It is perhaps one of football’s most popular myths that Manchester United get help from referees, in the form of anything from the rub of the green to outright corruption. Not only will it be referenced several times throughout the season by rival fans, it has actually entered the mainstream media, with phrases like “you don’t get them at Old Trafford”, “if that was down the other end it was a pen” and “Fergie time” entering the common parlance of footballing punditry. But does it have any basis, either today, or historically, or both? The statistics would suggest neither.
This season, topping the league by four points after 27 games, through to the last 16 in Europe and the last eight in the FA Cup, Manchester United have been awarded 5 penalties in total – at Old Trafford against Liverpool in the FA Cup, at Old Trafford against Arsenal and West Ham in the Premier League and away at Fulham and Rangers in the Premier League and Champions League respectively. Three out of the five penalties were converted, meaning just 3.8% (3/80) of United’s goals have come from penalties this season. Of these penalties, just one, Dimitar Berbatov’s against Liverpool can be said to have been a dubious award.
Of United’s rivals, Arsenal have received a staggering 14 penalties, several dubious thanks mainly to the antics of Chamakh, almost three times as many as United. 10 of these were converted, meaning 11.8% (10/85) of Arsenal’s goals have come from penalty kicks. Chelsea have been awarded 9, converting 7, for a percentage of 9.5% (7/74). Manchester City have a very similar record to the Blues, having received 9 penalties and converting 7 for a percentage of 9.6% (7/75). Liverpool meanwhile have been awarded 8 penalties, converting 6 for a percentage of 11.8% (6/51).
To summarise the penalty statistics of 2010-11:
- Arsenal – awarded 14, converted 11, 11.8% of goals have been penalties
- Liverpool – awarded 8, converted 6, 11.8% of goals have been penalties
- Manchester City – awarded 9, converted 7, 9.6% of goals have been penalties
- Chelsea – awarded 9, converted 7, 9.5% of goals have been penalties
- Manchester United – awarded 5, converted 3, 3.8% of goals have been penalties
As you can see, the statistics are fairly staggering, especially to those propogating that United are the most favoured by referees. Arsenal have been awarded almost three times as many penalties as United, with the rest a little less than twice as many. Even more interestingly, using penalties converted as a percentage of goals scored – useful as it determines both how helpful penalty awards have been and allowing more leeway for more attacking teams possibly receiving more penalties – penalties have accounted for much significantly less of the goals Manchester United have scored in comparison to their rivals. Rounding off, penalties have accounted for 12%, 12%, 10% and 10% of Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea goals, but just 4% of Manchester United’s.
“Fine”, you say. “So United are having a bad year with penalties. But I’ve heard and seen them given enough penalties over the years to know that they’ve been favoured in this department.” Do the statistics back this up?
As of the turn of the year, the following were the figures for the top 10 teams in terms of converted penalty kicks in the Premier League since 2003, when such statistics started being kept:
- Liverpool – 36
- Arsenal – 35
- Chelsea – 29
- Aston Villa – 27
- Fulham – 24
- Tottenham – 23
- Manchester United – 23
- Blackburn – 22
- Man City – 22
- Everton – 21
As you can see, despite generally being the most attacking team in the league, Manchester United have scored significantly less penalties than their three main rivals of this period – Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. They’ve even scored less than Aston Villa, Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur. Penalties accounted for 5.1% of United’s total goals, with the equivalent figures for Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea being 9.1%, 7.5% and 6.6%.
United conceded 13 penalties in this period – broadly similar to Arsenal’s 17, Liverpool’s 15 and Chelsea’s 12. Penalties accounted for 7.2% of goals conceded by United, in comparison to 7.4% for Liverpool and 8.1% each for Chelsea and Arsenal.
If we compare the percentage of penalties as a total of goals scored and conceded, United (5.1% scored, 7.2% conceded, -2.1%) come out worse than Liverpool (9.1% scored, 7.4% conceded, +1.7%), Arsenal (7.5% scored, 8.1% conceded, -0.6%) and Chelsea (6.6% scored, 8.1% conceded, -1.5%).
In fact, of the four major teams, only Liverpool have benefitted from penalties since 2003, ironic considering they have been most vociferous in their complaints against United. I have also stumbled across statistics for these two clubs alone since 1999, which show that Liverpool have been awarded 53 penalties to United’s 46.
Since the Premier League began, Manchester United have been awarded 88 penalties – just 4.7 per season. They have converted 66, meaning just 4.7% (66/1415) of United’s goals since 1992 in the league have come from penalties. Comparing this 4.7% to this year’s figures of Arsenal (11.8%), Liverpool (11.8%), City (9.6%) and Chelsea (9.5%), we can conclude that Manchester United have benefitted very little from penalties since the inception of the Premier League, and certainly less than their rivals. Read the rest of this entry »
We’ve all been there. A group of football fans crouched around a beautiful HD TV screen, worth about the GDP of Ireland in the 1970’s, arses barely touching the couch for 90 minutes. The opposition’s centre-midfielder slides a perfect ball through to one of his forwards, who slams it past the ‘keeper for a last-gasp winner. With the loudest noise that you’ve made since you stepped on that upturned plug with your bare feet, you join half of your mates in bellowing “OFFSIDE!”. A lone voice, disinterested until now, pipes up: “Er, what’s offside?” There’s a unison of groans and the next half an hour is wasted with hastily scribbled diagrams and frantic movement of the salt and pepper shakers. “You’re alright there Melanie” someone says, “the lino doesn’t know it either.”
