Hasta luego Rafa el Gaffer

And so, after 6 years in charge Liverpool have sent Rafa Benitez on his way. Media outlets were awash with news of him being offered a £3m pay off to walk away, no-one knew until the following afternoon whether he had accepted the payment and faded into the background, or if he was going to dig his heels in and hold out for the reported £16m he would be entitled to if he was sacked.

With a perceived below-par season behind them, boardroom unrest, reported player unhappiness and not a penny to spend on much needed new players what on earth is going on at England’s most successful club?

First things first, let’s dispel a myth: Rafa Benitez is not solely responsible for Liverpool’s current plight. He is a decent manager who has some flaws. However a string of broken promises from Tom Hicks and George Gillett, a complete lack of funding, a stadium that simply doesn’t generate enough revenue as well as a number of other factors are what has caused the disarray the Reds are in.  True, Benitez has been by no means perfect, but many of Liverpool’s shortcomings are out of his control.

Quite simply, the only teams with the capabilities to win the league these days are Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and possibly Arsenal. Why is this? Chelsea has a good squad and bottomless pockets. Man City has a decent and improving squad, and an even more bottomless pot of money. Manchester United has a good squad, a huge stadium and is a merchandising and revenue streaming gold mine. Arsenal has been so prudent and wise in their investment and expenditure that should Wenger choose to use them there are funds available. The Gunners have a huge stadium that they are admittedly still paying for, but that also generates a good source of revenue. Bottom line, they all have money to spend. Liverpool, do not have a proverbial pot to piss in.  Anfield is too small to generate a competitive amount of income. Liverpool’s squad lacks depth, but because of the two previous problems, there is no sign of this changing. Liverpool will never compete with the teams mentioned above on the field until they can get on an even footing financially. The same is true of Aston Villa, Spurs and anyone else looking to try and capture the Premier League Trophy. The good thing from the point of view of Villa and Spurs is that at the moment, they are much closer financially to the other 4 than Liverpool are. They are not at sixes and sevens like their Merseyside rivals either.

So what of Liverpool and their situation? Unfortunately, the manner in which Benitez left the club is a sign of just how much of a mess they are in. For a traditional club that doesn’t “air its dirty laundry in public” the leaking to certain news outlets that Benitez had been offered a severance package was a really poor way to go about their business. As we all know, had Benitez been sacked, he would have pocketed a cool £16m for his troubles. In leaking the offer of a £3m severance package, the big wigs at Liverpool were obviously hoping that if Benitez turned the offer down it would paint him as a greedy villainous character and the club as an injured party.  As it happens, negotiations went on and he settled for £6m. The club still emerged looking foolish and having lost a fair bit of respect. Of course the whole business of the pay off would have been avoided had Liverpool’s board not awarded Benitez a new 5 year deal just a short time ago but that is by the by.

To be honest, whilst the owners and the board have done their fair share of damage to the club, it is fair to say that Benitez and Liverpool had probably gone as far as they could together. There are still fans writing in to football websites, blogs, and newspapers, anyone that will listen to say that Rafa is still the man for the job. In truth, he and Liverpool will probably both benefit from the change.

Liverpool finished the 2008-2009 season with their highest ever points tally in the Premier League, gaining 86 points. It was still not enough to win the league as Man United amassed 90. Liverpool lost just 2 games all season but came up short. That was as close as they’d ever come to winning the Premier League, but you couldn’t help but feel that this was their big chance and it slipped away.  It was a magnificent effort but those who expected the following year to be the one they finally won the league were to be disappointed. The fact is that whilst that season was a superb one for Liverpool it was also an anomaly. The squad has not really changed a massive amount between that season and last season, yet they have gone backwards. Put simply, the loss of Xabi Alonso was a big one, but Aquilani was bought to fill that gap. Glen Johnson came in for Alvaro Arbeloa and Sotirios Kyrgiakos replaced Sami Hyypia. So it is not as though there were wholesale changes. The problem was that 08-09 masked a lot of cracks in the Liverpool structure. Their paper thin squad was not exposed as they were quite fortunate with injuries. Torres and Gerrard in particular stayed fit for most of the season. Both were in the form of their lives too, scoring goals for fun. Last year, both struggled with injuries and fitness, whilst teams had become wise to Liverpool’s style of play. Suddenly, it was clear that Liverpool were just not good enough. Calls for additions to the squad fell on deaf ears and unsurprisingly they slipped down the table and out of all cup competitions. It is clear that in 2008-2009 they massively over achieved and acquired a false position given the resources and players at their disposal. Some say a few additions to that 08-09 squad would have been enough to take them all the way. It didn’t happen so we will never know.

This leads me to mention the perception that Benitez was never supported in the transfer market. This assumption is not quite as clear cut as one might think. Whilst the signings of Fernando Torres, Javier Mascherano and Pepe Reina could be deemed as successful, Benitez’s record in the transfer market has plenty of failures. For every Torres there is an Antonio Nunez. For every Javier Mascherano there is an Andriy Voronin. For every Pepe Reina there is a Josemi and so the list could go on and on. In total an estimated £229m has been spent on players during the Rafa years. Some 76 players have come, and many gone again. There is a school of thought that Benitez always had to buy players from the second tier of quality, or that he didn’t get the funds at the right times. However, 76 players and £229m equate to a lot whatever spin you put on it (we’ll have no mention of net spend here.) It is not hard to see why the owners became reluctant to put their hands in their pockets for him when the hit/miss ratio reads as it does. Look at the situation with Robbie Keane and then Alberto Aquilani: Both cost in excess of £20 million and then Benitez left them out of the team for long periods. It seemed that he did not trust either to play regularly despite the huge outlay on their services. Keane was sent back to Spurs at a loss of around £8m just months later. It is not surprising the owners tightened the purse strings.

Liverpool under Benitez were capable of beating anyone on their day. They were capable of losing to almost anyone too. Maybe pundits, fans and everyone else need to gain a new sense of perspective: Yes, they used to win the league almost every year but that was during the 1980s. Liverpool has not won the league for 20 odd years. That is long enough in my opinion to still be considered as a big club, but not necessarily a genuine title contender. As mentioned above, they just don’t have the tools to win it anymore. What Benitez has done is turn Liverpool into a very good cup team; able to rise to the big occasion, to out think and out play even the best teams on a given day. They don’t have the killer instinct to re-produce that on a wet Tuesday night away at Bolton Wanderers in the league which is why they fall short. There is no shame in being a good cup team that finishes in the top half of the league; it is just not what Liverpool’s fans expect. Maybe it is time to adjust these expectations and enjoy the successes as they are, and realise that history is all well and good, but it counts for little in the here and now.

Next season is the edge of the abyss for Liverpool. So many changes are needed: New owners who actually have money to invest, a new stadium, a stronger squad, and obviously a new manager. In truth, the new owners will not sort itself out overnight. Certainly not with the Americans’ current valuation of the club. Consequently the other problems will not be sorted out any time soon either. Sadly Hicks and Gillett will not give the manager money to spend as they have made it clear they intend to sell up. Which half decent manager in their right mind would be masochistic enough to take this job at the moment anyway? All I know is something needs to be done soon, or LFC will struggle to walk again, never mind never walk alone.

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