The Implications of 5th (or worse!)

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Such is the importance placed on being in the Champions League, the thought of Liverpool missing out on the top four will be treated by many as the same as relegation.

Last night’s defeat against Wigan won’t have helped ease such fears.

Of course, relegation from the Premier League is now to be avoided at all costs, because of the money involved. Newcastle look set to bounce back, but previously well-established top-tier clubs like Southampton, Coventry, Norwich, Leeds, Leicester and Charlton have all been hit hard by demotion; indeed, four of those clubs are now in the third tier of English football. And it’s taken Nottingham Forest years to arrest their decline.

The fear is that Liverpool would suffer the same fate, albeit dropping closer to mid-table mediocrity than relative oblivion. And with the way the finances have been going at the club, allied to the increasing wealth of others, makes it a valid fear. Benítez could not eternally magic up Champions League revenue to overcome shortfalls in other areas.

As with any storm, you can pick out silver linings. The lowering of expectations (which grew too high with overachievement last year), and the lessening of playing demands by being out of the elite European competition could certainly help. But it could also mean smaller funds and a slight tarnish for those looking to join. I wouldn’t want to call which way it would go.

I didn’t necessarily agree with Jamie Carragher’s assertion in a revealing Sunday Times interview that Liverpool are the kind of club that will always find itself up there; he may well be right to some degree, but it seems to smack of entitlement. There are no guarantees, especially as the financial landscape changes so rapidly these days.

Liverpool can always come back stronger, as they have in the past – and as have other big clubs after a spell in the doldrums – but right now, rivals for the top four are making obscene investments in their playing staff, and if they are also well managed and stable at the top, they will only become harder to compete with.

There are some very valid reasons why the Reds can remain a major force, but also a fair few suggesting that it won’t be easy to get back in, once squeezed out of the prime positions. Maybe that’s why there’s such a sense of panic around the situation from fans right now.

In their favour, Liverpool have great prestige, and an enormous fan-base. That won’t change in the next 50 years! (Even if some fly-by-nights will come and go.)

Anfield retains a mythical, magical air, even if for most league games it can be a shadow of its former glorious noise. (Having said that, my first visit, in 1990, was fairly underwhelming.)

So attracting good players will not be a problem; the issue will be attracting the very best, especially with no Champions League to offer, and a lack of deep pockets to pay the biggest wages.

Liverpool also still have some world-class players, both home-grown and brought to the club by Benítez.

But I still feel that there is massive instability across the club, and it all heads back to the mess it has been in off the field for a few years now. It set a bad tone, and that can never help; you don’t see the same happening at Spurs and Aston Villa, do you? It doesn’t explain all the performances this season, but it did predate them.

If the funding had been there in the first place, then a bigger squad ‘might’ have dealt better with the early season injuries, and Benítez would definitely have been able to invest the money he originally believed he had in greater cover for Torres, from which point the word crisis does not get bandied about after every setback. If you go one-nil down, you are chasing the game; since week one, Liverpool have been chasing the season.

At the moment, it seems like everyone is jostling for position, trying to assert their authority and have the club move forward with their vision. In Shankly’s day, that vision would be the manager’s and the manager’s alone. But nowadays? – it’s far more complicated.

Exodus?

The main concern I hear is that “Torres will leave”, and Man City will snap him up. This ignores his love of Liverpool, his utter faith in Benítez, and his loyalty, seen in years at Atletico Madrid, when they didn’t even qualify for the Champions League on one single occasion.

(As an aside, off the pitch, Torres has a fantastic attitude. On it, it’s letting him down of late; when your best-paid, ‘go-to’ players show petulance, it undermines the unity. So even though Liverpool missed the cut and thrust of Gerrard and Torres when injured, at least the Reds were playing ‘as one’ in grinding out results. Frustration is understandable, but it turns players against one another. I acknowledge that players like Torres, Gerrard and Carragher have deservedly had the plaudits in recent years, after countless excellent displays, but equally, when they let the team down, it needs to be said. Istanbul was accredited mostly to Rafa, Gerrard and Carragher, and therefore the criticism in bad times shouldn’t stop with just the manager.)

However, a club like City could make Liverpool’s hierarchy an offer they think they can’t refuse.

But if the worst did happen, would that be Benítez’s fault for finishing outside of the top four, or the club’s for being in such a perilous financial position, based on debt, and still without a new stadium?

All the same, selling Torres to a rival would signal defeat in terms of ambition, and on that score, I just can’t see it happening. So I’m confident Torres will stay, and the same for Steven Gerrard.

