased (and my knowledge on finance not enough to fill the back of Tom Hicks’ fan mail), attention turned back to the football pitch and back to beleaguered manager Roy Hodgson on Sunday for a meeting of Liverpool’s red and blue halves.
Hodgson was hardly helped by the hyperbole surrounding ‘the biggest Merseyside derby for 30 years’ but the need for points for his side on such a defining week for the club could not be more pronounced, managing as he was a club who had not seen such a poor start to a season in over half a century.
Yet Liverpool’s performance was so flaccid that one had to wonder whether any of the travelling team realised this: Joe Cole yet again frustratingly mercurial, Steven Gerrard still orchestrator but seemingly unable to grab his team by the lapels as he once was and Fernando Torres stuck in a deeper and longer-lasting rut than a Chilean miner. Hodgson’s assertion that his team’s second half performance was as good as any during his tenure was as damning evidence as anyone else needed to provide against him.
But strangely, there are many who afford Hodgson no blame for six points from nine games and over in Blackpool, Sky’s Jamie Redknapp must have stopped off at the seafront to stick his head in the sand when he asserted that responsibility lie at the door of Rafa Benitez.
“I just didn’t enjoy going to Anfield last season, it was boring to watch” moaned Redknapp, before going on to defend Hodgson for inheriting Benitez’s hand. It takes a serious cheek to proclaim this on live television; apart from anything else one win at Anfield this Premier League season (1-0 over West Brom) would hardly constitute entertainment for the home fans. Furthermore, three of the starters were Hodgson buys while six of the remaining eight (plus two substitutes) played at this year’s World Cup. Hardly the rum deal Jamie would have you believe.
The strangest element though is why Benitez – a man with one Champions League win, a further final and a La Liga trophy to his name – could come under such intense media pressure week after week. Ferguson and Wenger have undergone similar barren spells (although admittedly not as disastrous in the league) but never faced the kind of scrutiny over tactics that Rafa did.
Well for starters, his method was always to err on the side of caution, whether that meant deploying an extra midfielder for away games he felt Liverpool couldn’t lose or substituting a star player at an important juncture of a game to preserve them for the next one, it didn’t fit in with the English media’s rose-tinted view of what a Premier League title contender ought to be striving for. When Liverpool came second in the title race the consensus was that Benitez’s hold-what-we-have mentality cost them, rather than an acceptance that his side had punched above their weight.
In fact he was a couple of years ahead of his time, with the 4-2-3-1 formation now the system of choice for all those who swooned at the Spanish and the Germans this summer, and the rotation policy used weekly by both Chelsea and Manchester United.
But what must have riled most was Benitez’s obdurate stonewalling of the press. Fiercely defensive of his squad and keen never to give away more than how his team must ‘focus only on the next game’; Rafa was a scandal-seeking hacks nightmare. Blunt and monosyllabic at times, Benitez rarely gave the press what they sought.
So how journalists round the country must have rubbed their hands with glee at the ‘facts’ diatribe in January 2008, a moment with which to proclaim the eruption of a simmering feud with Sir Alex Ferguson and with which to trace back any potential failure come season’s end. Benitez was duly criticised for taking his eye off the ball come May.
So in comes an articulate, deeply knowledgeable and engagingly likeable Englishman in Roy Hodgson, a man who wove the narrative for one of the most spellbinding tales of recent years by taking little Fulham to the Europa League final. For the first time in twelve years a native is in charge of one of the ‘Big Four’ and for some this rarity is too precious to be so short-lived.
Perhaps this is the reason for misguided opinions such as Redknapp’s and Jan Molby’s who claimed after the humbling defeat to Northampton that ‘we are seeing the result of Rafa Benitez’s legacy’. Of course Benitez won’t care; he sits on a job in charge of Europe’s reigning team (one with no hang-ups over style after the Mourinho years) and knows that the majority of Kopites would still applaud his return to Anfield.
But there is something implicitly unfair over how one man’s tactics can be so openly criticised as stifling his team while another can be described as being ‘let down by his players’. No-one expects the media to hide their agendas but when it gets to the point when the ‘legacy’ of one of Liverpool’s great recent managers is blamed for defeats four months after he left, then the myopia has gone too far.
It’s time people stopped allowing Hodgson to hide behind the goatee.