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Making Sense of Rafa Benitez, Part II.


Part II. of the discussion between nate and I about Rafa Benitez.

Part II. Tactics
Intro------Part I.

**This was largely written prior to the match with Wolves, so pieces have been edited/chopped/added as we both saw fit.**

Ed: First I had this ode to Rafa's tactical genius prepared, then a condemnation after sticking with the 4-2-3-1 and failing, and after the match against Spurs I was struggling to make sense of it all. But after the match against Wolves I'm back to condemnation, and it's looking more and more like that's where I truly stand. Just a shocking performance from top to bottom, really. It perfectly epitomized what I've hated about this season--strange starting eleven for the opposition they were facing, strange execution of whatever tactics Rafa had prepared, and even stranger choices (or lack thereof) regarding the substitutions.

Looking back at this season, and yesterday in particular, I wonder if tactically he hasn't been as sharp, or if it's down to the players. And not necessarily unsound tactically, but unwilling to adapt to the personnel that he's got, or use that personnel in a way that gives Liverpool their best chance at winning.

So my previous thoughts: We all know the famed magician in Europe that is Rafa Benitez--the one that tactically dominates teams like Real Madrid (-.5 for Juande Ramos in charge), that creates goals out of nothing on the counter, that employed a system that others could only hope to emulate (and did at times, even against Liverpool). With the right personnel, and the right opposition, Rafa's skill as a tactician is widely regarded as one of the best in Europe.

Domestically, though, it seems like he's always just a tick off, as you mentioned in the last part. This season in particular, his preferred 4-2-3-1 has stalled greatly at times. He appeared to finally be hitting his stride with a preferred eleven in 2008-2009, and all the characters were perfectly placed. This season has seen a bit of a rupture in that regard--either teams have figured it out, injuries have dramatically reduced its effectiveness, or some combination of the two. Other teams seemed to have figured out what to do with Torres, how to stifle Gerrard, and where the team is vulnerable.

I think a large shortcoming of Rafa's, and something I've mentioned in the past, is his unwillingness to adapt. This coming a little more than two years after he rotated the squad in 100 straight matches. Against Stoke and Spurs he cut Ngog and Kuyt, respectively, loose up front, and I'm thinking that neither has the skill to be the lone man up front. But then Kuyt hits two against Spurs and all is right in the world. And then Gerrard comes back to face Wolves, Lucas and Masch partner in central midfield, we get the wide pairing of Riera and Maxi, and everything goes to shit. Except Pepe Reina, of course, who should just be given player of the season right now.

So when it comes to Rafa as a tactician, what's the story? Is his stubbornness worthwhile, or completely misguided? And how do Liverpool compensate when it's getting shut down, or is it a matter of just willing it to work, as it did against Spurs, but failed so miserably against Wolves?

nate: I can understand Wolves reviving your disgust. It essentially necessitated scrapping much of what I’d written for this section. And I don’t do that lightly – if anything, I’ve tried to stay constant in my convictions and realistic about expectations, desires, and results. But I’ve rarely been more frustrated or confused with Benitez.

You summed it up adequately: “Strange starting eleven for the opposition they were facing, strange execution of whatever tactics Rafa had prepared, and even stranger choices (or lack thereof) regarding the substitutions.”

The tactics seemed fairly clear, if disheartening. “Don’t concede, and hope for the best otherwise,” which takes us back a few years. But that’s the state of the club at the moment. And the line-up wasn’t a sea change from Spurs, but it still was. That’s the difference Gerrard makes, and unfortunately, it’s a negative difference right now. And I’m stunned to be writing that sentence.

Benitez has been questioned and criticized for his stubbornness, but I’m wondering where the manager who replaced Gerrard with Lucas in a Merseyside derby went, a match where the substitution earned the victory. Yesterday, we saw Gerrard return to the line-up sooner than expected and what little momentum Liverpool had built up dissipated. It weakened the side, endangered the captain’s fitness, and fed into the notion that Liverpool’s wholly reliant on him. It disrupts the whole notion of “team.” That’s not the Benitez I know. Not by a long shot.

As with almost everything this season, I’m not sure how much blame Benitez deserves. I understand most decisions and see how his hand’s been forced in others, but some, like yesterday’s (starting Gerrard and only Ngog as a sub), have baffled. After that abomination, I speculated (emphasis on speculated) that Gerrard basically demanded to start against Wolves, but unless there are unknown forces on Benitez, the manager still has the power to refuse his captain.

Originally, I was planning on defending the 4-2-3-1, and still somewhat want to. Liverpool only started using it regularly in February 2008, and it resulted in a fairly successful 18 months, mainly because it got the best out of Gerrard and Torres. That Benitez focused on buying wingbacks (Johnson, Dossena, Degen) – which is where the width inherently comes from in this formation – seemed to show Liverpool concretely heading in that direction (no, I don’t understand why Keane was bought either).

I want to see consistency. I want to see Benitez choose his strongest formation and stick with it. Rafa used to be criticized for basing his tactics on the opposition instead of Liverpool’s strengths, which worked great in Europe, but not the Premiership. The 4-2-3-1 was working, and I was glad Benitez became more rigid in this regard. I even wanted to see the reserve and youth teams playing the formation for experience. Better that Liverpool sets the tone rather than their opponents.

But it's often failed this season. And, whether it’s out of blind loyalty or idiocy, I still think a perfect storm of maladies is the cause. Alonso’s departure, a lack of funds seemingly requiring a cut-price injured Aquilani as his replacement, early defensive struggles leading to a change in tactics, a succession of injuries to crucial players, and finally, the real ‘bad luck' like ignored penalties and beach ball goals.