However, despite his commitment to the cause, Benítez’s future is unclear, not least because he is under pressure; Jamie Carragher has suggested that his own future is also unclear; it’s unclear if Christian Purslow is a long-time leader off the pitch or a man with a temporary task courtesy of Royal Bank of Scotland; and, of course, Gillett and Hicks know they are not welcome at Anfield in the eyes of many fans. Will there be new investment? And to what extent? So many unresolved issues still beset the club.

Unrest?

It saddens me to say, but the impression I get – and this is purely my impression – is that Carragher and Gerrard are not fully behind Benítez, as they desperately look to achieve that elusive title towards the back-end of their Liverpool careers.

Of course, there’s no law that says players have to be in 100% support of their boss; I just feel that their silence has been deafening.

It’s been left to players like Reina, Mascherano and Torres to sing Benítez’s praises during a difficult campaign, while the local lads have kept rather quiet on the issue (while their good friend, Danny Murphy, publicly attacked Rafa in quite scathing manner a couple of months back).

It’s been that kind of season. Also, I’d be surprised if it’s escaped Rafa’s attention that during the season, Carragher’s family and friends have been quite vocal in calling for a new manager. That concerns me.

Benítez, meanwhile, could tire of the nonsense surrounding the club, and look to improve his reputation elsewhere, after it has taken a bit of a hammering this season. Or the owners could tire of him, and look to install someone with a clean slate and bring back that universal good-feeling air that comes with a new boss (and which usually lasts about eight games!).

Benítez has always dealt with players who are not particularly fond of him; in my experience he is a very likeable man, but I was kind of surprised to find that to be the case after some of the things I’d read.

However, to play for him, you have to accept that he won’t allow anyone to rest on his laurels, and that must be frustrating for those who crave some praise. Some Valencia players were hugely relieved when he left, after three years of him driving them relentlessly on and on and on; only to miss him once the club started slipping down the league. Be careful what you wish for, etc, etc.

I don’t doubt Benítez’s utter commitment to the job, with regard to his desire to bring success for the fans. He works incredible hours, and is utterly obsessed with doing the best he can.

Equally, I don’t believe that winning a trophy elsewhere could ever mean as much to Carragher and Gerrard as it would at Liverpool. I don’t doubt that they love the club, and they will go down in the history books as two of the very best.

Obviously Carragher’s position is the most unstable, given his age of 32 and lack of a long-term deal (standard practice at Arsenal). This is not to mention his own poor form earlier in the season, that led many observers to prematurely write him off; since when he’s returned to something approaching (but not quite matching) his best form.

However, personally speaking, I wasn’t too keen on Carragher’s assertions that he’ll move on if he isn’t a regular at Liverpool. While I accept his reasoning – he loves the game and wants to play every minute throughout the season – saying so publicly puts the manager in a tight spot, and whether it was intended to or not, it sounds a bit like blackmail: “play more, or I’m off”.

Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs have no such assurances at Manchester United, and I’d like to think that Carragher would be happy to contribute in the way they have, and accept time on the bench as part and parcel of getting older. He remains an outstanding organiser, and utterly committed to every last tackle, but mistakes are playing a bigger part in his game, and there’s no guarantee that he can defy the passage of time. I don’t think he’s finished, but equally, he’s not 25 anymore.

If he can’t maintain his place in the side, I’d love to see him remain on hand, as an option. But if he refuses to accept a bit-part – should that be his future (and I’m purely hypothesising) – and forces Benítez to sell him, then the manager will appear the villain. So from Carragher’s point of view (if his point of view is on a par with his family and friends), I could see why a change of manager might appeal.

That’s before getting onto the fact that the Academy has produced only one Premier League-standard local in the past 12 years (Stephen Warnock), and the iconic importance placed on Carragher staying.

(Indeed, it is precisely this lack of local talent emerging that prompted Benítez to recently replace loads of part-time amateur scouts with a smaller, more organised band of professional talent spotters.  This is one example of him doing the right thing for the club, and follow Arsene Wenger’s model, but few people being aware of it, because a handful of months later, no new wonderkids have miraculously emerged in the first team.)

The Reds’ no.23 was arguably the club’s most consistent player throughout the previous decade, and a bona fide legend, but managers have to think about the future, not the past. However, when Carragher said that he’d had “a bad 45 minutes at West Ham”, he was underplaying form far worse than just one half of football. If anything, his bizarre challenge for the ball at Spurs on the opening day, that led to Martin Skrtel breaking his jaw, set the tone for the season.

