In footballing terms, the phrase “mutual consent” is often used when a club and a manager part ways, usually it’s just a nicer way of saying that the manager concerned has been sacked. As you’ll be fully aware from today’s news, Rafa Benitez, like his predecessor Gerard Houllier, has left Liverpool FC by mutual consent. Unlike his predecessor, however, Benitez has never really seemed that successful as a manager to neutral observers. Liverpool fans, on the other hand, in the main support him, citing the owners and the debt that they have brought onto the club with them. But is that a fair reflection of Benitez’s tenure?
The acquisition of the club by George Gillett and Tom Hicks initially seemed to be a good thing, and in their first close season at the club, they gave the green light for Benitez to spend relatively freely. However, as time went on, and the new owners admitted that they had indeed acquired through a leverage buyout, and therefore loading hundreds of millions of pounds of debt onto the club, it appeared that the amount of money that the club owed, would impact on it’s spending. Over the last three seasons, there have been regular suggestions of power struggles behind the scenes, and the biggest casualty before today was former Chief Executive Rick Parry. As early as 2007, Benitez claimed that he did not feel that he had the full backing of the owners, and has regularly suggested that he needed more funds in order to carry on challenging both domestically and on the European front – but did Benitez just use the fans justified hatred for Gillett and Hicks to cover his own inadequacies?
It was David Moores who appointed Benitez, back in 2005. In his first season Benitez had a net outlay of £15m, bringing in Xabi Alonso, Fernando Morientes, Luis Garcia and Josemi amongst others, while offloading Michael Owen and Danny Murphy. These additions, added to the squad that Benitez inherited, helped land the Champions League, after beating Milan on penalties. Another outlay followed in the summer of 2005 with £17m net being added to the side, with Peter Crouch, Pepe Reina, Momo Sissoko, and Mark Gonzalez all arriving for over £4m, and Milan Baros being the only major departee (for £6.5m), another £5.8m went on Daniel Agger (Jan Kromkamp being swapped with Josemi) in the January transfer window, but the only silverware that arrived was the FA Cup – like the Champions League, Liverpool winning on penalties after coming from behind. That was the last major silverware won by the club. In the summer of 2006 (the last before Hicks and Gillett arrived at the club and mortgaged the club’s future), Liverpool once again had a large net spend. Dirk Kuyt, Jermaine Pennant, Craig Bellamy, Alvaro Arbeloa and Gabriel Palletta spearheaded a £15.9m net spend, with Fernando Morientes, Djimi Traore and Neil Mellor the main sales.
While this was happening, one area that Benitez wanted control over was the youth team. Thanks to a power struggle that saw the Moores family want to retain the setup that had been so beneficial in the past, Benitez went his own way and brought in a lot of teenage talents from around Europe on professional contracts – inflating the size of the squad in the process. The vast majority of these players (such as Damien Plessis, Jack Hobbs, Peter Gulacsi, Antonio Barragan, Paul Anderson, Nikolay Mihaylov, Godwin Antwi, David Martin, Mikel San Jose, Astrit Ajdarevic, Miki Roque and the late Besian Idrizaj – and these were the relatively successful ones) flopped. Of the players who played last season for Liverpool, the only regulars who are Liverpool “youth products” are Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and Emiliano Insua. That just three others (Daniel Ayala, Nabil El Zhar and Jay Spearing) made 4 Premier League starts between them and only five others (Stephen Darby, Nathan Eccleston, Martin Kelly, Daniel Pacheco and Jack Robinson) were substitutes in the League, shows how Liverpool’s youth system has deteriorated under Benitez’s watch, and that most of those newcomers had come through the traditional Academy setup suggests that his desire for total control was detrimental for the long term of the club.
Back to the spending – by the time that Hicks and Gillett arrived at the club, Benitez had built a side that was the second best in Europe for a net outlay £54.7m, yet despite fifteen multi-million pound acquisitions in three years, of the eighteen on duty in Athens five of the starters (Steve Finnan, John Arne Riise, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Bolo Zenden) and three of the substitutes (Jerzy Dudek, Sami Hyypia, Harry Kewell) had been inherited – Morientes, Josemi and Kromkamp had already left the club, and Garcia, Sissoko and Palletta were left out of the squad.
By now, Hicks and Gillett had acquired the club, and having told the fans that they had bought the club, rather than acquired it in the way that the Glazers had acquired Manchester United. The first summer (2007) saw them being perceived as putting ther money where their mouths had been and letting Benitez add Fernando Torres, Ryan Babel and Yossi Benayoun arrived for £43m, and £20.5m was raised through the sales of Craig Bellamy, Djibril Cisse, Mark Gonzalez and Florent Sinama Pongolle – meaning that there was a net spend of £23.5m. The largest spend in a summer since Benitez arrived at the club, despite a perceived lack of transfer spending, and reports that Benitez did not feel that Hicks and Gillett were supporting him. The winter of 2008 saw Liverpool spend Martin Skrtel arrive, Momo Sissoko depart, and Javier Mascherano’s signing become permanent – another net spend, this time of £16.4m, and in the summer, yet another net spend of £21.6m seeing Robbie Keane, Alberto Riera, Andrea Dossena, Diego Cavaleri, David Ngog arrive, and Peter Crouch, John Arne Risse, Scott Carson and Danny Guthrie depart. The winter transfer window saw Robbie Keane depart (for £12m), and no-one arrive – the first time that Benitez saw a net outflow since he arrived at the club, but that was rectified last summer, when Alberto Aquilani, Glen Johnson and Sotiros Kyrgiakos arrive for £40m, and Xabi Alonso, Alvaro Arbeloa, Sebastian Leto and Paul Anderson all left for £35m. And it’s the departure of Alonso that was key – but that was not a case of needing to raise funds in terms of squad strengthening, or servicing the debt. The sale of Alonso was due to Benitez unsettling him the previous summer, with Benitez publicly courting Gareth Barry as Alonso’s replacement. With Barry staying at Aston Villa, Alonso stayed as the fulcrum of the Liverpool midfield, and by the season’s end his form had alerted Real Madrid. Alonso handed a transfer request, and Benitez decided that Alonso’s replacement would not be Gareth Barry, but Alberto Aquilani of Roma. However, Aquilani has been notoriously injury prone throughout his career – Aquilani had featured just 108 times in his last four years for Roma, and indeed this last season Aquilani did not start a game for Liverpool until December, and managed just thirteen starts all season. In a position as important as one that Alonso had held (the very position that allows Steven Gerrard to fulfil his best for the club), signing a player who has such an injury record as Aquilani showed poor judgment. And that is what hurt Benitez the most.
Under Moores, Benitez spent £54.7m net in six transfer windows, in the same number of transfer windows, £54.5m net has been spent under Hicks and Gillett. In real terms, taking into account inflation, less money has been spent with the new owners, and that doesn’t give the greatest hope for the future, but to see Benitez spend £109.2m on almost forty first team players in six years, to see the club go backwards – in terms of Europe, the League and even domestic cups – is not healthy, and not the sign of an improving manager. Since the first three seasons where Benitez delivered two Champions League finals, and two trophies, Liverpool haven’t challenged, despite a net outlay of £71.4million. This season’s finish of seventh (Liverpool’s worst finish since 1999), and being knocked out of the Champions League group stages (a first since 2003) sees a reduction in prize money, and that will reduce the options of whoever replaces him, and that would have been the case regardless of who owned the club – after all, before Hicks and Gillett, the club spent what they raised, rather than rely on a sugar daddy. That Liverpool have such appalling owners hasn’t been the reason that Benitez failed, they were just the excuse he was able to hide behind for his recent failings.