Teams saw Liverpool’s defensive liabilities in the first few games and started attacking with more regularity. That led to Johnson and Insua sitting deeper by the end of September; it’s little coincidence Johnson looked his best in the first few games. And that left the wingers – usually Kuyt and Benayoun – ‘stranded,’ often too narrow without overlapping support and without the likes of Alonso, who could change the direction of play in an instant with a 60-yard cross-field ball. But add a fit and happy Gerrard, or a fit Torres, and maybe that talent alone compensates for the other issues.

Yesterday saw further culmination of Liverpool’s death by a thousand cuts. The makeshift defense, comprised of Carragher-Skrtel-Kyrgiakos-Insua, has sat deeper in the last three games in an attempt to cut out the stupid goals while coping with injuries. It’s led to more defensive stability, which would be three successive clean sheets were it not for a late set-play goal at Stoke, but less attacking prowess. Liverpool survived Spurs by getting a much-needed early goal, aided by being at Anfield, and almost survived Stoke after going ahead. Unfortunately, it didn’t work yesterday, with a disconnected attack in a hostile environment further isolated by the gap between defense and midfield, leading to all those lovely hoofs, and not helped by the captain’s performance.

So, does Benitez need to be more or less stubborn? I still don’t know. As with someone who’s smarter than me, I don’t understand some of his decisions when they work, let alone when they don’t.

Consistency is almost always a good thing. I honestly don’t think changing the formation does much with the state the team’s in, both because of injuries and morale. I’m more than willing to admit the 4-2-3-1 looks 10,000 times better with Torres in the line-up, especially with Kuyt as the primary back-up, but I don’t see a switch to two up top accomplishing much.

I realize that “stay the course” sounds like such bad advice when the ship’s taking on so much water, but it’s what I’ve come to, at least tactically. Even after yesterday’s insipid performance. But man management and morale are different questions entirely.

E: You're right to call out my disgust with yesterday--if I didn't use that word, I should have. And you likely have a much calmer temperament than I, because "frustrated" and "confused" were many miles in the rear-view mirror for me when the final whistle blew. But I've resurfaced a little calmer and a little kinder, although still not completely certain that yesterday was a step in any identifiable direction.

I've started to almost zone out the pro-Rafa talk, not because I'm vehemently anti-Rafa, but only because so much of it sounds like mindless quotations of club slogans----"YNWA," "In Rafa We Trust"----and a whole lot of self-convincing. But you make a different case, and it's one that is certainly valid. I'm with you on the defensive issues, and it makes sense that in this formation, without wing backs to support the wide men, the attack is going nowhere. And the concept that consistency and stability in formation and approach is important is an easy one for me to grasp. Despite my desire for things to change, if there's going to be identity development with this side, it needs stability. Maybe just not the unfortunate type of stability we've seen this season.

There's no disputing that prior to this season, Rafa's tactical skill has been spot on. The confluence of injury, finance, and bad luck, as you mention, clearly have a hand in the failures of this campaign. But I also think that the 4-2-3-1 has become a pitfall of sorts, particularly for Steven Gerrard.

The captain certainly had a season worthy of accolades last year, and it was the first time under Benitez that Gerrard seemed to have a cemented place. And despite the assurance that this was "his role," he had the freedom to operate as he saw fit. The partnership between he and Torres thrived (when both were fit), as we saw in the later stages of the 2007-2008 campaign and for most of 2008-2009 (again hampered by injuries).

But this season it's been something else entirely--and again, injuries play a large part. But it's almost as though having "the Gerrard role" has completed zapped the captain of his creativity and influence. It's no longer the incisive runs and clever, free-flowing interplays. As usual, the injury card needs to be played. But everything goes through him in attack--he knows it, his teammates know it, and the opposition knows it. It worked last year because he had a player in support to distribute, but with the departure of Alonso, and a central midfield pairing of two distribution-stunted defensive mids, now he's tasked with forcing the attack, distributing the ball, being creative, and operating anywhere and everywhere to compensate.

And it's failed miserably. As you say, who knows what happens with a healthy Gerrard and Torres? But we do know that a partially fit Steven Gerrard has had a hell of a time matching what he's been able to do in the past. Maybe unfair to hold him to that standard, but with the litany of heroics and spontaneous ecstasy he's provided, it's inevitable. Yet again, the pressure's on him to produce--and not in an Olympiakos, Istanbul, FA Cup Final v. West Ham, even 2008-2009 season type of way--in a way that's part of a system now designed around his ability to fulfill the role he's created.

Wrapping it up, I think the part that originally resonated most with me was the idea of having this formation/approach be standard across first team, reserves, etc. In a way this gives the team some identity, which I think has been a struggle, this year in particular. Certainly a side wants to be known for more than what formation they play, but it would start to develop some coherence across the club's different levels. Ideally it would lead to more vertical opportunities for some of the younger talent and give the reserves an idea of what to expect should they break through.

For all intents and purposes, it looks like staying the course is going to occur, as you say. It is the hand the club has been dealt (at least with injuries), so we can just hope that we continue to see the type of determination we witnessed against Spurs and Stoke. Although I do worry that we can only see so many "anomalies" before the aforementioned displays actually become the exception. Dramatic, maybe, but tough to shake that thought. And even more worrisome to think about the impact that such performances are having on the areas you mention--the squad's morale and Rafa's ability to manage what--and who--he's got.

n: Your point on Gerrard shouldering too much responsibility, both on and off the pitch, is absolutely spot on. And, sadly, I think it’s one that just as well addressed under “man management.” So if it’s alright with you, I think we’ll lead off with that topic in the next section.

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