COS contributor James Ball discusses a year of Anfield turmoil.
If a week can sum up a season then the last seven days for Liverpool encapsulate why this has been a campaign to forget for the red half of Merseyside. Although victorious on the night, falling out of the Europa League to a mediocre Atletico Madrid last Thursday extinguished the last remaining chance of silverware. And Sunday’s insipid performance against Chelsea, whom they beat home and away last season, showed just how far the Reds have fallen since their valiant fight for the title just 12 months ago.
Of course the stellar names in English football have all fallen on hard times in recent memory; think Manchester Utd in 2005-06, Chelsea post-Mourinho and Arsenal’s failure to add trophies to their cabinet over the last five years. But whilst an overriding sense of optimism still pervaded in lean times at these clubs, the feeling is that the rot has set in at Anfield and it may take some time to repair the damage.
The lacklustre form on the field has been compounded by the ongoing uncertainty about the future ownership of the club, a lack of progress in the plans for a new stadium and constant speculation over Rafael Benitez’s position as manager.
Whilst it may take new Chairman, Martin Broughton, months to find somebody with deep enough pockets to meet the inflated £600 million asking price of American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the issue of Benitez’s future looks to be far closer to a resolution.
Apparently courted by Juventus, and on the radar of Real Madrid should they fail to secure the services of Jose Mourinho in the summer, Benitez’s six year reign at Anfield looks to have come to an end. Although the Spaniard has continued to speak of his love for the fans, his weary exterior appears to portray a man who knows it is time to move on.
He will forever be revered for the miracle of Istanbul, which returned the big-eared trophy and the title of European Champions to Liverpool for the first time in more than two decades. But despite the run to the final just two years later in Athens and last season’s second place finish in the Premier League, if the end is nigh for Benitez a cloud of under-achievement still hovers over his tenure.
His capture of compatriots Pepe Reina and Fernando Torres was inspired, but these are diamonds that shine brightly amongst the lumps of coal he has also shipped to Merseyside. Of course every manager should be excused an occasional misjudgement in his transfer dealings, but a lack of recent success on the pitch has magnified Benitez’s mistakes. Many Liverpool fans are baffled by his decision to leave David Ngog as the only real back-up for the talismanic Torres and by the time Alberto Aquilani made his first team debut in November, four months after his purchase, the title was already a forlorn hope.
The Spaniard’s man-management must also be subject to scrutiny. Surely if he had made Xabi Alonso feel valued he would still be anchoring the midfield? Why has he not been able to extract consistent performances from the talented but wayward Ryan Babel? And although both men would admit to below-par seasons, can the poor form of Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard be at least partly attributed to their frustration with the man at the helm?
Benitez bashing has to be tempered by the acknowledgement that he is still fundamentally a good manager. He has shown, both at Valencia and at Liverpool, that when he gets it right his teams are capable of winning trophies. It is simply the case that he needs a blank canvas somewhere else and the Reds need the impetus and fresh ideas a new boss can provide.
The uncertainty surrounding the ownership of the club means that replacing Benitez will not be an easy task. It is difficult to imagine any of Europe’s most coveted managers being drawn to a club with spiralling debts, minimal transfer funds and a threadbare squad. Throw in the potential exit of star man Torres and the prospects of enticing an ‘A-list’ candidate look slim.
Of course the history and culture of the club still resonates, and it must be hoped that this provides sufficient motivation to persuade a top manager and a clutch of top players to move to Anfield. But at a time when politicians are asking us to look to the future with them, it will surely be the chances of adding more trophies to those of Liverpool’s illustrious past that really determine the calibre of people they can attract. And after a season to forget, it may be some time before success is again celebrated.