Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Can Rafael Benitez Lead Liverpool To This Seasons EPL Title?

Liverpool beat Everton 2-0 to give them 14pts from six games and their best ever start to a Premier League season. But does this good run make Liverpool serious contenders for Manchester United's crown?

Liverpool's first match of the season was against Tranmere at Prenton Park on the 12th of July. 'Pool won 1-0 with a largely experimental side. Since then, in all competitions and including eight friendlies Liverpool have gone 17 games unbeaten. Scoring 23 and conceding a measly 7. Impressive statistics you'll agree, however the stats only tell half the story.

Liverpool's season proper began with a 0-0 draw away to Standard Liege in the final Qualifying round of the Champions League. It was a poor performance as Standard dictated the game from start to finish and if it wasn't for an in form 'Pepe Reina Liverpool could have lost two or three nil. Reina's heroics included a fantastic penalty save after the ref harshly awarded the spot kick for the ball seemingly striking Dossena on the chest.

The return leg two weeks later wasn't much better as Liverpool needed a goal in the last minute of extra time to beat the unlucky Belgians. In between the two Champions League matches Liverpool had beaten both Sunderland and Middlesbrough. But again luck played it's part.

Against Sunderland they were outplayed for large parts of the game and a late strike by Fernando Torres saw Liverpool start the new season with a win. Against Middlesbrough, Liverpool were 1-0 down with four minutes remaining and an own goal and an injury time and a Gerrard special won the game for Rafa's men.

This pattern has continued in all of Liverpool's matches to date. A hard earned win over bitter rivals United was also courtesy of an own goal and a fortuitous piece of defending by Ryan Giggs, gifting Liverpool the points.

Another poor second half performance against Marseille marred what should have been an easy night, especially as Stephen Gerrard had scored one of the greatest goals European football has ever seen.

Ironically last weekends 0-0 draw at home to Stoke was probably Liverpool's best footballing performance to date. They played well when they had the ball and tried to do the right things, finding plenty of space in wide areas but they created very few clear cut chances. And Stoke despite only having two attempts on goal they were well worth the point as they defended valiantly throughout.

What we've seen so far is a Liverpool team that haven't played well this season, but are grinding out results. But this shouldn't be enough to keep the Liverpool faithful happy. Grinding out a win against United is one thing but grinding out a win against Sunderland and Middlesbrough is another thing entirely.

The finger points at Rafa. Under his stewardship Liverpool have never contended for the title. They did win the Champion League in 2005, but are widely regarded as the luckiest team ever to win the great competition. Liverpool played poorly throughout the competition but were very well organised and were difficult to break down. But winning is winning and it is not Liverpool's fault that AC Milan failed to capitalise on their dominance and the rest is history.

Since Rafa took charge in 2004 he has signed 45 players for a total of £172M. While during the same period he has sold 66 players and recouped £66.5M. It should be pointed out at this stage that of the 66 players released by the club in the last four years 29 were players he signed.

What this points to is that Rafa has a very poor record in the transfer market. Bearing in mind that seven players signed this season for £41M that only leaves nine players still at the club that Rafa signed since 2004.

The basic point is that when dealing in the transfer market Rafael Benitez believes in quantity rather than quality. A quick and easy comparison is Lucas. Benitez signed the Brazilian central midfielder for £8M. Chelsea signed Deco for £8M. No comparison. This monitary comparison shows that class players are available at good prices.

One big factor in why Liverpool are grinding out results is the tactics chosen by Benitez. In Torres, he has one of the best young strikers in the world. On his day Torres can beat any team. And with Torres as a focal point, Benitez has been able to modify his tactics. The set up of the team is defensive, so when they come up against a team who are set up in a similar way they find it hard to break them down. Invariably it falls to either Torres or Gerrard to create the goals.

With Torres in the team, Benitez prefers to use the 4-2-3-1 formation favoured by Manchester United and up until recently Chelsea.

When Manchester United employ the tactic, it is used in an attack minded way. Rooney or Berbatov play the Torres role as the long striker. Ronaldo and Tevez or Giggs play as wide attackers and they swap positions fluidly, making it extremely difficult for defenders to pick them up. At United the two central midfielders work in tandem with one attacking while the other covers the defence or slots into the full back position if one of the full backs attack.

