The end of conservative Benitez: The undoing of Liverpool?

Has the change to a more attacking Liverpool been their Undoing?

Daniel D’Alfonso

Ever since Rafael Benitez took over the reigns as manager at Liverpool, the perception from outside of the club has been that the Spaniard is a defence minded tactician and many of his critics have been quick to blame his negative tactics for Liverpool’s failure to win their first premier league title.

Last season Benitez’s side pushed bitter rivals Manchester United right to the death-only to fail after drawing seven games at home against some rather modest opposition. The inability to score in front of their own fans, ultimately cost them the premier league title, and the Rafa critics were quick to blame the bosses’ conservative 4-2-3-1 formation for the clubs home failings. What the critics also failed to mention was that Liverpool were the leagues top scorers, netting 77 goals in 38 league games including a run where they managed to score more than four goals in four consecutive games in all competitions.

Benitez’s Liverpool teams of recent years have been based on defensive solidity, with Club stalwart and vice captain Jamie Carragher leading the way as Liverpool saw themselves lose only twice in the league last season-away to Tottenham and Middlesbrough. They were the first team to only lose two games in a season, and still fail to capture the league title.

Fast forward to November and Benitez’s team have already lost five times in their opening twelve games, including a home loss to Aston Villa which, as well as two losses in the Champions league, and a League cup loss at the hands of Arsene Wenger’s young gunners. The defensive solidity, for which Benitez’s teams are renowned for, seems to have diminished, much like the form of Carragher, who has had a horror start to the season. Only 12 games into the 09/10 Premier league season, Liverpool find themselves 11 points behind league leaders Chelsea and on the brink of a group stage exit in the champion’s league-no matter what excuse you hear in each Benitez press conference, it is hard not to pin the blame on the clubs Spanish manager.

In the Summer Benitez offloaded Spanish playmaker Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid, and it can be argued that after the former Real Socieadad man handed in a transfer request Benitez was powerless to stop the Basque playmaker from leaving the club- however if Benitez had not transfer listed Alonso at the conclusion of the 2007/2008 season, then he would be still at the Merseyside club.

After offloading Alonso and compatriot Alvaro Arbeloa both to Real Madrid, Benitez signed far more attack minded replacements for the duo, In Glenn Johnson to fill Arbeloa’s right-back position, and Italian international Alberto Aquilani to replace Alonso. These two signings raised the eyebrows of the Anfield faithful as it seemed that a tactical change was on the cards.

Whilst Johnson has made a great impact since his 18 million pound move from Portsmouth, his desire to get forward at every opportunity, can leave the reds dangerously exposed at the back. Arbeloa was a very competent defender, but rarely threatened in attack, whilst Johnson is seen as very strong in attack, and has been often criticised for his inability to defend. Benitez seems to have adopted a far more attack-minded approach, and it looms to be his undoing.
The departure of such a versatile defender like Arbeloa cannot be underestimated; the Spaniard often filled in at Centre-back as well as Left-back, and flourished in those positions. So whilst the Departure of Alonso is often publicised as a big part of Liverpool’s failings (and since his replacement has managed 10 minutes of game time in the league since joining in the summer it seems a logical explanation) , many discount just how important Arbeloa was to the Anfield club and Rafa’s defensive solidity.

So even though Xabi Alonso’s departure continues to dominate the thoughts of Liverpool’s faithful, spare a moment of thought to reflect on just how much the club might miss Arbeloa. Remember the time that Arbeloa marked Lionel Messi out of a champions league tie playing in an unnatural role at left-back in a champions league knockout tie at camp Nou? I remember it fondly; the little known new signing from Deportivo came out and shut down the world’s best player who was on top form. So whilst I feel that Glenn Johnson will be one of Benitez’s greatest signings, I can’t help but think that the hole left by Arbeloa’s departure from a defensive standpoint cannot be filled by a player with the attacking instincts possessed by Glenn Johnson.

In Alberto Aquilani, Benitez signed a player who from midfield does the complete opposite of his predecessor Alonso. Whilst Alonso is known for sitting in midfield and dictating the tempo of a game, Aquilani is a box-to-box midfielder who has an eye for goal. Benitez claims that he can play in the hole between midfield and the striker as well as playing in the centre of midfield, but one thing is for sure, he is not a like for like replacement for Alonso, in fact the deep lying playmaker role which Alonso plays so well for club and country was crucial in Benitez’s setup.

Whether you blame the departure of the Spanish Duo to Real Madrid, the departure of club legend Sami Hyypia, or the injuries on international duty to key players such as Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Albert Riera, one thing is for certain. Rafael Benitez has his work cut out trying to keep his job as they continue to struggle in their quest for that elusive premier league title.


~ by berwickgroup2 on November 16, 2009.

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