So, it’s summer again, and as I write this I have sunburn. The redness on my arms is a sure sign that it’s time to evaluate Liverpool’s season once again.
My team finished second, narrowly missing out on their first league success since 1990. They have the best striker in the world in the shape of Fernando Torres, and the undisputed best midfielder in the form of Steven Gerrard. Everyone has new contracts, including the manager, and the talk is of moving on again, to the next step.
Everything is going well.
And yet, despite all this, I still hear people, including a very small minority of Liverpool supporters, saying that Rafa isn’t the right man for the job.
I’m about to make a very bold claim, and some of you may doubt me on it. Some of you reading this will think I’m suffering with sunstroke, but bear with me and give the following statement a chance:
When Rafael Benitez took over at Anfield, the Liverpool squad he inherited was on a similar level to the Newcastle United team that has just been relegated from the Premier League.
Bold, I know, and even I thought I was thinking silly before I looked again. But I think it holds up.
The good quality team of 2001, when Liverpool won their famous treble (technically a quintuple, as they competed in the Charity Shield and European Super Cup as a result of their actions, and won them both), had been mostly broken up by the 2004/2005 season.
Heroes like Gary McAllister, Sander Westerveld, Jari Litmanen, Nick Barmby, Robbie Fowler, Markus Babbel and Patrick Berger were all long gone, and the only major squad members brought it to replace them had been John Arne Riise, Steve Finnan, Harry Kewell and Jerzy Dudek.
Just before Gerard Houllier left Liverpool, he had agreed to sell Emile Heskey to Birmingham City, while he'd spend a large amount of money on what would turn out to be the last of his French struggles, Djibril Cisse.
And then, just after Benitez took Houllier’s place, Michael Owen decided that he didn’t want to suffer another period of transition, and left for Madrid for a very small fee, which Liverpool had negotiated fully aware of Owen’s failure to sign another few years to his dwindling contract.
So, this is the team that Benitez inherited when he joined in 2004, adjusted for Owen’s inevitable leaving, since he’d decided by that point that he was going:
Jerzy Dudek, Chris Kirkland, Patrice Luzi.
James Carragher, Stephen Finnan, Stéphane Henchoz, Sami Hyypiä, John Arne Riise, Djimi Traoré, Zak Whitbread, Stephen Warnock.
Igor Biscan, Bruno Cheyrou, Salif Alassane Diao, Steven Gerrard, Dietmar Hamann, Harry Kewell, Anthony Le Tallec, Danny Murphy, Ritchie Partridge, Darren Potter, Vladimir Smicer, John Welsh.
Milan Baros, El Hadji Diouf, Djibril Cisse, Florent Sinama-Pongolle, Neil Mellor.
In order to raise funds for new signings, Benitez was forced to then sell players from that squad and reduce the wage bill by loaning out others. Among those to leave were Danny Murphy (who was sold to Charlton Athletic), Anthony Le Tallec (on loan to Sunderland) and El Hadji Diouf (on loan to Bolton Wanderers).
And to confound matters, over the course of his first season in charge, Benitez had to cope with the loss of Vladimir Smicer, Harry Kewell, Djibril Cisse, and Steven Gerrard to injury, as well as some of the few players he was able to bring to the club, such as Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia.
That summer, due to the massive budget constraints on a team, that had speculated a large amount of money since 2001 and achieved no prize money in return, Benitez spent just £18 million on Luis Garcia (£6m), Antonio Nunez (free), Josemi (£2m), and Xabi Alonso (£10m). This was the same summer that the new Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho spent a staggering £141 million.
The following is the Newcastle United squad that started last season:
Shay Given, Steve Harper, Fraser Forster.
Fabricio Coloccini, José Enrique, Caçapa, Sébastien Bassong, Habib Beye, Steven Taylor, David Edgar.
Joey Barton, Danny Guthrie, Damien Duff, Jonás Gutiérrez, Geremi, Nicky Butt, Kazenga LuaLua, Charles N’Zogbia, Ignacio González.
Obafemi Martins, Michael Owen, Alan Smith, Xisco, Shola Ameobi, Peter Løvenkrands, Mark Viduka, Andy Carroll.