Compare this with how Benitez uses the same formation. Neither full back is encouraged to move forward and will only do so for free kicks or if instructed. The central midfield pairing are used defensively. Mascherano constantly stays within 15yards of the back four. When Gerrard is employed as a central midfielder he is given carte-blanche to attack. But only Gerrard is given this affordability. Alonso is also expected to defend firstly and only move forward when the opportunity is guaranteed. The wide players are encouraged to tuck in to make the midfield area more compact and would be regarded as more defensively minded wide players than wingers.

The signing of Robbie Keane looks great on paper but it raises the question, Can Benitez accomodate both Keane and Gerrard in the same team? Benitez does not like playing Gerrard in central midfield against top class teams, and he had looked like the ideal foil for Torres last season. If Benitez does play Keane off Torres it's hard to imagine Gerrard on the right while Mascherano and Alonso inhabit the central berths.

Actually Alonso has struggled with his confidence during the early part of the season. And the blame lies squarely with Benitez. Rafa openly admitted he was interested in Gareth Barry and chased him all summer while implying he would be Mascherano's new partner and that he was open to offers for Alonso. Arsenal were reportedly interested in the Spanish International but with Barry's move collapsing, Alonso's move to Arsenal never happened. Alonso was Benitez's second signing as Liverpool manager.

Alonso is easily the best passer of a ball in the Premiership if not Europe and it's difficult to fathom why Benitez would want to replace him with the workman-like Barry.

But here in lies the key to understanding Benitez's football philosophy.

He believes in tactics, not players.

Under Benitez, Liverpool are one of the hardest working teams in Europe. They've proved it by getting to two Champions League Finals in the last four years. Eric Gerets recently described Liverpool as "being like duracell just wind them up and off they go" And this does in a crude way sum up their tactics.

They work hard, are defensively set up but they don't create a huge amount of chances, especially against top class opposition.

Perhaps Benitez utilises this defensive set up to protect his central defensive pairings. Agger and the un-disciplined Skrtel are medium paced players while Carrager and Hyypia are both on the slow side.

In describing Skrtel as undisciplined I refer not to his discipline record which is quite good for a defender, but to his proneness in making mistakes. He is caught out of position repeatedly and has a fondness for marking on the wrong side of the forward. He also gives away far too many free kicks when he could easily stand up and sheppard the ball away.

When doing a simple comparison between Liverpool's defence and the defence's of Chelsea and United you can really see the lack of depth in the Liverpool team and indeed the squad.

Strikers win matches. Defenders win leagues.

This may be Liverpool's best start in years. And we all know how motivated they are not to let United win that elusive 18th league title and overtaking Liverpool in doing so. But this also shows one of the weaknesses Liverpool have endured during Benitez's reign as manager. They lose points against weaker opposition too regularly.

Against United two weeks ago, the team played like their lives depended on it. Liverpool's play wasn't anything special but for the shear amount of work they went through on the day they deserved their victory. And they celebrated after the match like they'd won the league.

Last week against Stoke the same fervour and work rate wasn't there. The work rate against United was pushed to one side. It wasn't needed against Stoke. But it was. As a manager you set your team up to approach every match in the same way. You treat every opponent in the same way and you play against them all in the same way. If Liverpool had combined their good play against Stoke with an increased work rate who knows what would have happened.

Footballers are creatures of habit. If you do the right things all the time they come naturally after a while. That's one of the reasons behind Arsenal's and United's successes over the last decade. The tone is set by the manager, every match is important.

Benitez places greater emphasis on the bigger matches, his Liverpool seem dis- interested when playing the likes of Stoke and Fulham and Wigan.

So when you combine up all of the above. Defensive tactics, a slow defence, not giving your opponent they respect they deserve, poor signings and finally the managers views that tactics are more important than players you can't but think that this season might be a season or two too soon for this Liverpool team to mount a serious assault on the title.

And if Liverpool keep moving in the direction they are moving in, it won't be long before they find themselves fighting it out with Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur for that lucrative 4th place.