So Gerrard Houllier is ‘being given time’ at Aston Villa (18th in the Premier League), while Roy Hodgson is ‘facing the axe’ at Liverpool (12th position). Two very similar stories and situations, separated by one marked difference – the expectations of the two club’s fans.
While there is no doubt that Liverpool are facing a real crisis at the moment, it would be foolish not to give Hodgson more time. For a club that traditionally backs their managers to the hilt (see Benitez circa 2009) the treatment of the former Inter and Finland manger has been ridiculous. Unfortunately it seems he has become a scapegoat for the deep-rooted issues at the club.
While Benitez had his great times at the Anfield club, imagine for a moment that Liverpool had lost the penalty shoot-out in Istanbul in 2005. No Champions League trophy, no red-top bus parade, just a third round Cup exit to Burnley and fifth place league finish. Similarly, imagine Gerrard’s last minute equaliser in the 2006 FA Cup had gone inches wide, there would have been no silverware at the club for five years now. Both those finely balanced moments saved Benitez’s Merseyside career from being curtailed far shorter than it was.
The truth about Rafa’s reign at Anfield is easy to see with hindsight. In the transfer market he was one of the most wasteful mangers of recent times, both in terms of finances and sheer number of players that came though the endless revolving door. Critics of this theory often site Arsène Wenger or Sir Alex Ferguson’s poor big money buys (Jeffers, Reyes, Veron, Kleberson being the biggest flops) but in in realistic terms these were mere blips in good records compared to Benitez’s hit and (usually) miss policy.
Rather than list all of the Spaniard’s transfer dealings here, head over to The Telegaph to see for yourself. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/liverpool/7675751/Rafael-Benitezs-transfer-dealings-during-his-six-year-reign-at-Liverpool.html) Out of those Morientes, Garcia, Sissoko, Crouch, Bellamy, Pennant, Babel, Dossena, Cavalieri, Keane, Riera and Aquilani are the high profiles names that stand out, all failing to make a telling impression at Anfield. Benitez forked out over £100m for those 12 players, and recouped only £60m, although Babel and Aquilani remain with the club. More worryingly than that in his six seasons at the club well over 50 players came and went through the first team as he tried to find the right formula, all this at a net spend of £63 million.
Hodgson has been, quite rightly, quick to point out these failings of Benitez, but due to results on the pitch has been overshadowed by the movement against him personally. It’s easy to criticise the former Fulham man’s tactics, but Benitez played the same long ball approach and got similar results when Gerrard and Torres were absent from the team.
If you look at the team Hodgson inherited it is easy to see why Liverpool are struggling:
- Pepe Reina – Arguably Liverpool’s most valuable asset after Torres, one of Benitez’s great buys.
- Paul Konchesky – Brought in by Hodgson, who on a tight budget had to replace the failings of Insua and Aurelio.
- Martin Skrtel – Started promisingly but seems to need leadership in an unorganised defence.
- Sotirios Kyrgiakos – Another of Benitez’s strange purchases, clearly way out of his depth at Premier League level, often using dirty tactics to hide a lack of skill.
- Glen Johnson – Has never lived up to the £17m Benitez paid for him, a luxury defensive player who contributes more at the top end of the field than the back.
- Maxi Rodriguez – Clearly past his best, one of two wingers in the squad with no pace and the inability to beat a man.
- Leiva Lucas – Improving youngster, but struggling to live up to the vacancy left by Xavi Alonso. Took two years to get up to speed with the pace of the game
- Steven Gerrard – The last great product of the Youth Academy, a huge asset to the team that Hodgson can’t afford to lose.
- Dirk Kuyt – Loved by the fans for his never-say-die attitude, but similarly lacking pace as a winger like Maxi. Struggles to fit into most formations.
- Fernando Torres – Benitez’s star buy, one of the World’s top strikers and, like Gerrard, invaluable.
- David Ngog – Hugely out of his depth at Premier League level, a player that would struggle to be first choice for most of the top flight’s teams.
Other major squad members include: Joe Cole (as England found out in the summer, not half the player he was), Ryan Babel (played out of position or benched for most of his Anfield career, seems lost at the club), and Jamie Carragher (lacking the pace and judgement of his younger days, retirement on the cards soon).
It is undeniable that the squad simply isn’t good enough, and given the rise of Spurs and Man City puts Liverpool fighting for a 6th place finish at best. The sad reality for Liverpool fans is none of Harry Redknapp, Arsene Wenger or Roberto Mancini would swap many Liverpool player for their own. Probably only Reina, Gerrard and Torres if you are being honest. Possibly Glen Johnson if you could afford the luxury of that kind of player in your team. It is no wonder then that Liverpool lack so far behind these other clubs, but unfortunately the fans’ ambition is still that of a Top Four club.
Whatever happens at Liverpool, it’s clear that, at least for the time-being, the job is a poisoned chalice. The expectation of the fans in comparison to the quality of squad is poles apart. A full clear-out is needed before the club can move forward and that takes both time and patience. If Hodgson is given his marching orders then probably only a high-profile name such as Mourinho or Louis van Gaal would survive on reputation alone during the transition period. The irony is that probably the best candidate would be Martin O’Neill, the man who previously held the reigns at Villa. Whether he would want the role is another thing entirely.