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Making Sense of Rafa Benitez, Part III.

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Part three of the exchange with nate, wherein we discuss the merits of Rafa as a leader of men.

Part III. Man Management

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

nate: Before getting waist-deep in man management, I want to reply to a couple of the points about Gerrard you brought up in the last edition. Sadly, I think they can be addressed just as well here, although Saturday’s match against Bolton took some of the steam out of my complaints.

It’s not that Gerrard just hasn’t done it in the free role, with or without Torres. He hasn’t set the world afire from central midfield either; the early season victories over Hull and Burnley with Gerrard and Lucas “holding” in the 4-2-3-1 came at home with almost everyone fit. The last thing I want to do is scapegoat Steven Gerrard after all he’s done for this club – I’ve tried to make it clear I think it’s a club-wide chain reaction – but he is the captain and he sets the tone. And as you said, it’s inevitable given his CV.

He’s absolutely had a heavy weight on his shoulders, and it’s been both on and off the pitch. Not only has he faced increasing responsibility in light of departures and injuries while injured himself, but he’s the face of Liverpool’s failure to reclaim the league, almost 30 and seemingly no closer to the title. In a World Cup year. It’s obviously going to plague the player.

Gerrard’s relationship with Rafa has always been speculated upon. “Professional” seems the best, and nicest, way to describe it. More than most, it appears Gerrard needs to be encouraged when he’s struggling, and that’s evidently not Benitez’s style. Given his symbiotic relationship with the club, it’s little surprise the team as a whole suffers when Gerrard’s off-form and vice versa. But there’s also no arguing that Gerrard’s added more to his game since Benitez became manager.

Despite having Fabrice Muamba as a shadow on Saturday, he looked a lot better, both fitter and more interested. I know it’s one game; Bolton weren’t exceptionally imposing opposition, and knowing this season, it could be an illusion. But seeing improvement three days after Wolves leads me to think it’s more fitness than anything else, and that’d be a massive relief. Of course, I still worry.

Let me throw out a disclaimer now. I don’t pretend to have any insights into the Liverpool dressing room. I also don’t often believe those that don’t come from players, staff, or a few in the media with an actual knowledge of the team (read: Tony Barrett). So I’m frequently skeptical of claims that Rafa isn’t a good “man manager.”

But it’s always been one of the sticks most frequently used to beat Benitez. He’s cold. Dispassionate. Treats his players like chess pieces. Won’t throw an arm around the shoulder and have a cuddle like Harry Redknapp or jump up and down the touchline like Martin O’Neill.

Admittedly, Benitez could be closer with his players – although out of date at this point, Guillem Balague's "A Season on the Brink" (among other books/reports/interviews) demonstrates this – but that’s not necessarily a good thing. There’s a thin line between being a players’ manager and letting the inmates run the asylum, especially with the wages this generation’s on. At the same time, Benitez’s ability to “rally the troops,” a la Ferguson’s renowned hair dryer treatment or the way Arsenal was a completely different side in the second half at Anfield in October, is rightfully questioned.

But Liverpool’s certainly seen a few come-from-behind victories and backs-against-the-wall wins. And we’ve seen the likes of Carragher, Gerrard, Torres, Mascherano, Alonso, and Reina – among multiple others – improve under Rafa.

I think how players get on with Benitez says more about their character than his. Compare what players like Torres (cover article in this month’s FourFourTwo: “How Rafa Made Me The Best In The World”) and Reina say about him compared to Robbie Keane and Babel. Problem children like Jermaine Pennant haven’t flourished under him, yet Bellamy had nothing but nice things to say.

Alonso can’t be avoided when discussing Benitez’s man management. It was clear there was tension at the end, whether down to Rafa’s being angry that Xabi missed Inter for the birth of his first son or the attempted sale to Juventus or because of Gareth Barry. Alonso “blamed” Barry a few weeks back, but I’m still suspicious. The merits of selling Alonso and/or buying Barry have been endlessly debated, but once Real made their intent known, Xabi wanted to leave. I doubt any relationship with the manager could have prevented it. Although maybe changing English tax laws could have.

So, while I've certainly wished Benitez was more of an imposing, pro-active, and reassuring manager when Liverpool's in situations like this season's sprung, I'm tempted to think he's undervalued in this regard (in every regard!), and part of it's down to media and public perception. The taciturn, unapproachable foreigner (taking over for Wenger), in comparison to Sir Alex, Happy Harry, or O'Neill (no clever nickname for him).

But I'm a relentless Benitez apologist. What do normal people actually think?

Ed: Sadly "normal" is not a concept that people are tripping over each other to apply to me.

Working through your first point, the Gerrard we saw against Bolton is the one I've been clamoring for--sort of a rudimentary way to describe it, but there was a friskiness to his play that we haven't witnessed in awhile. Pounced on loose balls, freed himself from some admirable marking by Muamba, and thrust a couple of shots goalwards that have been greatly missed. On at least two occasions, maybe more, a Gerrard effort was parried by Jaaskelainen and nearly led to a goal. Granted, Jaaskelainen isn't Iker Casillas or Gigi Buffon, but he's not exactly a mannequin. It's hard to say whether this performance was down to growing fitness, the presence of Aquilani to buttress the attack, or new found inspiration, but I know that I want more. Much, much more.

