As the season finally draws to a close the inevitable speculation surrounding Rafa Benitez has intensified to the point where we, as fans, really don’t know what’s going to happen. It is fair to say the number of fans demanding his removal have increased, but it would also be fair to say that a number of hardcore Rafa fans have galvanised their defences for the man.
In some ways Rafa is a victim of his own success. Driving the club forwards, despite the problems around him and without the spending power of his main rivals, like he had done prior to this season was never going to be replicated every year. Meanwhile the club has reached a critical stage across all of its operations off the pitch.
One thing I refuse to accept, which you hear from some, is that Rafa has worked against the club for his own interests or agenda. Indeed his desire to improve is matched by his quite obvious love for the club and its fans (even if its not always reciprocated). However, it would appear that he’s become embroiled within the political shenanigans and used the power he has/had as a way of pushing the club forwards. Whether that’s overhauling the academy and scouting systems or simply trying to get the board to move quicker with player acquisitions. It is often these actions which has seen him draw out significant respect from the Kop faithful. The problem with being involved in these mini-wars though is always the same, there’s always someone waiting to knock you down a peg or two when that power slips. The power has undoubtedly slipped and those around him see an opportunity to remind him that the ‘tail does not wag the dog’.
The question which really plays on my mind though is this: what is the criteria applied to decide when a Manager should be sacked? Is it a gut instinct call or are we, like so many other clubs, in the business of ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water’ after one mediocre season? For me, I guess I’d go back to my business roots and look at things a bit more pragmatically than some would like. When you have an employee you assess them against their own prior performance and that of their colleagues.
It’s far too simplistic, in my view, to say we finished 6th or 7th and that’s enough. Instead I’m going to look at Rafa’s points collation over his seasons with Liverpool and those of Ferguson, Wenger and Houllier. In all likelihood we’ll finish the season with 65 points. A major drop from last season but how does that fit in with Rafa’s own points collection from the past? Well his worst, excluding his first season, was 68 points in 2006/07. This was a significant drop from the season before, sound familiar? The two seasons after which he improved each season to the ‘oh so near’ season in 08/09.
If you look at a Manager’s track record it generally, like so many other things, works in waves. A steady increase in progression at the start of a manager’s career, as the wave rises, is often followed by a drop. I guess to extend the analogy further it is the depth of that drop which can determine the pressures created at the end of a season. It is therefore understandable why the pressure is so significant, as the wave has crashed from 86 points last season down to only 65 this. Benitez is not alone in having to deal with these waves though. Wenger saw the wave turn from 90 points in 03/04 to a gentle drop of 7 points followed by an almighty crash to 67 points in 05/06. Arsene and Rafa are very alike in their records when you analyse them. Ferguson, unfortunately, sets himself apart – his biggest wave crash (in premiership years) was 8 points, nothing like either of his fellow managers. That’s not to say though he didn’t have more turbulent times to deal with, prior to the premiership years. He’s simply now reached a level of consistency and more importantly steadiness. He reached it by not being sacked while he steadied the ship through rough waters.
The wave analogy continues, and possibly has more relevance, when you look at the gap to the top – the number of points away from the eventual champions. Here, even Ferguson has had to navigate his way carefully. In the run up to the 03/04 season, Ferguson on average had only ever been two points away from the title. In 03/04 though he was 15 away, 04/05 it increased to 18 before ‘steadying the ship’ in 05/06 with 8 and then going on to win three titles back to back. Wenger, following his 03/04 title winning season, was adrift 12, 24, 21 and 4 points in the seasons following (you see the waves?). So what about Rafa? Well this season, his first truly turbulent season, will see him finish between 19 and 21 points away from the top if we beat Hull. No worse than Wenger and not that far from a bad season for Ferguson, both managers having proved that by having a club which will stand by them they can deliver success.
So why should we stick by Rafa when Houllier had to go? That one is quite simple, Houllier only ever got us to 70 points or above in one season, a feat that Rafa has managed three times. Houllier was also ‘adrift’ of the top four by an AVERAGE of 19 points, in his final season he was 30 points away from the title. Quite simply his wave was one good season out of 6 (in Premiership terms), a criticism that surely can’t be levelled at Rafa?
The real disappointment is that this season didn’t have to be a crash. The club failed to provide the resources required to bolster our attacking options. Take out Drogba and you have Anelka, take out Adebayour and you’re left with Tevez or Bellamy; even take out Rooney and you still have Berbatov. With all respect to N’gog he is not a suitable stand in for Torres. That’s not to say he may never be, but at the moment he’s nowhere near. Kuyt is, in my opinion, too slow to play up front alone and Babel is… well Babel (bags of potential, slowly showing improvements but still far away from where he needs to be). Yes we brought in Johnson and Aquilani but these were replacements, rather than bolstering of what was already a thin squad (even before it was ravaged by injuries). We were close and we just needed those extra couple of players. The club failed to back the manager for reasons we all know about. Did Rafa think of himself and head for Real Madrid when times were tough for the club? At a time when other clubs were throwing money around readying their squads for battle, they’ll do the same this summer no doubt. No he stayed, worked in inhospitable conditions and dealt with every hurdle thrown up in front of him. But forget all that he didn’t deliver fourth so he should go?
So a couple of final thoughts. When I set about writing this post it wasn’t going to be about waves, or the sea, or ships… it’s just kind of turned out that way. But the critical element for me is this – I don’t believe that Rafa has been out of control this season, the wheels haven’t fallen off. All performance has variances and the ups and downs require regular monitoring, but as shown above this is a variation which should be within tolerances (compared against his own and other top managers’ performances). If it is acceptable for other premiership clubs to stand by their managers, who have subsequently delivered success, what do we achieve with a knee jerk reaction to one bad season?
I do believe when you look at the longer term picture, instead of the short term views taken by others, he still performs as well as Wenger and has the potential to be as good as Ferguson… given time. As the captain of the ship he has done a good job while dealing with pirates Hicks and Gillett looting his cargo, inclement sailing conditions, mutiny from some of the self serving crew members and a whole heap of bad luck! Scarily though this summer may be the same as last, or even worse considering it’s ‘inflate a price’ world cup year. Will the manager be backed in the transfer market? If not, well there are only so many miracles any one man can pull off!