The Riddle of Rafa Benitez

Jon FeatonbyCorrespondent IMay 27, 2009

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - MAY 17:  Liverpool Manager Rafael Benitez  looks on prior to the start of the Barclays Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Liverpool at The Hawthorns on May 17, 2009 in West Bromwich, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Second place in the Premiership, league doubles over both Manchester United and Chelsea, and a 4-0 mauling over Real Madrid.

For the most part, the last season has witnessed several steps in the right direction for Liverpool. Club captain and talisman Steven Gerrard signed a new long-term deal, Xabi Alonso returned to his best form, and Yossi Benayoun has shown what he is capable of on a consistent basis.

Many would argue that Rafael Benitez has had a succesful season. He has the team playing an attractive blend of attacking football that incorporates two holding midfielders making the team very hard to break down.

Benitez has also turned Dirk Kuyt into not only a hard working right sided midfielder, but an effective one, as well.

The new five-year contract he signed in March was a just reward for his achievements. Save for his extraordinary rant against Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, his management of the team has largely been without fault. Indeed it is arguable that Benitez's actions were designed to deflect attention away from Gerrard after the midfielder was arrested following an incident in a Liverpool nightclub.

However, another saga that unfolded during the first half of the season raises a warning flag concerning Benitez's ability to take Liverpool to the pinnacle of English club football and finally win their first Premiership crown.

Robbie Keane.

Keane arrived at Anfield last July following a £19 million move (plus further performance based fees) and was seen by many as a key addition. The lifelong Liverpool supporter brought with him a consistent track record having scored at least 15 league goals in each of the last six seasons.

But by the end of the January transfer window, Keane was back at Spurs having scored  seven goals in 28 appearances. Benitez explained the move by claiming that the forward had failed to fit into the team structure. 

What exactly does this mean? Keane is at his best when playing behind a striker, making use of the space between the defence and midfield. This position also happens to be where Gerrard is at his most influential.

It would be almost universally agreed the Gerrard is a better player than Keane, but surely there is a way to fit a player of Keane's class into a squad? This is the crux of the Benitez problem.

Rafa is fantastic at taking players and fitting them into his system, and his style of playing. Kuyt is the extreme example of this. Alvaro Arbeloa and Leiva Lucas also fall into this category.

It remains to be seen if he is capable of is having a number of players of world-class quality and managing them within a squad system where they will not play every week. 

Ferguson is the master of this. He has four supreme talents in Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, and Dimitar Berbatov. Yet usually only three of these four will start in any given week. But Sir Alex has the ability to keep his top players happy and playing well.

In the modern game, much is made of the requirement for a deep squad. Liverpool certainly have a large squad but in reality, there are probably only two positions in which the top two options are of equal ability. Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel are interchangeable in the centre of defence, and it would be hard to choose between Albert Riera and Benayoun.

After this, the second string makes a significant decline in talent. Much has been made of the fact that Fernando Torres and Gerrard started together in less than half of Liverpools league games this past season. While this is a fair point, it highlights the inability to replace these top players.

Keane should have made the Liverpool squad stronger. I don't blame Robbie for his short spell at the club, I believe that Benitez should have been able to make it work.

Until Rafa develops the ability to manage a squad of world class talent, Liverpool will struggle to consistently top the Premiership.