9 Dec 2007

Crouch on the left-wing? - Rafa Benitez self-destructs against Reading...

A month ago, I wrote about Rafa’s tragic flaw and why it would hinder Liverpool’s ability to win the premiership. I argued that Rafa’s tinkering with a winning formula was inevitable, and even if the club went on a winning run, Rafa’s ‘irrational stubbornness’ would rear its ugly head again at some point. Well, it did - against Reading.

The game was a tactical disaster of epic proportions and the blame lies solely with Rafa. And things were going so well...! With 21 goals in the last 5 games, the team was on a high and winning with ease. Confidence was booming and the players were settling into a familiar system and formation.

There was no need to change anything!

And I’d just like to clarify that rotation is not the issue here – players were rotated during the last 7 games as usual. What has remained consistent is the system: 4-4-2. This is what the players are used to but, most importantly, this was a WINNING SYSTEM.

Part of Rafa’s tragic flaw is his pig-headed insistence on changing things when there’s no need. What reason was there to change to what basically amounted to a 4-3-2-1? On paper, it looked like 4-3-3 and may have *seemed* attacking, but in reality, the team played the 4-3-2-1 diamond formation.

Fans will inevitably blame the referee, but that is just a poor excuse. Liverpool should have won the game irrespective of the Ref’s failure to award a penalty. Relying on refereeing decisions to win the league is the preserve of premiership no-hopers. Anyway, Over a season, these things balance out, and Liverpool have certainly had their fair share of luck this season. The free-kick that never was against Villa and Gerrard’s dive against Everton spring to mind.

Rafa’s refusal to stick with a winning formation is what lost Liverpool the game. There was absolutely NO logical reason to change things. When Liverpool went a goal down, I posted something on this site lambasting Rafa’s changes, and imploring him to revert to a proven system. Of course, I knew he wouldn’t change things because of his - yes you guessed it - irrational stubbornness. So, let’s take a closer look at Rafa’s mistakes:

Resting Sami Hyypia

This was the first major mistake. Sami has been in SUPERB form and has been integral to Liverpool’s run of clean sheets. It’s no coincidence that as soon as he is rested, Liverpool concede three goals.

What mystifies me is this: Jamie Carragher was recovering from injury AND was on a yellow card, which meant he would miss the Man United game if he got another one. Why not rest Carragher and play Hyppia alongside Jack Hobbs?! Better yet, if you’re going to play Carragher, then why not just stick with the Hyypia/Carragher partnership that has been so successful?!

I’m glad Jack Hobbs got his debut, and overall, he played well. However, there was no need to change something that WORKED. And that is part of Rafa’s tragic flaw – making changes for no apparent reason, and changing things that work for no logical reason. As it happened, both Carragher and Hobbs were at fault for goals in the game. Carra’s rash challenge led to the goal from a free kick, and Hobbs being out of position led to the breakaway third goal.

Changing a winning formation

Liverpool has been playing 4-4-2 during their winning run, so what does Rafa do? He changes a winning formation. Why? Who knows. What’s clear though is Rafa likes to change things for no apparent reason. What is the point of playing TWO holding midfielders against Reading?! I could possibly understand it against the likes of Barcelona or AC Milan, but Reading?!

Sissoko and Mascherano should never play in the same team, as they offer next to nothing going forward. A threat that WOULD work is Alonso, Gerrard and Lucas, as all three offer attacking threat. Such a selection could not be made though as Lucas did not even make the squad – another ridiculous decision. And as for Xabi, he is still recovering from injury – an injury which came from another of Rafa’s illogical decisions: rushing him back from his first injury against Arsenal.

Playing strikers as wingers

Even worse than playing three central midfielders was the use of Peter Crouch and Andrei Voronin on the wings. To date, this has to be the most illogical decision of Rafa’s reign. Peter Crouch on the left wing?! It really is incomprehensible and beyond belief. What is the point of playing Strikers on the wings when you have NATURAL WINGERS on the bench like Harry Kewell?!

