Rafa Benitez endured a mixed start to his Liverpool management career after joining from Valencia in 2004. Success in his first season in the Champions League and defeat two years later showed his ability in Europe however it is in the league where he has found the most difficult; unable to fully challenge for the crown, until this season that is.
As a player Benitez’s career was cut short through injury but he represented the Real Madrid’s reserve team (Castilla FC). His early management career didn’t go too well being sacked early on at Real Valladolid and Osasuna. However there was an upturn in fortune, managing Segunda side CF Extremadura he gained promotion but quit the next season following relegation.
Relegation was the greatest thing that could have happened to him as in the year out he honed his coaching skills in England and Italy especially but not limited to studying the work of former AC Milan Arrigo Sacchi. He looked to further enhance the coaching philosophy by using some of the knowledge acquired in England.
His improved coaching was evident as in 2000 as he became manager of CD Tenerife, gaining promotion with such quality players as Mista, Curro Torres (loan from Valencia) and Luis Garcia. With his reputation greatly enhanced, he was appointed as Valencia manager (although as fourth choice) taking the former two players with him. In 2002 Benítez lead Valencia CF to their first La Liga title in thirty one years with Real Madrid and Barcelona nowhere in sight. After a disappointing next season, Rafa went one better winning La Liga and UEFA Cup but after falling out with Jesus Garcia Pitarch, the club’s director of sport, he went to Liverpool.
Winning the Champions League in his first season, FA Cup the next but losing the European final couldn’t mask his failures in the league. This season his vision seemed to have finally come to fruition but perhaps not in the way he planned it.
Robbie Keane and Adapting to the System
Rafa Benitez’s downfall in the league was because tactics were more important than the players and although a lot of this has remained, the appreciation of Gerrard has allowed him to adapt it. Speaking in 2004 he said:
“My ideas are near to the Milan of Arrigo Sacchi. I like technical and aggressive teams that don’t allow the opponents to play. I like teams that play the ball with speed and look to score with as few passes as possible.” Rafa Benitez (2004)
There is a misunderstanding of why Robbie Keane was signed which ironically is understandable. The price meant he was the final jigsaw to the puzzle; able to pressure high up and constantly while his movement was to be able to complement the system and Fernando Torres similar to David Villa of Spain. Courting Gareth Barry also seemed to signal a change to 4-4-2 but alas it never materialised and Alonso’s form making him revert back to 4-5-1.
Pressuring is very important as when you have the ball, you dictate play. When you are defending, you control the space. Kuyt and Riera track back as far as the full backs while the forwards side ways to stop the ball from being played to the midfielders. Barry could have easily been applied to the system but Riera an able enough and possibly better replacement signing.
Keane hasn’t fully adapted and as a result been recently dropped. Not because of pressuring but because of adapting to the attacking side though his performance at PSV showed improvements. Liverpool play almost in steps; playing little triangles to feet in and out, moving up the field. Movement on and off the ball is key, having all players being able to create, provide support and exploit space. It is a surprise how Keane is yet to adapt maybe too much emphasis on getting the ball to ones feet.
Players need to be flexible and adapt to the system. Pressing allows Liverpool to control space (think back to the Barcelona article) and make it seem the pitch is smaller by being compact, suffocating space. It is not a defensive formation but being able to play depends on the solidarity of the defence. When they attack options and people making and exploiting space is key but not to leave ones zone available to take advantage by the opposition.
Playing Against Arsenal
The ability to vary the game plan to stifle Arsenal is allowed by this formation. The fixture seems to bring the best and the worst out of Arsenal; great passing and movement but let down by letting in or not scoring goals. Liverpool will try and stop Arsenal from playing as they were overrun in the last few games but somehow remained unscathed.
However the Gunners haven’t been at their best and without enough creative players the game may see more long balls.
Benitez will look to apply these tactics to prevent Arsenal from playing; psychologically giving the Reds an advantage by decreasing space and with Gerrard now better adapted to the system it is sure to be a tight game indeed. Also Fernando Torres may be available with his superb movement allowing better execution of the game plan.
(Full match Preveiw on Saturday)