31 October 2009 ~ Despite the respite against Manchester United, Liverpool's win at Anfield last Sunday was the club's solitary victory in a six-match sequence. The fact that the other five games ended in defeat continues to suggest that Rafael Benítez's reign is increasingly about the players that aren’t available to him, rather than those that are. And yet it was all so different in Spain. In the midst of Real Madrid's first galácticos era, Benítez led Valencia to a League title in his first season in 2001-02 and another two years later along with the 2004 UEFA Cup.
In Spain, there were two big clubs to topple, just like in England. In Spain, Benítez enjoyed success in his first season, before slumping the next (Valencia finished a lowly fifth in La Liga in 2002-03), just like in England. In Spain, Benítez bounced back immediately and won another title. In England, the League remains an elusive prize.
Benítez is Valencia's most decorated manager. A settled squad and counterattacking mindset earned silverware, regular Champions League competition and a reputation for fluent and dynamic football. In contrast, comings and goings have undermined his Liverpool years, with over 70 players arriving and many leaving shortly after. Could the secret lie with the work of his predecessors?
With inherited squads, Benítez has been brilliant. Héctor Cúper’s Valencia boasted Pablo Aimar, Roberto Ayala and Kily Gonzalez, and the squad was approaching the finished article. Domestic success was immediate. A strong Liverpool squad greeted Benítez at Anfield, and while Michael Owen departed, only four players arrived: Josemi, Xabi Alonso, Antonio Nunez and Luis Garcia. Improbable success in the Champions League followed, though players already at Anfield – Steve Gerrard, Didi Hamann and Jerzy Dudek – shone brightest.
European success ensured instant reverence from Liverpool fans, but even more affection for Benítez lingers at the Mestalla. In Spain he is remembered for making Valencia increasingly adventurous and hard to predict. However, Benítez bowed to pressure in England and changed his approach, answering calls for his best side to play every week. Liverpool are no longer an inherited squad – only two have survived from Istanbul in 2005. It is now Benítez's group, assembled at a cost of nearly £229m. Such staggering profligacy was not a hallmark of his Spanish career and it has contributed to the lack of financial resources that so frustrate Benítez in Liverpool’s current cycle.
The main difference between Benítez’s Valencia and Liverpool careers is his lack of astute signings at Anfield. On the occasions that they have been made, poor man-management and overpowering attention to the finest details have undermined him. Benitez’s biographer, and Valencia fan, Paco Lloret reckons that he is “not so good at signing players... sometimes he is so intent on watching the game, that he doesn't watch the players”. Jermaine Pennant admitted he felt his intuition dampened by Benítez and that as a winger he was repeatedly instructed to "get to the byline" and little more.
Pennant is far from alone. Robbie Keane was alienated, as ultimately was Xabi Alonso. Lucas Leiva and Ryan Babel have failed to develop as expected. Yossi Benayoun is chronically underused, because his defining quality is his unpredictability. Even Dirk Kuyt, who some may point to as a success story, has been suppressed from a prolific striker to a midfield workhorse.
Benítez left Valencia after three seasons, citing differences with the club's director of sport Jesus Garcia Pitarch over transfers and investment in the team. The returns from the spending at Liverpool make it seem that the Mestalla saw the best of Benítez as he worked with an established pool of talent. Anfield, though, looks set to continue its long wait for a domestic title as frustration mounts with the team Benítez built. Rob Macdonald