If Rafa was going to change the system, then the least he should have done was select the right players to FIT the system! Playing square pegs in round holes is always going to cause problems, and against Reading, it just caused confusion.

Playing with Zero width

Playing Crouch and Voronin on the wings was bad enough, but the team selection and formation meant there was no natural width to the team. Three central midfielders means the team will play narrow anyway as their natural instinct is to go through the middle. Add onto that Voronin, who cuts inside every time he gets the ball anyway, and you have a recipe for congestion in the middle of the pitch.

Reading exploited this and attacked down the wings, where there was very little cover once Crouch and Voronin had been sucked into the center. I don’t blame them for that though – that is their natural instinct as strikers, and Rafa obviously gave them instructions to join the attack when they could.

What is even more laughable about playing Crouch on the wing is that he is supposed to get on the end of crosses! I guess his instructions were: 'Cross from the left and then rush into the box to attack your own cross'. Crouch thrives on meeting crosses, not making them.

Not playing Harry Kewell

So – Harry Kewell is injured for a year; fights back to full fitness; forces his way back into the team; gets a couple of games under his belt and is playing well, so what do you do? Keep playing him, right? Not if you are Rafael Benitez.

KEWELL NEEDS GAMES! He is building momentum and getting back to his best form, and the only way to continue this is to play him in as many games as possible. And it’s not as if he needs to be rested, is it? Kewell must be the most rested player in the entire squad! Surely Kewell would have been a better option on the LEFT WING than Peter Crouch?

Substituting Steven Gerrard

When Rafa took Gerrard off against Everton, it was the right decision and I applauded him for it. Removing him when Liverpool were 3-1 down was the wrong decision. Unlike his form up to and including the Everton game, Gerrard is and has been playing well and making an impact.

He scored against Reading and hit the crossbar, and was one of the few players who looked like he could do something positive for the team. Apart from that, Gerrard had already played 70 minutes. What difference would playing for another 20 minutes make?! None whatsoever.

Yes, there is an argument for resting him and ensuring he doesn’t pick up an injury for the Marseille game, but surely winning or drawing a premiership game is important?! There was 20 minutes still to play, and games can be easily be won (or drawn) in that amount of time.

It's well known that Steven Gerrard is not one of my favourite players, but I always try to be fair, and if Gerrard plays well, I will give him credit. He has been playing well and *did* play well against Reading, therefore he should have stayed on the pitch.

Conceding defeat

Taking Gerrard and Carragher off basically symbolized that Rafa was accepting defeat. I don’t care what games are coming up or how important they area, this is unacceptable behaviour for a Liverpool Manager and is, in my opinion, the opposite of everything that Liverpool stands for. The club does not give up and concede – it fights to the death with pride and passion.

It saddens me to see a Liverpool Manager with such a defeatist attitude. What makes it worse is the element of selfishness to the decision. Rafa knows that his own position will be in serious jeopardy if Liverpool don’t qualify for the next stage of the Champions league. So, with this in mind, he gave up on the Reading game, took off the spine of the team so they would be fit to save *his* skin on Tuesday.


Rafa’s tinkering cost Liverpool the game as he presided over an easily avoidable tactical failure. Having said that, it is not the end of the world. It’s unrealistic to expect Liverpool to go the whole season unbeaten. Both Man United and Chelsea have lost in the league already, and the club’s unbeaten record had to come to an end at some point.

It’s not just that Liverpool lost that’s disappointing though - it is the defeatist philosophy and the needless meddling with a winning formula that really grates. It was a winnable game - Reading were there to be beaten, and could have been beaten if Rafa’s tragic flaw had not got in the way.

This week is massively important for Rafa, and he has put himself under immense pressure. With the Hicks/Gillette summit looming on the horizon, Rafa has created a situation where the next two games are must-win encounters. If Liverpool lose to Marseille, CL qualification is a dead duck. If Liverpool lose to Man United, league chances are all but over. And Rafa will only have himself to blame.


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