(Of course, that injury then led to a defensive crisis, with Agger already out, so he wasn’t helped by a new-look back-line – but even so, all criticism of him was justified, even if the “he’s finished” rubbish wasn’t.)

Players cannot be kept on for sentimental reasons. In some ways, Carragher may simply be accepting that: saying that if his time is up, he won’t dwell on it; he’ll take it on the chin, go elsewhere and continue to give his best. If so, I totally respect that.

But my fear is that it’s a power play, especially with Henry Winter, who ghosted Gerrard’s autobiography and who never misses a chance to state his dislike of Benítez, continually tipping the no.23 as a future Liverpool manager, with some outdated notion that you can tell who’d make a top boss by the way they play football.

The English game has moved on from the days of big-name rookie managers, with the bosses of the big five (if you now include City) all having won titles in either Italy, Spain or England, and three of them also landing the European Cup. This is not the era of O’Leary and Gullit anymore; this is the age where years of graft in managerial apprenticeships, usually in obscure environs, is almost certainly a necessity. And you can add the names of Roy Hodgson and David Moyes to that list (not to mention a little-known player like Roberto Martinez, who managed in the lower leagues first).

Carragher may well turn out to be a great manager; but I don’t see it as helpful that he’s being touted for the job, and it surely wouldn’t be long into the future, anyway.

Self-interest

Make no mistake – players have a more selfish view than managers. It’s the nature of the beast.

While the ego, and need to achieve great things, is arguably the same – these are winners, after all, whether crossing the white line or pacing the technical area – the manager has responsibility for the collective, while the individual has his own form and career to worry about.

This is never more clear than when ex-players who’ve achieved nothing as managers (Andy Gray, Alan Shearer) berate a boss like Benítez when he takes off a player on a hat-trick with 15 minutes to go and the game well  and truly won. They see the hat-trick as the key thing; the manager sees the next game as the important factor. I know who I back, and it’s not the player.

(Interestingly, Shearer’s take on backing Michael Owen in any circumstances as a pundit changed once he was actually managing. Beforehand, he would argue that he would “always get you a goal”; staring relegation in the face, and never more desperate for a goalscorer, Owen was left out. This is a key example of the different side to the coin.)

Some players feel a loyalty to a manager, while others won’t. I’m sure players like Reina, Torres, Mascherano, and all the other first-team players featuring in the side (of those he bought), are 100% behind Benítez. But those he didn’t buy, or those who feel they don’t play enough, will naturally have less loyalty. That’s not sinister; it’s natural.

This is why I will always back managers over players, even if it was a manager I didn’t like and a player I did.

At the time, I was angry that Houllier got rid of Robbie Fowler, but looking back, if the relationship between player and manager irrevocably breaks down, then there can only be one winner. And if it’s the player, then player power has taken control.

At any club, if there are player power issues, and it’s a small minority, then the problem probably rests with them; if it’s the whole squad, then the manager’s time is up. That’s when he’s “lost the dressing room”; equally, there will always be those within a dressing room, especially in the age of 25-30-man squads and increased egos, who are unhappy.

In the modern game, player power exists simply due to the celestial standing of the star names. When players at Chelsea can get a World Cup-winning manager the sack after six months, then you have to accept that anything is possible. I don’t necessarily think that is what exists at Liverpool, but equally, it would be wrong to suggest that it couldn’t.

Perhaps it’s just a case of bad results exaggerating every last niggle at the moment. If there are divisions, they need not necessarily be permanent. Ultimately, no-one is going to be happy during a season like this, and it only takes a winning run to smooth over difficulties. And a winning run will come – but it might not happen in time to rescue this season.

Stay or Go?

So, will Benítez stay or go? If the Reds finish outside the top four, as looks increasingly likely, then there will certainly be a clamour for him to move on.

My belief has always been that one bad season for a top manager can happen, but that two in a row is the cut-off point. (This is in my first book, from 2005.) However, I’m sure that even Benítez himself would admit he’s taken it as far as he could if next season was a continuation of this. Clearly, dramatic improvements are needed, on what has been an annus horribilis.

I don’t think that he’s grown stale, and he’s certainly no worse a manager than the one who won La Liga titles and the Champions League; if anything, experience will have made him better. (Managers don’t just lose their ability; but they can lose control of a situation, and need help, and/or time, to reel it in again.)

The problem is working magic during a season that has been snowballing negatively from the very first game.