Like most stereotypes, the notion that women don’t understand the offside rule has a tiny element of truth to it. Just like the assertion that the Irish are drunkards, or the Americans are overweight, or all men want is sex. Now, as surveys have shown, the Irish do drink more than most per capita, the Americans do weigh more than most on average, and men think about sex quite a lot. I’m sure if a survey was done on the offside rule, less women would be able to explain it than men. This is natural, as less women follow football than men.
But just as there’s sober Irishmen, fit Americans and cuddly, romantic men (my e-mail is available on request), there are quite a few women who do follow football, and therefore understand the offside rule. To suggest the proportion of women who properly follow football and don’t understand the offside rule is less than the equivalent proportion of men would be incorrect. “Melanie” doesn’t understand the rule because she doesn’t follow football. Not because she’s a woman. To suggest a woman who has been involved in refereeing for 10 years and was elevated to Premier League status due to her prodigious talent, doesn’t understand the offside rule would be as ridiculous as propositioning a woman 23 years your junior and about as out of your league as Manchester United are to Rushden & Diamonds. Andy Gray, take a bow son.
Fans of karma will note that, mere minutes after the comments by Andy Gray and Richard Keys of Sky Sports asserting that the appointment of Sian Massey to the Liverpool-Wolves game was a sign of “the game [going] mad” because “women don’t know the offside rule”, Massey nailed a tight offside call that in real time had many of the (mostly male) crowd screaming for offside.
Fans of decent presenting will note that with the resignation of the hyperbolic yet robotic Keys, possibly football’s biggest presenting slot is now available. Were Sky down-to-earth football-loving people, they would most likely select James Richardson, the former Channel Five and current Setanta Sports presenter – affable, hilarious and knowledgeable in equal measures. As it’s Sky, you should probably brace yourself for another Jamie Redknapp clone: easy on the eye, without ever really saying anything of note. Oh, and with literally no understanding of how to use the word literally. Then again, the Daily Mail reports that Gary Neville is set to take up the slot vacated by Andy Gray, and he isn’t exactly Matthew McConaughey in the beauty stakes. Or even Matthew Etherington.
Getting serious, the saga does pose a couple of ethical questions. Should television personalities be reprimanded for remarks that were intended in a private nature? And were the comments of Keys and Gray really any worse than the daily anti-men diatribes of ITV’s Loose Women? For me, the pair crossed the line when they called into question the ability of a professional to do her job. They demonstrated as little awareness of the off-mic rule (never treat a mic as off), as they were purporting Massey as having of the offside rule. They have a duty to the public of fairly and accurately summarising footballing events, and such ridiculous opinions, regardless of whether they were intended to be heard, cast doubt on their ability to do so.
Perversely, women in football have emerged the winner from the scandal. A whole host of football personalities, such as England captain Rio Ferdinand, have blasted the “prehistoric” views, and the performance of Massey last Saturday stood in stark comparison to some of the abject calls we have seen from other officials recently. The next time she is appointed to a game, fans will be thinking “here’s someone who’s shown she can nail a call” and not anything Keys or Grey-esque. Not that many did anyway. There may have been a few murmours at the appointment of Massey and, before her, Wendy Toms as Premier League assistant referees, but not many had actually dismissed their ability to do the job properly. Not seriously anyway. The comments of Keys and Greys were as noteworthy for their isolation as their stupidity.
The sacking of Gray and the resignation of Keys demonstrates that such outdated views have no place in football. Judging by the reaction, the next person to harbour such thoughts, if there’s any left, will think twice. More women will be encouraged to join the game and more will therefore be appointed. Richard Keys and Andy Gray have ensured that women in football are here to stay. And, deliciously, it’s their worst nightmare.
The argument of the just which is the best league in the world has raged for years. In recent years, most would agree that the title of the best league in the world would come down to two contenders – the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga. Italy’s Serie A has been decimated by corruption scandals and waning crowds, Germany’s Bundesliga is exciting and vibrant but lacking in real quality and France’s Ligue 1 is lacking in both. The argument between La Liga and the Premier League has bounced back and forth – with cries of “Two horse race!”, “Ballon D’or!” and “Facht!”. Wait, disregard that last one. There’s an unemployed tubby waiter slumped outside my door wailing. If only, if only, if only, there was a competition designed specifically to discover the best team, and teams, and by an extension league, in Europe… what? There is?!
