Is impersonal Rafael Benítez paying the price?

Kieran Beckles
By Kieran Beckles

Rafael Benitez

When Sir Bobby Robson sadly passed away last year, the football community was awash with touching tributes.

Many paid testament to his managerial abilities and the accolades he had attained in a glorious career, but the majority spoke of the gentleman behind the facade.

In a special documentary honouring the former England manager, icons of the football world including Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistlerooy and Paul Gascoigne spoke of Robson’s influence not just on their careers, but in their everyday lives.

A quintessential example of a successful man manager, he was crafted from the same mould as other illustrious names such as Brian Clough, Bill Shankly and even modern examples, perhaps Jose Mourinho and Martin O’Neill.

A jibe often directed at Rafael Benítez is his dispassionate attitude towards his players. Some sections of the media suggest that he is bereft of any emotion and this perceived flaw has been detrimental to the fortunes of his side.

The two talismans of Anfield, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, have both spoken of their relationship with the manager. Gerrard believes the Spaniard’s ‘cold attitude’ benefits the club as the playing staff are continuously asked to raise the level of their performances and rarely receiving open acclaim from the manager after an eye-catching performance.

This was typified by the response of Benítez after Gerrard steered Liverpool to an FA Cup success in 2006. The midfielder scored twice and also converted a penalty in the dramatic shootout against West Ham United. After the game instead of praising his influential captain, Benítez acutely highlighted the errors his skipper had made during the 120 minutes of football.

Jamie Carragher revealed that while Benítez may distance himself from his players away from Anfield and Melwood, the former Valencia manager isn’t as frosty as appearances would have one believe, occasionally letting his stern guise transform into a mellow, soft character.

Even the cagey Craig Bellamy described his former boss as ‘the best coach’ he has worked with and the tempestuous relations the Welsh international had with his former employers is well-documented.

Yet not all ex-Reds share the same ringing endorsements of this approach.

Jermaine Pennant delivered a damaging diagnosis in a recent interview. He said he had felt restricted by Benítez and therefore unable to play his natural game. He remarked: “At times I’d think why don’t you just put the batteries in and turn me into a robot.”

The roots of the departure of Xabi Alonso can perhaps be traced back to the Champions League semi-final against Chelsea in 2007. The former Real Sociedad dynamo opted to remain at his wife’s bedside as she gave birth to their child as opposed to participating in the crucial match, much to the frustration of Benítez.

The ‘hands on’ approach may lead to heart-warming anecdotes and a tight knit squad of players, but does it necessarily lead to success? Can a manager become too close to his team and as such extinguish his authoritarian position at the helm?

Roy Keane described how, during his early days at Nottingham Forest, he paid a visit to Brian Clough’s house in order to give the charismatic coach a lift to an away trip to Anfield. It highlights how times have changed as the thought of Jay Spearing picking up Benítez from his home is unimaginable.

Jose Mourinho had a close rapport with his players at Chelsea. He manufactured a strong bond amongst the squad which led to the likes of John Terry and Frank Lampard holding the Portuguese coach in high esteem, deriving confidence from his bold appraisals of their talent to the media.

Tottenham’s current manager, Harry Redknapp, has often been described as an adept man manager. However the recent comments of Roman Pavlyuchenko to the press highlight the difficulties that modern managers currently face with the present batch of overpaid players.

So while it may be preferable for coaches to have close relationship with their players it is not essential. The meticulous Benítez observes the actions of his players off the pitch but prefers to operate from a distance.

It is rare for the Spaniard to openly criticise his players. His harsh words this week lambasting the performance of his side against Wigan Athletic last Monday displayed a distinct air of frustration which Benítez has rarely revealed before.

His praise of players is uncommon but public criticism of his team is virtually unheard of.

It raises the question of whether Benítez is the victim of his own management style. Gerrard revealed in his autobiography that there are stages throughout a season where a player’s form is consumed in a downward spiral and a friendly vote of confidence from the gaffer wouldn’t go awry.

But it’s not the style of Rafael Benítez, and it depends upon the temperament of the respective player if this lack of support is a destructive factor in rekindling match-winning performances.

If there is one characteristic that English football has grown to appreciate with regards the Liverpool manager, it is simply that he is a stubborn man who is unwilling to compromise what he believes to be correct approach in taking Liverpool forward.

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