The final whistle had barely blown on Liverpool's desperately bad 3-0 defeat at Manchester City on Aug. 23 when the message flashed up. A challenge was thrown down, a point made. Rafael Benítez had finally gone; those who wanted to see the back of him had got what they wanted and Roy Hodgson had taken over. But there was no immediate sign of improvement. In fact, Liverpool was even worse.
"So," the message said, "can those who have been slaughtering Rafa Benítez for everything over the last few years explain that one, then? Go on, I'm waiting."
Responses flooded in: It was too early. It was a one-off. It was still Benítez's fault. It was, after all, his team -- the team he had put together. The team he had wasted pots of money on buying; a limited, plodding, functional team. When Liverpool fans marched in protest against American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, some carried framed photos of Benítez above their heads. As if he were the Ayatollah. When he left, others could barely contain their glee. They had been screaming for him to go for ages. As if he were the devil incarnate.
Few coaches seem to have divided opinion quite like the Spaniard. Good guy, bad guy; guilty as sin, innocent victim. He is solely responsible for the miserable fate that befell Liverpool; no, he is responsible for the club's greatest moments and was slain by the political and economic civil war at Anfield. There is something about Benítez that forces you to take sides. With him or against him, ally or enemy, there is an intensity, almost an anger, about judging his legacy. About the debate as to whether he was a Good Liverpool Manager.
Black and white, no room for gray. Except that there is plenty of gray.
Halftime in Istanbul, the 2005 European Cup final. Liverpool is down 3-0 but in an hour and a half's time it will be European champion. It will be arguably the greatest comeback ever. Liverpool's fifth European Cup, a glimpse of its true glory days -- its first European Cup win in 20 years. The most stunning in its history.
Benítez has to motivate his players. He also has to change things, quickly and effectively. It's a massive test. He starts making alterations. There is a confusion and tension. Djimi Traore, who has been substituted, is heading into the shower when he is called out again, told to put his kit back on. Steve Finnan can't continue, although he insists he can. Benítez wants to send on Didi Hamann. Djibril Cissé, too. He turns to the tactics board and runs through what he wants to do. As he draws to a close, a hand goes up. "Er, boss?" "Yes."
"There are 12 of us."
Even Liverpool's greatest moment, even Benítez's biggest success -- the success that means that supporters will always be grateful -- is tinged with a feeling of "yes, but." Even Benitez's most brilliant tactical innovation -- switching to three at the back in a European Cup final -- can feel slightly diluted. It can be used as ammunition against him, as well as a shield with which to defend him.
Liverpool won the European Cup, sure. But did it do so when it ditched Benítez's original, botched tactics? Did Benítez win it? Or did Steven Gerrard rescue him, winning a barely plausible victory? Just as he had when the club was within seconds of being knocked out in the group stages, only for Gerrard to score an extraordinary goal against Olimpiakos? Did he do the same thing the following season when Liverpool won the FA Cup -- Benítez's only other trophy -- with a what seemed like a 700-yard shot in the dying minutes of the final in Cardiff?
Yes, the final was freaky; yes, there was luck, but ... Benítez took Liverpool there. Liverpool smashed Bayer Leverkusen. It beat a Chelsea team whose resources dwarfed its own. And it knocked out Juventus with a startling -- and unexpected -- sprint out of the blocks in the quarterfinal, planned by Benítez. That episode in Istanbul could be a metaphor for Benítez and Liverpool. A metaphor for the arguments that surround him. Much of what is said is cliché. Much of it is half-truth. Much of it is just not true at all. Yes, but ... everywhere you look with judgments on Benítez there are caveats. Arguments and counterarguments. So, let's look at some of them, shall we? Let's answer them, explain them.
• Benítez spent a fortune in the transfer market -- $353,137,732, to be precise. And most of it was wasted. Look at the rubbish he bought: Andrea Dossena and Alberto Aquilani. Antonio Nuñez. Jermaine Pennant. Fernando Morientes. And the list goes on.
But he recouped $233 million. The myth of Benitez the big spender is exactly that: a myth. His total net spend was $121 million. Over five seasons, an average of $23 million a season. In his penultimate season, his net spend was just $3.8 million. In his final season, he actually made $7.7 million. That's hardly big spending. Nuñez was effectively forced on him. Aquilani was injured. At the time, everyone thought that Morientes was a good signing. Pennant was man of the match in the 2007 European Cup final. And what about Javier Mascherano, Pepe Reina and Xabi Alonso. What about Fernando Torres?
