Benitez unmasked

AP

Rafa Benitez (in pic.) twice got Liverpool to the Final of the European Champions Cup. But because of strange tactics, he just managed to win the first time and lost on the second occasion.

Interesting to see various columnists and commentators here saying what I have been saying for a couple of years or so. That the myth of Rafa Benitez, Liverpool’s Spanish manager, is, in fact, no more than that; and that his record at Anfield shows a myriad of mistakes. If Claudio Ranieri, when at Chelsea, was known as The Tinkerman for his penchant for fiddling with his team, then what does that make Benitez, who in 153 Liverpool matches has only twice ever chosen t he same team?

Yes, he twice got Liverpool to the Final of the European Champions Cup, but look what a mess of things he made when they got there. In 2005 against Milan in Istanbul, Benitez inexplicably fielded, in a disastrous first half, a team in which he had made no provision at all to impede Kaka, the Brazilian star of the Milan attack. Nor did it seem remotely logical that he should pick for outside left the Australian Harry Kewell, who for weeks had been suffering from injury. He soon limped off. In the event, as we well know, Kaka roamed wild and free in the first half, in which Milan scored three goals without reply. At half-time, however, Benitez belatedly came to his senses, brought on Dieter Hamann to look after Kaka, enabling a Liverpool team, inspired from midfield by Steven Gerrard, to attack exuberantly and run out the whole deficit, going on after extra time to win on penalties.

Two years later, things didn’t go so well. Again Liverpool found themselves facing Milan in the Final. This time, Benitez inexplicably decided to push Gerrard forward as what the Italians call a three-quarter man. Which meant that, as often as not, this player, whose speciality is to storm forward, was forced to turn back to receive the ball. In addition, although Milan were fielding an elderly team, above all in central defence where Paolo Maldini was in his late 30s, Benitez let them off the hook by keeping his fastest and most penetrative attacker, Craig Bellamy, on the bench throughout. Liverpool lost.

His most recent debacle came at home to Marseille in the Champions League. The French club had been in poor form all season but now they came to Anfield and deservedly won, 1-0 against a Liverpool team, which never got into gear. Who knows what possessed Benitez to put the new young Argentine Sebastian Leto into central midfield, with dire results, when he could have used his fellow Argentine, the infinitely more experienced Javier Mascherano, there? And why has Benitez this season made such frequent use of the waning Finnish veteran centre back, Sami Hyppia? A player who no longer has the pace to cope with quick opponents, as we saw in Porto, where that lack of pace cost Liverpool a goal, even if Hyppia made some amends by helping to set up a goal himself and clearing a dangerous situation.

Still in my memory is a game staged at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium when Benitez, not for the first time, controversially and wastefully decided to use Gerrard not in central midfield, where he flourishes, but out on the flank, preferring to deploy the Dutch international winger Boudewijn Zenden — now by the way with Marseille — in the central role. It didn’t work and Arsenal won.

Of course Benitez is by no means alone as a leading manager who makes strange tactical mistakes. Even the blessed Arsene Wenger, whose team beat Liverpool so comfortably that day, and whose present Arsenal side, even without Thierry Henry, have set such a hot pace in the Premiership this year, has had his failings. I think, especially, of that FA Cup Final at Cardiff against Manchester United, when he seemed to have succumbed to a bizarre bout of defeatism. What you wondered, before, during and after the game, had possessed him in his negativity to use only Dennis Bergkamp up front? The Dutch striker, once a superbly gifted player of flair, ball control and a powerful right foot, was in his declining years and no longer remotely had the pace to operate as a solitary striker.

So it was that Bergkamp, who usually played in the three-quarter position where he could ideally find time and space, became an isolated and ineffectual figure. It was as if Wenger — as Red Star Belgrade, in a dreary Euro Final in Bari, did years ago — had decided to play cravenly for penalties. If so then he achieved his wish for indeed the game went to extra time and spot kicks, with Arsenal running out the winners. The chorus of “Boring, boring Arsenal!” has often been unfair, but on this occasion it was supremely justified.

Alf Ramsey was beyond doubt the best and most successful England manager of all time, and I have known every one of them from Walter Winterbottom — 16 years so controversially in office from 1946 — onwards. But Alf could make his costly tactical blunders. I thought he did so in the quarterfinal of the World Cup against West Germany in Leon in 1970. True he lost the irreplaceable ’keeper Gordon Banks with a mysterious virus just before the game, with Peter Bonetti shaky in goal. But he compounded this, first by keeping his overlapping full back Terry Cooper and Keith Newton on when they were plainly exhausted in the heat and at the altitude, secondly by taking Bobby Charlton off, when his team still led 2-1. So England lost 3-2.

In April 1972 at Wembley it was all too clear that the bell had tolled for him. Again against West Germany this time in a first leg European Nations Cup quarterfinal, he used no ball winner in midfield, allowing Gunter Netzer to run the game and Germany to win 3-1. In the return in Berlin, Alf’s nerve failed him. He put out a side full of hard men, hoping for what he uselessly got — a goalless draw. “The whole England team have autographed my leg,” said Netzer, afterwards.

It was the Victorian Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who opined: “The defects of great men are the consolation of dunces.” Perhaps the saying might be some consolation to managers who make mistakes. Sometimes, perhaps, because so deeply are they involved in the game that they fail to see the wood for the trees.