March 20th, 2009
04:50 PM ET

Benitez lucky to get new Liverpool deal

The news that Rafael Benitez has signed a deal to remain as Liverpool manager until 2014 would seem to be only a good thing.
Here you have the best Champions League manager around tying himself long-term to a club apparently on the up in the Premier League as well.
Throw into the equation Reds fans’ love for him and opposing fans’ begrudging respect for his achievements, particularly in Europe, and you have a match made in heaven.
Or do you?
Dig a little deeper and there’s a case to be made for him not being given a new contract at all - and even being ushered through the exit door.
Since he replaced Gerard Houllier as boss at Anfield in 2004, Benitez has won the 2005 Champions League and the FA Cup in 2006. He has also taken Liverpool to the Carling Cup final in 2005 and the Champions League final in 2007.
So he’s not a bad cup manager. But given cup-specialist Houllier was fired for his team’s drab performances and increasingly poor results in the Premier League, shouldn’t the yardstick of Benitez’s reign be how he does in the same competition?
In his four full seasons in charge, he’s finished 5th, 3rd, 3rd and 4th. Hardly awe-inspiring, especially when you remember even the maligned Houllier managed to finish 2nd once.
This season Liverpool have improved - or perhaps their rivals have got worse - but the wait for a 19th league title looks likely to stretch into a 20th year.
And it’s not a question of money. Since 2004, Benitez has outspent Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. The Spaniard’s purchases have been a mixed bag, at best.
Chelsea’s managers have spent more than Benitez in that time, but when your owner is a win-at-all-costs billionaire benefactor the bottom line is less of an issue.
Benitez has also had the brilliance of Steven Gerrard, arguably the world’s best midfielder, to turn to when he’s needed to be bailed out. And that has happened far too often.
Tactically shrewd in a Champions League now dominated by English clubs, Benitez has never seemed at ease in the Premier League.
Rotation is a key feature of his management style, but when he’s changed starting XI a lack of squad depth has been exposed.
But it has also revealed his desire to change the team almost for change’s sake, leaving fit and available first-teamers on the bench in favor of lesser fringe players. He also has a penchant for playing people out of position - Martin Skrtel at right-back?
Perhaps this would all be more palatable if, like Arsenal, a lack of titles or trophies for a prolonged period of time was accompanied by slick, eye-catching football.
The pass-and-move football of past Liverpool sides, though, is conspicuous by its absence from Benitez’s teams, which employ a direct approach that relies on the pace and finishing of Fernando Torres up front allied to the greatness of Gerrard.
It’s a broadly successful gameplan, one that occasionally thrills, but mostly wants for creativity and movement.
All of this makes Benitez sound like he’s done a bad job. He hasn’t. But even with the 2005 European Cup on his resume, the question nags: does he truly deserve to still be Liverpool manager? Tell us what you think by leaving a comment below.

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