• That's hardly something to crow about. That's not many; they were obvious signings. Any idiot would buy Torres.
Any old idiot like Sir Alex Ferguson, who decided Torres wasn't worth the risk, for example? Mascherano wasn't a fixture at West Ham. Alonso was a kid at Real Sociedad. Reina had been forced out at Barcelona. Torres was a gamble. If he looks like such a sure thing now, it is testament to Benítez's vision -- and his coaching.
• Speaking of Ferguson, Benítez lost the plot in 2009 with that attack on the United manager. When he walked into the news conference with a piece of paper and ranted about "facts," you knew Liverpool's title challenge was over. Fergie's mind games won out. No wonder Liverpool, which was on top that day, didn't win the league. No wonder Benítez never won the trophy that really matters to Liverpool: the league title. He was paranoid, too, distracted by a battle with the board -- a desire to control everything.
A desire to have the resources to compete, you mean? A desire to be able to do his job without interference? And lost the plot?! After Benitez "lost the plot," Liverpool lost just once in 18 games. It won 10 of its last 11 -- including a 4-1 win at Manchester United. You know, Ferguson's Manchester United. Liverpool lost only twice that season and finished four points behind United -- the first time it had been genuinely in contention to win the league in almost 20 years. But for injury to Torres and Gerrard, it would have won the league.
• Or but for the 11 draws. Liverpool only won 10 of its last 11 because it had to. The team was, as one first-teamer admits, "going all out for it, but by then it was too late." It was chasing results and got them. It should have chased them before. Benítez's conservatism earlier in the season cost Liverpool the title. So did its dependency on just two players. And anyway, then he tore it all apart. He sold Alonso. And he should have played Gerrard in central midfield and used two strikers. Gerrard should not have played off the striker. It was yet another stifling, boring 4-5-1, with no width. He kept buying wingers but never kept faith with them: Mark González, Albert Riera, Pennant. Forever imposing narrow-minded "discipline" on them, he clipped their wings, beat their creativity out of them. He never let them show their talent.
Yeah, because González, Riera and Pennant have done so much since departing. Because Gerrard played so well there against City? He should have played him as a central midfielder even though that season he was the third-leading scorer in the Premier League and provided the second-most assists playing off Torres? Is that not an attacking option? And what about the teammate who privately admits: "Gerrard can't play in the middle of midfield; he doesn't have the positional sense"? And who would you have played up front? As for Alonso, ultimately the sale happened because Alonso wanted it to.
• How about Dirk Kuyt? Or how about buying a striker? Like Robbie Keane. Alonso only wanted to leave because Benítez had tried to shift him out the year before.
Because Benítez wanted Gareth Barry, didn't have the funds for both and had let himself be swayed by the likely implementation of an English-player quota and the desire to have a left-footed central midfielder. Wrong? Maybe. But understandable.
• No, completely ridiculous. And that was yet another example of Benítez's failure to connect to his players. By the end, they were all against him.
Actually, they weren't all against him. And that says more about their attitude than his. The players who respected Benítez are the intelligent, committed ones. Torres has no problem admitting that Benítez can be hard work, obsessive and infuriatingly single-minded -- he tells the story of the coach congratulating him the day after he found out he was going to be a dad for the first time, only to discover that Benítez was actually congratulating him for a near post run he'd made in the previous game -- but he has no problems admitting that Benítez has made him a better player. And isn't that the point? They're there to work.
Liverpool players who rejoiced at his departure should heed the warning of what happened at Valencia. When he left there, the players were delighted; six months later, they admitted they were better off with him. The coach who led them to two league titles in three years. Without him, they won nothing. Why should he indulge the egos? Why should he pander to them?
• Because ultimately, it's about winning, getting good performances out of players. And if that means coddling a player, sucking up to him, you do it ...
And that's the thing. Benítez never could. Ultimately, it was the simplest skill of all that proved the hardest. The tragedy of Benítez's time at Liverpool was that he just couldn't talk to key members of his squad, he couldn't relate to them, communicate to them, motivate them. He couldn't do the same with the owners and administrators of his club. And, for all the good things, that inability ultimately cost him his job. In the end, he probably had to go. Yes, he had become a problem. But he wasn't the only problem. And he wasn't only a problem.