That Newcastle had an old team, and players like Nicky Butt, Mark Viduka, Michael Owen, and Damien Duff may have faded since their heydays, is not significant, as they are still proven Premier League players with a wealth of experience between them, and are no older collectively than Hamman, Smicer, Hyypia, and Finnan were when Benitez took over.
In contrast to Liverpool in 2005, Newcastle last year went in to a campaign with proven Premier League goal scorers in the form of Owen, Viduka, Smith, and Duff, and, like Liverpool in 2005, encountered more than their fair share of injury woes.
Of course, Newcastle lacked Steven Gerrard, Sami Hyypia, or Jamie Carragher (incidentally the only three players from the pre-Benitez era still playing for Liverpool last term).
But Newcastle had more strength in depth than Benitez’s first squad, and arguably a better goalkeeper in the form of Shay Given.
While Liverpool’s main power in 2004 was their defence (which was a fairly settled back four, bolstered by the incredible performances of Carragher, who Rafa brilliantly decided to place at centre-half), Newcastle’s was in midfield and attack, where they (should have) had enough to out-class other relegation struggles around them.
The point here is not to suggest that Liverpool were relegation material, or to highlight the blatant fact that Newcastle have woefully under-achieved in 2009.
It is to suggest that the squad Benitez has now is vastly superior to the one he inherited, so much so as to be in an entirely different class. It also serves to point out the overall quality difference across all Premier League clubs in 2004, compared to 2009.
The very fact that only three of that original 2004 squad could get in to Benitez’s 2009 squad illustrates the gulf in class between then and now, and illustrates that he has rebuilt the squad and moved it to another level, also indicated by their league position.
But there’s been one small problem, and it’s one I’ve already touched upon.
In 2005, Chelsea spent £141 million. In 2006, they spent £67 million. Overall, while Jose Mourinho was in charge, he spent £225 million.
Meanwhile, just down the M62, Sir Alex Ferguson has added to his already dominant Manchester United by signing £114 million worth of talent, including youngsters Anderson (£18 million) and Nani (£17 million), as well as Michael Carrick (£19 million), and Dimitar Berbatov (£30.75 million).
In short, the job that Benitez has had to do at Liverpool has been a running race whereby two of his competitors kept moving the finishing line a bit further away each time he neared it.
Prior to 2005, the notion of a single team in England spending £141 million in one season was laughable. The Abramovich era changed a lot of things, but most importantly it gave an unexpected boost to transfer values across all clubs and players.
When Benitez took over, his team’s most successful period during the Premier League had come when they had won the UEFA Cup (which had been devalued as a competition by the Inter-Toto Cup and the success of the Champions League), the FA Cup (which Manchester United had withdrawn from in 1999-00), and the League Cup (classed as second-rate by many supporters).
They had narrowly qualified for the Champions League in 2004, an achievement so important it was seen as exactly that, an achievement, rather than mandatory, since the club hadn’t qualified for it the season before.
He found an aging squad with some players punching way above their weight, and some of the club’s prized assets bound for other clubs. He knew he’d have to rebuild the team from scratch, with limited funds available.
And all while Chelsea and Manchester United kept on pulling away faster than they had done at any time previously.
Yet now, Rafael Benitez is in charge of a team with short odds to win the league next season.
In 2004, Liverpool had no chance of fighting for first-place, and no absolute right to even be in the Champions League places. They were a team of also-rans, who had failed to build on the treble-winning squad.
They were about to enter a new period of stagnation that would have rivalled their 1990s fall from grace.
Had things continued along that course, who’s to say that Aston Villa, Everton, or someone else wouldn’t have over-taken them?
The teams now hanging around near the Champions League positions are considerably stronger now than they were in 2004, and I think it’s reasonable to assume that had something at Liverpool not changed dramatically, they could have fallen out of the fabled top four.
But they didn’t. Instead, Rafael Benitez came and rebuilt the club from scratch, quite literally from top to bottom, instigating change in the higher echelons of the boardroom down to the youth set-up.
The last manager to do that at Liverpool was from Scotland. I don’t need to remind you of his name.
And so as I settle down to apply some after-sun, I’ll lament the end of the football season, and consider the implications for next term.
Because if he’s taken us this far, in the face of everything that stood against him, I know that Rafael Benitez is the right man for the job, and that every club in the league will be watching for Liverpool in 2010.