Myths and managers

Predrag Mijatovic, once a decisive scorer in European football for Real Madrid, now the overall chief executive, said that under Fabio Capello, Real simply were not playing the kind of football which the club demanded.

Liverpool, in the shape of their chief executive Rick Parry, have recently announced their relief and delight that Rafa Benitez has condescendingly agreed to remain as manager, now that they have paid a fortune for the young Spanish striker, Fernando Torres from Atletico Madrid. This following hard on the heels of a warm tribute to Rafa and his supposed tactical flair by Steven Gerrard, Liverpool’s propulsive midfield force and an England star, in an updated paperbac k version of his autobiography.

Traders of these columns may raise an eyebrow at that, aware that I for one have yet to be convinced of Rafa’s strategic flair, not least after he had all but thrown away the European Cup Final of 2005 in Istanbul by giving Milan’s Kaka free rein for the whole of the first-half when Liverpool went 3-0 down: and revived in spectacular style only when Rafa belatedly brought Germany’s Dieter Hamann on to shadow Kaka in the second-half.

Yet, it is bizarre that Gerrard himself is so generous to Rafa when there is a very strong argument for saying that he himself was badly and expensively misused in the Athens Final. That is to say, he was deployed not in central midfield — nor thank goodness on the flanks, where both Benitez and England’s lame duck of a manager Steve McClaren have exiled him in the past, but as what the Italians call a three-quarterist, operating just behind the main striker. Meaning that he as often as not had to receive the ball with his back to the goal, rather than being able to run straight on to it from a deeper midfield position. Undoubtedly this much reduced his effectiveness.

And while Gerrard praises Benitez for the use he made of Craig Bellamy’s (now sold to West Ham) pace in the successful match against Barcelona at Nou Camp in a previous round, he has nothing to say about the fact that Rafa didn’t use Bellamy and his speed at all in Athens, against a veteran central defensive Milan pair who could have been gravely discomfited by it. Paolo Maldini, after all, is now all of 38.

Instead, the one criticism Gerrard makes of Benitez is that he took too long to bring on the lanky Peter Crouch. Useful in his way but, alas, no speedster.

Benitez can be impugned on other grounds. How was it that he started with the Dutchman Bodo Zenden on the flank when he had never found him a regular place all season and proceeded to sell him when summer came? And the question of Harry Kewell is even stranger. You may remember that two years ago when the talented Aussie left-winger was palpably unfit, Benitez still deployed him from the start in the final versus Milan only to see Kewell limp off early in the game. He had barely got back into the squad, and then as a sub, at the tail-end of the League season when Benitez decided to throw him on in Athens. Why? Perhaps if not wholly consciously, it was some kind of consolation prize for what had happened to him two years earlier in Istanbul.

Gerrard, clearly in forgiving mood, had even had kind words for Steve McClaren though Heaven knows on what basis. But it was extraordinary to have him exonerating, even lauding him, for using him marooned on the flanks, insisting that at least he was allowed to move from time to time into the middle.

Meanwhile, at Real Madrid, another manager bites the dust, even if Fabio Capello, in his second spell at the Bernabeu had won a second title for Real Madrid. Predrag Mijatovic, once a decisive scorer in European football for Real, now the overall chief executive, said that under Capello, Real simply were not playing the kind of football which the club demanded. A few years back, Real sacked their then manager Vicente Del Bosque, once their international midfielder and winner of several titles. Not because there was any evident quarrel with the style the team were playing but because the then President was dissatisfied with the style and appearance of poor Del Bosque himself. So out he went and the results deteriorated immediately.

There can hardly be similar complaints about the new incumbent Bernd Schuster, who has worked wonders with the modest Getafe club. As a young, blond central-midfield player, one still remembers how excitingly and adventurously one saw him play for West Germany in the finals of the 1980 European Cup in Italy, which his team eventually won.

But he was always a rebellious fellow, he turned his back on the national team, which could surely have done with him in the 1982 World Cup in Spain. And when he was badly injured playing for Barcelona, it transpired that he had not been doing the remedial exercises which he had been assigned.

Real Madrid is the first major club he has managed and he will undoubtedly arrive there full of his usual self-confidence. But woe betide him if results go wrong. Patience isn’t a virtue at Real.

The oddness of managers has also been illustrated by the very recent case of Nigel Reo-Coker, the young West Ham United midfielder sold to Aston Villa for £7.5 million. He has, he protests, been “hung out to dry” by his manager Alan Curbishley. Yet, how well I remember Alan’s post match press conference after an FA Cup win against Brighton, when he castigated the assembled journalists for being so unkind about Reo-Coker, whom he had not even put on the subs’ bench that afternoon!