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Benitez needs to reconsider style

After a season in which Liverpool narrowly missed out on the English Premier League title, it seems astonishing that the Reds, following their 2-1 loss to Manchester United on Sunday, are all but finished in the race for the final Champions League spot.

This, of course, prompts the dual question of how it has all gone wrong for the Reds and what to do about Rafa Benitez's tenure as manager. The simple answer is that Liverpool perhaps overachieved last season, and this season we've probably seen the team at its very worst. The Reds' true level is likely somewhere between last season and this one. Liverpool has a tremendous starting XI that can beat virtually anybody on any given day, but given the threadbare nature of Benitez's squad and the lack of quality depth, the Reds are ill-equipped for a long, grueling Premier League season.

The other primary reason is the loss of deep-lying playmaker Xabi Alonso, a departure that not only disrupted the balance of the team but also seemingly affected Steven Gerrard's psyche (Gerrard has admitted to confidants that the sale of Alonso was "devastating"). Of course, the real issue is not simply just the sale of Alonso, but the failure to adequately replace him. Benitez could have pursued two options: a like-for-like replacement, such as Standard Liege's Steven DeFour, or a more offensive-minded replacement. In Roma's Alberto Aquilani, Benitez chose the more attacking option.

And here's where the problem lies. At the tail end of last season, when Liverpool played expansive, attractive soccer and seemingly scored goals for fun (an astonishing 41 goals in its last 13 games), it seemed that Benitez had finally learned to throw caution to the wind. In signing Aquilani, in theory a more dynamic box-to-box presence and arguably more creative in the final third than Alonso, Benitez looked poised to continue that approach this season. However, after a decidedly poor start with the offensively-limited Lucas Leiva substituting for an injured Aquilani in midfield, Benitez appeared to change his thinking somewhere along the way and reverted to a more cautious defensive game plan.

For most of the season, Benitez has instead utilized a dual defensive midfield lineup in Javier Mascherano and Lucas, a setup that basically has been at the core of Liverpool's problem. Though both are fine players, they have limitations in linking the midfield to attack. It's ill-advised for Benitez to persist with both in combination -- Lucas would be better suited as a straight replacement for Mascherano as the sole defensive midfielder. It's even more perplexing since Aquilani has shown every sign in his limited appearances of being an adequate if stylistically different replacement for Alonso.

Consider this: Despite being out of action for more almost a year recovering from a serious ankle injury and adjusting to a new league, Aquilani has started five Premier League games for Liverpool. In those games, Liverpool has five wins (two coming over Spurs and Aston Villa), with an 11-1 goals for/against tally. Aquilani has one goal and three assists in the five victories and, at various times, displayed the creative flair and delicate passing touch that Liverpool desperately needs. True, Liverpool has various other problems (a lack of effective cover for Fernando Torres, a susceptibility on defensive set pieces and the defensive liability at left back otherwise known as Emiliano Insua), but the biggest issue remains in central midfield.

As for Benitez? What to do with him? Much has been made of the fact that he has been severely handicapped by the comedy ownership act of Tom Hicks and George Gillett (and it's true, one only needs to look at Liverpool's net transfer spending of approximately zero during the last four transfer windows to confirm this), but at the same time Benitez has not done himself any favors this season with some of his lineup choices and, at times, too cautious approach to the game.

However, the bigger question for Liverpool fans is whether there is really anybody who could do a better job under the present circumstances. Given the severe financial restraints in place, and the almost unrealistic expectations under which any Liverpool manager operates, it's hard to see other elite managers (i.e. Jose Mourinho) being interested. Which leaves the Liverpool owners with the choice of retaining Benitez, opting for a recycled "big name" or gambling with a lesser-known up-and-comer such as Roberto Martinez.

When examined in that light, you could argue that Liverpool is likely best served giving Benitez one more season to see if he can turn things around. For now, Benitez's virtues probably still outweigh his flaws, but the biggest question remains his willingness to adopt a more daring approach.

That huge sigh of relief you heard over the weekend was the collective exhale of U.S. domestic soccer fans everywhere, as MLS finally announced that it had reached accord on what had been, at times, a very contentious labor dispute. While the players did not gain the free agency they sought, MLS will allow for improved movement of players who are out of contract via a re-entry draft. Also, with an increase in salary cap (one imagines this will affect minimum salaries considerably more than the upper-end scale), and with sources indicating that players age 24 and above with a minimum three years of service will receive guaranteed contracts, there's no question that financially the players will be better off. It appears to be that rare deal where both sides are content with the outcome.

"This can all be a positive relationship going forward," Galaxy star Landon Donovan told The Associated Press. "Going forward, we're going to have a real relationship with the league as opposed to being combative at times."

At the heart of the resolution was probably the players' final realization that while MLS owners were prepared to budge on certain issues, the issue of free agency was an absolute deal breaker for them. It's not hard to see why the owners would feel this way -- the entire foundation of MLS is based on its single-entity structure, whereby the league itself, not the teams, negotiates and owns all player contracts. Having already survived a previous legal challenge to the single-entity structure (see the 1997 Fraser vs. MLS lawsuit), it would have been nonsensical for the owners to undermine that legal basis by permitting its teams to bid against each other for players.

Granted, from the players' perspective, all they wanted was the same rights that are bestowed on players everywhere else in the world. However, the reality is that in terms of structure, MLS is unlike any other league, and as long as that remains the case, it's unrealistic for MLS players to expect the same treatment as their European counterparts.

Having said that, obviously several issues needed to be addressed on the part of the owners -- and one has to assume that they finally came around in terms of their willingness to compromise. From what I saw of leaked documents from sources during the early stages of the negotiations, MLS management had initially taken such a hard line and contentious stance that the players' only recourse seemingly would be to strike. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and the ugly specter of watching replacement players in MLS (how brutal would that have been?) did not come to pass.

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