Not a good day for Liverpool fans yesterday. After watching their team lose at home to a mediocre Championship side they then witnessed arch rivals Man United thrash Arsenal to advance in the FA Cup.
The Internet is awash with bickering Liverpool fans: some backing manager Rafa Benitez to the hilt while unloading bile on the American club owners, others renewing calls for the Spaniard to leave his post.
Cup upsets happen to big clubs from time to time and in isolation a home defeat to Barnsley – in a game that Liverpool should have long before wrapped up – is not a reason to sack a manager. But the fact is that Liverpool have repeatedly dropped the ball against lesser sides in the cup: Burnley beat them in Benitez’s first FA Cup campaign, Crystal Palace in the League Cup and Benfica in the Champions League the next season, Arsenal Reserves humiliated them in 2007 and both Luton and Havant and Waterlooville have made them look very ordinary this year.
In the league there has been no consistency and little improvement. Four seasons ago Benitez was brought in to challenge for the title and the gap between Liverpool and the eventual winners has been far too wide (2005: 37 pts and 5th; 2006: 9 pts and 3rd; 2007: 21 pts and 3rd; this season: 19 pts and 5th). The only time that they put up any sort of fight was the 2006 season when their interest in the Champions League ended prematurely.
His supporters hark back to his two proper trophies: the 2005 Champions league and the 2006 FA Cup. On another day his team may not have reached that Champions League final as it took a late Steven Gerrard wonder strike to get them out of their group. And as incredible as their comeback was in the final, a phenomenal point blank save by Dudek from Shevchenko kept them in the game in extra time. The FA Cup win over West Ham also relied on a last minute long range goal from Gerrard to keep them in it and (once again) win on penalties.
Another Champions League appearance against all the odds last season helped paper over the cracks of an inconsistent campaign in the league. Benitez’s side have a habit of going through hot and cold league form – they are just as likely to pick up 8 wins in a row as they are to win one game in 8. Without the two cups one wonders how much support he would be getting now from the fans.
Benitez has every right to defend himself but the nonsense he comes out with is nauseating: “If you analyse the last few years since I came to the club we have won four trophies and been in seven finals, including two in the Champions League.” Technically he’s right but once a manager starts listing the Community Shield and the European Super Cup as trophies they’ve won the words “clutching” and “straws” jumps to mind. In Martin Jol’s defence he never once listed the 2005 Peace Cup as his crowning glory.
“People can talk about being successful but nobody is winning trophies every year,” he rightfully points out. I think the difference Mr Benitez is that when Arsenal are not winning trophies they are producing attractive football, challenging for the title and progressing as a club. Under your watch you paid £7m for Jermaine Pennant while Wenger paid the same for Emanuel Adebayor. Luis Garcia and Fernando Morientes cost you a combined £12.3m – Mathieu Flamini, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie cost a combined £2.75m.
In fact if you look at Benitez’s signings up to this season, how many can be called successful? Xabi Alonso has played well at times but looks expensive at £10.5m, Craig Bellamy, Mark Gonzales and Momo Sissoko were flops (who they somehow made a combined profit on), Peter Crouch only plays well off the bench for £7m, Dirk Kuyt…well, he scored against Barnsley. Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger, Fernando Torres have cost about £38m but are quality players. Ryan Babel could potentially be a top class signing too in the coming seasons. Beyond that it’s a rag-tag collection of average performers who are not really cut out for the top of the Premier League.
An argument is made that he came from a lower base than his rivals and needs time to catch up but I have no doubt that his brief when he signed his contracts were for him to be challenging for the league title within 2-3 seasons. If managers don’t meet their brief (and don’t have good reason as to why) then they should have the professional integrity to stand down. If it’s because the board won’t sanction the spending they promised then simply walk away and put your point of view in the media. You miss out on a big payoff? Ok, well that’s the price of professional integrity.
Should Liverpool sack Benitez? Not much point doing it until May and only if they’ve got someone better lined up. I personally think they should bring in Jose Mourinho – Liverpool fans would learn to love him very quickly as his temperment and drive would get Liverpool an extra 9-12 points off the bat. Then they are in the shake-up, then they can start to dream again.