Not once have Liverpool been out of “this is a must-win game” mode, and that’s exhausting. (It has been for me; I imagine it has for you, too. So for the players and staff, it cannot be easy.)

What’s clear, however, is that the situation around Benítez has grown steadily worse in recent years. The supposed “full control” he was given of the club has coincided with other problems.

He has had to break even in transfers for the last two years, rather than being able to spend money to improve the squad – certainly its depth; at a time when other clubs either have squads that are far more costly, and new rivals like Manchester City are emerging, with riches beyond compare. In terms of investment, Liverpool have been standing still; Spurs, City and Villa have not.

Benítez has experienced great instability over his job since late 2007. No other manager at a big English club has had to survive warring owners, one of whom was looking to sack him. So any success last season would have been in spite of this, not because of it.

And this season, the media, which has never given him the benefit of the doubt, has been out for its pound of flesh, like a pack of rabid, starving wolves, in a manner usually reserved for failing England managers.

Then there’s the lack of leeway that fans give to new bosses or those with recent trophies. He still has loads of loyal supporters, but a growing number of critics.

And all the while, some players will naturally grow less motivated by managers after long periods of time. Bill Shankly would have moved the players on, even during seven years of drought. Indeed, his main regret was that he left it until after 1970 to ship out the legends of the early-to-mid ‘60s.

Alex Ferguson does the same whenever any of his stars fall out with him, or grow stale. Bob Paisley was a master at moving a player on at the right time, as is Arsene Wenger. But vitally, all could call on total support from the board in freshening things up, with very secure positions at the club. But it’s not clear to me if Benítez has that utter power at this point in time.

The improvements in Benítez’s favour, such as the removal of Rick Parry and more control of the youth set-up, have yet to bear fruit.

I certainly think Purslow seems more professional, and although doubts remain in some quarters, at least he has solved one financial problem by agreeing a very lucrative shirt sponsorship deal.

Also, given that their relationship had seriously soured, he has to get on better with Rafa than did his predecessor (even if missing out on £15m-rated Chamakh, when the player wanted to join the club on a free transfer, takes us back into Parry territory).

But the youth revamp could take years to have a telling effect. The landing of one of England’s true prodigies – Raheem Sterling – is exciting news, and is indicative of moves in the right direction; the decision to bring back Kenny Dalglish clearly helped. But Sterling has only just turned 15, and similar signings obviously won’t have an immediate impact, either.

And now, Dalglish’s presence could be used to undermine the Liverpool manager, in the way that Roy Evans feared would be the case with him in 1997, when he blocked a similar move.

On the plus side, Benítez has been here before and come back stronger: in his 2nd season at Valencia, after winning the league, they dropped to 5th and he had to withstand massive pressure. A year later, they were champions again, with the UEFA Cup thrown in to boot.

But this is slightly different. This is Liverpool, and the massive goldfish bowl that the club is, with expectation always way beyond realistic levels.

I don’t doubt that Benítez could turn things around next season, if given the chance. But by being given the chance, it has to mean being backed to the hilt by the club, and not just with funds. Even Jose Mourinho lost his way at Chelsea once he was undermined by its owner.

People are already touting the return of Kenny Dalglish as manager, and the future appointment of Jamie Carragher; which, to me, sounds like Newcastle fans crying for the return of their messiah, Kevin Keegan, followed by the instalment of Shearer as boss – followed swiftly by relegation.

Believe me, I love Kenny to bits, and he did a brilliant job at Liverpool and Blackburn. He might still be able to cut it, but so much has changed in the past 15 years; not just in English football, but at Liverpool. And he wouldn’t have the financial backing he got first time around, or at Blackburn. Either way, the speculation won’t help.

All in all, it’s going to be a massive summer for Liverpool. To make matters worse, 15-or-so players are heading to the World Cup, and Torres will have his third consecutive hectic summer, with injuries dogging him after the previous two. And prices for players who are targets always escalate wildly after a good game or two at the finals.

But it needn’t all be doom and gloom.

It can be a chance for players and management to take pause, regroup, and make sense of what has at times been a logic-defying season, beset with every problem imaginable. After a break, a line can be drawn under 2009/10, and everyone starts again on an equal footing. I hope that this is the case: that everyone comes back refreshed, with renewed vigour and belief, united in the aim of being the best they can possibly be.

Then again, it can be a chance to fragment and go in different directions. It’s up to those concerned as to how it will play out. But either way, success beyond the summer will ride on the unity of what remains.

http://tomkinstimes.com

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