As it relates to Rafa, and it's kind of something you touch on, I think there's some sort of conflict about Gerrard's role as the "face" of the club. This is and has been Steven Gerrard's Liverpool, and will continue to be until he either retires or plies his trade overseas (there's no way he goes to another club in England at this point). It's never really been Rafa's club, despite his work to bring in players that will fit the system he wants to run. Taking Gerrard off for Lucas in the Merseyside derby was about as close as Rafa's come to asserting his clout when it comes to the captain. But I just don't believe that Gerrard is a prototypical "Benitez" player, which is to say that he's more action than he is cerebral, at least in terms of playing style. Maybe more comfortable playing unhinged and unencumbered by tactics or direction, and it just so happens that he's the hometown boy at his hometown club, fighting desperately to earn them the title they so desperately long for. Whether this is major conflict, minor conflict, or non-existent, we'll never know---as you mention, it's tough to have insight on the inner workings of the club. But it's sort of fun, isn't it?

But I do think it puts Benitez in a strange spot, because a passionate fight for a long-awaited title is not exactly how you would define Rafa's reign at Liverpool, even when they were racking up the points last season. It's almost as though his style of interaction with his players is entirely goal-focused, on both a micro (in-game) and macro (over the course of a season) level. You play football to win, this is how you go about it, little room for pomp or circumstance. There's a controlled nature to the tenure of Rafa Benitez, so much so that when you see bursts of hand movements or scuffles with other managers on the touchline that it's almost uncomfortable, placing you squarely in the throes of cognitive dissonance. What you know, or what you've been fed by the media, about the man does not play out before your eyes. But there's usually no smoke without fire.

You brought up some of the catch phrases that are most typically used to describe Benitez (e.g., "cold," "dispassionate"), and I think there's both truth and hyperbole in their use. For some reason I can't shake the picture of Benitez on the touchline during the penalty shootout against Chelsea in the 2007 Champions League semifinals. The entire Liverpool world was shaking, trembling, hoping, and waiting, and there sat Rafa Benitez, legs crossed, checking his watch as he so often does, shaking his coat sleeve off the watch face in an almost rehearsed manner. It was just so bizarrely methodical, although with hindsight it's about what you expect.

So how does this play out in the way he deals with his players? I think "professional," which you use to describe his relationship with Gerrard, is about as dead-on as it gets. He's not quite Robo-Cop, but he's not Uncle Rafa with the goofy stories, sneaking you beer after training and telling you stories about chasing ladies. There's such an upside/downside when you're dealing with human beings---some players absolutely require instruction in great detail, others find it an inconvenience. There's never really a "perfect" manager, and Rafa's no different. He clearly has a highly developed understanding of the game, its tactics, and the technical necessities of player performance.

I think it's why players like Torres, Reina, Insua, Mascherano and Gerrard have developed technically under Rafa. But it does also feel like there's something missing with Rafa, and maybe it's something the club needs more of. The word "chemistry" is overused in sports, but I think that might be as close as I can get to describing what's missing. Players can certainly create it between one another---among the departed, I think Arbeloa and Riise were fantastic in this sense. Reina's a constant here, and recently we've had Kyrgiakos setting a new tone, and Carra and Gerrard bear much of the responsibility for the club. But I think some of it needs to come from the top, and that's where Rafa might be falling a bit short.

I think the failings were clearest with Xabi Alonso, and here's where I think the "chess piece" metaphor might be apt. Rafa identified someone he wanted and went after him, perhaps without regard for the effect that it could have on what he currently had. It's as though the thought that it wouldn't work out never occurred to him. But we know that when it didn't, and if we take Xabi Alonso's word that it changed his mind, we witnessed a season-long 7.0 on the Simmons Vengeance Scale. If we get really wild with this idea, Rafa should have proposed a firesale in August of 2008 and Liverpool would have set a league record in points.

But Rafa's not an asshole, he's not a man to sell-out his players, and he's never going to make a show of imposing discipline or order. The latter likely occurs behind-the-scenes, while the former two likely never occur. I think that's why players like Craig Bellamy have nice things to say after leaving, it's why players sing his praises about the improvements they've made, and why it's tough to get too high on anti-Rafa emotions. It's almost like the approach he espouses bleeds into the perception I have---I shouldn't jump to conclusions with him, because that would be out of control, and the last thing I want to do is be out of control.

So all of this is a long way of saying that I think Rafa will never be short of finding technical justification for the way he handles his players, but it's not just a case of having empirical evidence, or the footballing equivalent, as grounding for dealing with human beings. Football's much more complex than that, and I think this year has provided plenty of evidence for that.

n: Chemistry’s the most intangible of intangibles, and while the manager sets the tone and the environment, it’s more down to the players to actually get along. This is where I fear Gerrard fails as a captain, even if his other qualities often override that.

It’s always about striking the balance between the intellectual and the instinctive. As fans, we want to see blood and guts, Gerry Byrne breaking his collarbone in the 3rd minute of the FA Cup final. It’s why rampaging Gerrard is the icon that he is.

But Liverpool will never rely on the instinctive under Benitez. It’s just not his character. And I often see that cold, dispassionate strategizing as a positive. Penalties against Chelsea were the perfect example. Seeing Benitez cool enough to invoke Buddha on the touchline was massively reassuring. You knew Liverpool were going to win with Rafa that confident. But I derive pleasure from every goal where Benitez just shrugs and looks at his watch, whereas grown children like Ferguson and O’Neill jump up and down the touchline like they’ve won the lottery. Different strokes for different folks.

There are positives and negatives with each manager. When things are this tough, the grass will always be greener on the neighbor’s lawn. It’d be nice to see Benitez publicly rally the troops and the media, but it’s not the way he manages.

But, I still think the positives outweigh the negatives, and I’m still incredibly skeptical of the media’s ‘Benitez has no personality and no one likes him in the dressing room’ narrative.

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