No One Likes Rafael Benitez, But We Don't Care
The great American poet Allen Ginsberg once said that, "Whoever controls the media—the images—controls the culture." Admittedly, that's a lofty start to a sports article, but in writing about Rafael Benitez, I thought it strangely apt.
There's been a few media favourites in English football down the years. From Brian Clough to Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, journalists love the cocky and the brash. It isn't difficult to understand why, I mean, a lot of journalists are freelance and get paid by the article, while newspapers rely on stories and soundbites.
With that in mind, it's pretty clear why someone like "The Special One" would be popular with them. Conversely, it's also easy to see why the opposite would be true of someone quieter, more thoughtful, or less thrilling.
The height of Rafael Benitez's media career came after the recent soundbite-full "facts" comment about Alex Ferguson, which the media converted in to the simple, newspaper-friendly headline, "Rafa's Rant."
But aside from that, why would the press like the Liverpool manager, given who they usually prefer? Down the years, he's given them very few stories away from the pitch. He's ignored the petty mind-games, refused to be drawn on speculation and arguments, and kept his cards hidden.
On the pitch, he's seemed cagey, unexciting, and extremely tactical.
If Ferguson's the general and Jose's the matador, Rafa's the chess-player. Chess enthusiasts don't make media darlings.
I hate it when football fans accuse the world of a bias against their man or their club, but the more I look at it, the more I see one against Benitez. Every time I see a game, I hear commentators questioning his style or tactics, even when he wins.
Every time I hear about his transfer record it grates on me because of outright lies and falsehoods now taken as fact by almost all quarters. Even a minority of Liverpool fans seem taken in by it all, and reacted to his new contract with suspicion and pessimism.
The common perception, that Rafa has "blown" £188m on a large amount of duds and no Premier League title, is not only a blatant misrepresentation of the truth, it's verging on a lie.
The figure seems sound, but no one figure tells the whole picture. To quote the excellent sports writer, Paul Tomkins, that is gross spend, not net spend, and doesn't take in to account the money he's taken off that figure with player sales, totalling around £80m.
So that puts the figure at around £100m spent on players, and much of that was funded by trophy-winning and match revenue simply not achieved during the Houllier years.
Tomkins has done the maths, and the most expensive squad at the moment is Chelsea, followed by United. Liverpool's squad is actually way down in fifth place, behind Tottenham and Manchester City. So where should Liverpool be in the league table?
Well Manchester City, the team just above them in squad-cost, currently lie in 10th place at the time of writing. Tottenham, above them in expense, are a place behind them in 11th.
Manchester United are top of the league, but only ahead by four points. The rough difference in squad value is £80m between United and Liverpool. That's £20m per point. Chelsea, the most expensive squad in British history, are joint second, only ahead of Liverpool on goal difference.
Then you add in to the variables the fact that, in 2004, when Rafael Benitez took over at Liverpool, Chelsea's squad was full of big-name, expensive stars brought in by the very underrated manager, Claudio Ranieri.
The squad inherited by Jose Mourinho already included Petr Cech, Claud Makelele, Frank Lampard, Arjen Robben, and Joe Cole, as well as John Terry, nurtured by Ranieri's team.
In 2004, Manchester United's squad had been graced by the likes of Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville for near a decade, while Rio "£30m" Ferdinand, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Alan Smith and Cristiano Ronaldo were in the first team.
The only players remaining in the current Liverpool squad from the 2003-04 season are Sami Hyypia, Jamie Carragher, and Steven Gerrard. Everyone else has been sold and replaced.
My point is that while Chelsea and Manchester United could continue to build upon already great squads, Rafa had to start again from scratch, and what's more he did it with a fraction of the budget.
In 2004, Jose Mourinho's first summer at Chelsea, he added to the likes of Lampard, Cech, and Terry by spending over £70m on players, including £24m on Didier Drogba, £19.8m on Ricardo Carvalho, £10m on Tiago, and £13m on Paulo Ferreira.
In the same summer, Alex Ferguson spent £25.6m on the 18-year-old Wayne Rooney, as well as £7m on Gabriel Heinze.
In Rafael Benitez's first summer at Anfield, he lost Michael Owen for pittance to Real Madrid, and signed Luis Garcia (£6m) and Xabi Alonso (£10.5).
All in all, Mourinho and Ferguson added to extremely well established and talented title contending squads by spending upwards of £70m and £32m respectively, while Benitez could only manage £16.5m... and won the Champions League.
His achievements speak for themselves, in dragging a UEFA Cup squad to a European Cup victory, and, through expert wheeling and dealing with squad players, now becoming the most feared team in European football.
Just four points off the league leaders after a mere five years in charge (Alex Ferguson waited seven years to win the league with United), building a new team from scratch with a limited budget and major ownership distractions.
Every time he's reached a final he's beaten sides better than his, through a combination of brilliant tactical nous and incredible knowledge of the game.
He's taken a club heavily in debt, without major financial backers or the well-established proceeds of a worldwide global "brand", and yet managed to win himself the funds to sign players like Mascherano and Fernando Torres.
Yet still, people have the nerve to ask Liverpool supporters whether they think his new contract is a good or a bad move for the club. The media may control the culture, but luckily they don't control Liverpool FC.
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