Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Liverpool a club divided under Rafael Benitez

Rafael Benítez's reign at Liverpool has seen the Anfield club split into those who support the Spanish manager, and those who have lost faith in him.

Their faith tested, their belief exposed and their dogma unravelled, Liverpool’s owners, directors, staff, players and fans find themselves for the first time in more than two years united as one, driven on to their knees in prayer.

“It is going to be a grind between now and May,” said Jamie Carragher, epitome of the concrete certainty imbued in the club over five years by manager Rafael Benítez and shattered in less than five weeks, “but we have got to stick together, get through it and, as I’m doing, pray to God that at the end of the season there will be something worthwhile for what we’ve gone through.”

Even the almighty, though, might shy away from trying to unify the fractured, battered and bruised morass at Anfield. From boardroom to stands, from dressing room to directors’ box, few managers in football divide opinion as completely as Benítez.

There are those who would back the mastermind behind the miracle of Istanbul to the hilt, the Rafaelites, and those who see the studious, perfectionist, wilful enigma as myth, a man who has never truly adapted his style to the peculiar demands of the English game in pursuit of the holiest of grails which has eluded Liverpool for 20 long years.

It is a schism which has paralysed the club. Anfield is consumed by inertia, condemned to six months with nothing to play for, nothing to pray for, but an end to its purgatory, and the solitude of summer.


The fracture at Liverpool stems from the rift between the club’s owners. Tom Hicks and George Gillett agree on little or nothing, and so dysfunctional is their relationship that one’s actions guarantee an equal and opposite reaction from the other.

Despite teething problems in their relationship — it was comments from Hicks that triggered Benítez’s famous repetition of his job being to “focus on coaching and training my team” — it is the Texan who remains firmly entrenched behind the Spaniard.

Hicks, once viewed as the greater of two evils by Liverpool’s fans, has earned some leeway with a succession of statements backing the manager and his position is not likely to change.

The stalemate between Hicks and Gillett spreads to the boardroom, which is where any decision on Benítez’s long-term future would be made. Liverpool’s board is comprised of Hicks, his son Tom Jnr, Gillett and his son Foster, Christian Purslow, the managing director, and Ian Ayre, the club’s commercial director.

It is a balance which all but guarantees no majority decision is possible, unless Liverpool’s form and league position should nosedive so spectacularly that no other option were available. Benítez has played off both the Hicks and Gillett factions with the consummate ease of the skilled politician, knowing he can always count on the support of one side.

Only two of Liverpool’s senior squad were not brought to Anfield by Benítez — even Jay Spearing, the young midfielder, was promoted to the senior team under his supervision — and it is not surprising that the vast majority of the players remain loyal.

Even among those ranks, though, Benítez faces problems. Javier Mascherano remains unsettled in England for personal reasons, while Ryan Babel and Andrea Dossena have both made public their dissatisfaction with bit-part roles in a World Cup year.

Even those fans who had begun to question Benítez’s abilities had fallen silent after Liverpool’s stunning recovery to run Manchester United to the wire in last season’s title race.

Much of that patience, though, has ebbed away, despite a significant proportion of Liverpool’s support believing Benítez cannot be judged by the standards which are set for him.

He has spent only what he has brought in through sales since the summer of 2007, Liverpool boast just the fifth highest wage bill in the league, and yet he is expected to keep pace with some of the world’s richest clubs.

The Spaniard, it is suggested, is doing as well as any of the handful of managers designated his superiors would in the same circumstances.


Owners Benítez insists publicly that his relations with both of his American overlords remain cordial, but it is believed the saga over Jürgen Klinsmann – who was touted as a possible replacement – led to the irretrievable breakdown of his relationship with Gillett.

It was Gillett who, most recently, spoke out in support of the manager, but a conversation the Colorado-based businessman held with a representative of Spirit of Shankly, the fans’ group, and heard by The Daily Telegraph, in which Gillett laid the blame for all footballing failures squarely at Benítez’s door, offers a more realistic assessment of the situation.

While the board’s paralysis provides Benítez’s greatest strength, it could also be said to be his greatest weakness. The Spaniard can never enjoy the full support of the club while one half of the body which controls his future remains aligned against him.

His only refuge, then, may be in the stark financial reality of his dismissal. He would be due at least £5 million if Liverpool did decide to sack him, but that would most likely be trebled should he pursue a lawsuit, as he did at Valencia, or decide not to work in the foreseeable future. The fact that succeeding him, at a club laden with debt even if Purslow can secure a £100 million cash injection for a 25 per cent stake, is the sharpest of double-edged swords.

Benítez’s remarks after the defeat to Aston Villa at Anfield earlier this season - that his senior players needed to accept more responsibility - were not welcomed in some quarters, while the decision to allow Xabi Alonso to leave created a rift within the camp.

It is often cited that Benítez is a poor man-manager, incapable of putting an arm around the shoulder of his players, and he is described in some quarters as “cold”. That may be unfair, but his treatment of players like Andriy Voronin — tasked with leading the line in a crucial Champions League tie with Lyon but cast aside since — indicate how ruthless Benítez can be.

Benítez has faced more vocal criticism this season than at any other point during his Anfield tenure, with an increasing number of fans seemingly convinced that he is not the man to return the club to the pinnacle of English football.

His substitutions, on more than one occasion, have been jeered — most noticeably when removing Yossi Benayoun — while the team have been booed from the pitch after disappointing results at home to Aston Villa and Birmingham.

His results, this season, provide the most damning assessment, though: this is a squad he constructed, bolstered by expensive players seen as little more than detritus by many, and he must therefore take responsibility for its failings.


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