Rafa Benitez is a very good manager. He’s won the Champions League, UEFA Cup, La Liga, FA Cup, and probably a number of other less significant titles. If my memory serves me right the Spaniard also had the upper hand in his battles with the Dark Lord of Anti-Football when the Portuguese was at Chelsea. Most games were tactical borefests but Liverpool held their own against the expensively assembled London side.
It would be safe to say that Benitez is amongst the top ten managers in club football right now. Fans of the Spaniard might claim that had Rafa been given the same amount of financial backing that Mourinsho was, Benitez would have bettered the Dark Lord’s record. I don’t quite agree with that but it’s difficult to dismiss the argument off-hand as it has some merit.
Despite his undoubted abilities, one negative aspect casts a shadow over the ex-Valencia, Liverpool, and Inter coach. He left all three roles “with mutual consent” after falling out with the board/owner(s) over a number of issues. In all cases lack of funds for signings and control over transfers were key factors.
Benitez has thus far failed in establishing a legacy at any club. It seems to me that a significant part of that was down to his inability to work within the financial realities of the club. This is a very critical part of management and very few, even at the top, have actually succeeded.
For instance, Ancelotti had a fantastic record at Milan. His teams played well and won a number of titles. But once they had some financial difficulties, had to sell Kaka, and couldn’t really buy the big names, the Italian struggled to win titles. If Chelsea don’t splash out in January or the summer, it will be interesting to see what Carlo achieves for the Blues.
Too many people tend to divide a football club into the financial side and the football side. As the X in “Arsenal haven’t won a title for X years” grows, this division gets stronger in the minds of frustrated fans. Thankfully, those who take the decisions at Arsenal understand how intricately linked the two sides are.
If we look at clubs around England and Europe this link is easy to see. Manchester United have had a big stadium and a strong brand for a long, long time. They have had more money than Arsenal for years. Chelsea and Man City have wealthy benefactors. The two Spanish clubs have their own TV deals and banks/governments have bailed them out of serious trouble. Moreover, immigration laws allow them to sign younger South American players.
In contrast, German clubs have a much better balance between finance and football. When was the last time a German team won in the European club competitions? Is it a surprise that a team like Werder Bremen crashed out in the first round of the Champions League? Obviously a German club will win the Bundesliga and their domestic cups so they all get a chance to win something and not fall in the “no title for X years” trap. But that doesn’t mean any of those clubs is much better than Arsenal. This balance between the two aspects, finance and football, also gives smaller teams a chance to win something as other sides can’t buy all their best players.
Similarly, even though Inter did bore us to death while buying the Champions League last season, Italian clubs, in general, have struggled in Europe after the scandal and the financial crisis. At one stage people talked of AC Milan with awe and admiration, now even Spuds have a good chance against them!
Why have I suddenly started talking about other leagues and clubs while talking about Benitez? To show a link between the financial and football sides of a club. Once that is established we can discuss the performance of a manager within the constraints of financial reality.
The Spaniard didn’t get the kind of funds that Chelsea gave to their manager. But he had a lot more than what Arsene Wenger had and was pretty close to Fergusson. Rafa certainly had a lot more money than most managers get. So what was the problem for Benitez?
I think the biggest problem at Liverpool was the manager’s failure to get the right signings for the money he had. This meant that there was a lot of churn at the club. He couldn’t really get a good squad together, which would be the key to creating a legacy. And that is where we have to see the parallel with Arsenal.
Many fans feel that having a £50 Million profit means the club can splash out on proven players. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way mainly because the “proven player” is probably the biggest myth in football. No one can guarantee how a new signing is going to turn out.
Robbie Keane is a perfect example. The Irishman had an excellent scoring record in the Premier League for a club close to the top. Who could have been a more proven striker for Benitez to buy for the money he had? For some reason, it didn’t work out. Liverpool recovered a large part of the money they’d spent but they lost 6 months when the money spent wasn’t delivering on the pitch and that killed their title hopes. This happened to Benitez far too often and is one of the key reasons for the churn seen at Liverpool.
Then there is the case of Daniel Agger. I’d say he’s a very good defender. But he’s had fitness problems almost as bad as RvP’s. The money spent on him is gone but the performance on the pitch is not there even if the player and manager are not directly at fault.
Benitez also struggled to convert potential into performances. Ryan Babel was rated just as highly in those days as Eden Hazard or Javier Pastore are these days. Benitez spent a fair amount on a talented player but where was the output?
We have three distinct examples here. One is a proven player who can’t fit in with a different manager/system (Keane, Ibrahimovic, Shevchenko, Berbatov, etc). Another is a top class player struggling with injuries (Agger, Woodgate, etc). Finally, a really talented youngster failing to fulfil his potential.
That doesn’t mean all signings are disasters. Benitez hit the jackpot with players like Torres and Reina. The point is, any new signing could go both ways but no one can predict in advance how it will turn out. Consequently, at the time of a new signing no player can be called a “proven player”. A player can only prove his worth after he is signed so any new signing is a risk.
People who have worked in any kind of a planning role will understand the importance of contingency planning. If you have £50M you cannot spend it all on one plan.
Arsenal could spend that kind of money on two supposedly “proven players” and might win as a result. But it could just as easily flop. If it flops not only do Arsenal lose the money, they also lose a year. Next season it would be no titles for X+1 year and very little money to spend. Obviously the flops would lose their market value.
This is precisely what happened at Liverpool. Even though they did get a couple of titles, mostly using the squad Benitez inherited, they couldn’t get out of the vicious cycle, buy – flop/injured – sell – buy again. Eventually, the owners ran out of money and their debt problems didn’t help.
These days Liverpool don’t have much money and they don’t have a strong squad. Arsenal could easily be in the same place if they go down that path. The other clubs who have gone down this path either have owners that can absorb hundreds of millions in losses, or have governments that bail them out, or have revenues far higher than that of Arsenal. This is also the reason I’m hugely disappointed that the successful move to the Emirates is not seen as the monumental achievement that it is for the club.
While Rafa Benitez won a trophy or two at Valencia and Liverpool, he couldn’t take the club to a stage where they could consistently compete at the top with or without him. That failure overshadows any success, even the Champions League win.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Arsene Wenger has been perfect with his transfer dealings, tactical decisions, etc. With the benefit of hindsight we can always find some better options, but taking small yet meaningful steps towards the top, while working in a constrained environment, is an extremely challenging task. As with anything in life, we have to accept some mistakes when they come with a largely excellent performance.