Many would say that the hallmark of a great league is how its teams do in the highest test of competition against the other leagues – the Champions League. In the last six editions, there have been two winners from England (Manchester United, Liverpool), two from Spain (Barcelona x2) and two from Italy (Milan and Inter). The problem for La Liga is that Barcelona have been flying the flag on their own.
Let us take the same period we will later take with the respective domestic leagues – 2004 onwards.
16 quarter-finalists, 12 semi-finalists, 5 finalists, 2 winners.
7 quarter-finalists, 5 semi-finalists, 2 finalists, 2 winners.
So whilst both leagues have had the same amount of winners, there has been more than double the amount of English quarter-finalists, semi-finalists and finalists. And this is not a Rob “almost double” (13 to 8 in case you didn’t know), that is 16 to 7, 12 to 5 and 5 to 2. The top end of the Premier League blows La Liga out of the water.
Many more would say that the hallmark of a great league is the race for the title – how close, how exciting. In the last four years of the Premier League, the gap between first and second has been on average 1.75 points. In La Liga, this figure is 6 points.
Sometimes clichés are there for a reason. The cliché that La Liga is a two-horse race is pretty much true. As I type this, halfway through the Spanish season, Barcelona lie four points clear of Real Madrid, who in turn lie nine points clear of Valencia in third. 13 points between 1st and 3rd. The gap between top and bottom is 38 points. Meanwhile, in the Premier League, Manchester United lead the way, on goal difference from Manchester City. City, who have played two games more, are two points clear of Arsenal in third, with a further five points to Chelsea and one more to Tottenham Hotspur. The same 13 points between 1st and 3rd in La Liga will get you down to 7th place in the Premier League. The gap between top and bottom is 25 points, 13 less than La Liga. Unlucky for some. Paddy Power will offer you betting on five teams to win the Premier League, four of them on 7/1 or less. In La Liga, Barcelona are 1/4, Real Madrid are 11/4 and the only other available teams are Valencia and Villareal, at 100/1 each. Two horse race indeed. Critics of the virtues of this theory will point out that only two teams, Chelsea and Manchester United, have won the Premier League since 2004. Whilst this is indeed true, it implies the notion that the Premier League has been a two-horse race for each of those years, which is incorrect, which we can see if we look at the tables from that period:
Premier League 2004/05:
1. Chelsea (95 pts) 2. Arsenal (83 pts) 3. United (77pts)
Premier League 2005/06:
1. Chelsea (91 pts) 2. United (83 pts) 3. Liverpool (82pts)
Premier League 2006/07:
1. United (89 pts) 2. Chelsea (83 pts) 3. Liverpool (68pts)
Premier League 2007/08:
1. United (87 pts) 2. Chelsea (85 pts) 3. Arsenal (83pts)
Premier League 2008/09:
1. United (90 pts) 2. Liverpool (86 pts) 3. Chelsea (83pts)
Premier League 2009/10:
1. Chelsea (86 pts) 2. United (85 pts) 3. Arsenal (75pts)
Premier League 2010/11 (so far):
1. United (45 pts) 2. City (45 pts) 3. Arsenal (43pts)
As we can see from the last seven seasons, including this one which is about 60% complete, Chelsea and Manchester United have comprised of the top two in just four editions. Compare the same period to La Liga:
La Liga 2004/05:
1. Barcelona (84 pts) 2. Real (80 pts) 3. Villareal (65pts)
La Liga 2005/06:
1. Barcelona (82 pts) 2. Real (70 pts) 3. Valencia (69pts)
La Liga 2006/07:
1. Real (76 pts) 2. Barcelona (76 pts) 3. Sevilla (71pts)
La Liga 2007/08:
1. Real (85 pts) 2. Villareal (77 pts) 3. Barcelona (67pts)
La Liga 2008/09:
1. Barcelona (87 pts) 2. Real (78 pts) 3. Sevilla (70pts)
La Liga 2009/10:
1. Barcelona (99 pts) 2. Real (96 pts) 3. Valencia (76pts)
La Liga 2010/11 (so far):
1. Barcelona (52 pts) 2. Real (48 pts) 3. Villareal (39pts)
As we can see, in Spain, Barcelona and Real have comprised of the top two for six out of the last seven seasons. The gap is only growing and growing too. In the last two completed seasons the gap has been 8 and 20 points. This year it’s on target to reach around that 20 point mark again.
In his post, Rob discussed the fact that there have been more UEFA Cup winners from La Liga recently, intimating that this demonstrates a deeper strength in La Liga. Whilst aspects of this are true, a deeper look at this suggests huge flaws in this theory. Of the four Spanish winners since the last English winner, three of them placed well up the Spanish league in the year of their triumph – 1st, 3rd and 5th. Only Atletico Madrid finished relatively poorly in the same season – 9th. By contrast, England’s two finalists in the same period finished 14th and 12th. Spain’s success in head-to-heads in recent years simply proved that 3rd in La Liga was better than 14th in the Premier League, and 9th was marginally better than 12th, winning after extra-time. Fulham qualified by placing 7th and Middlesbrough through the Fair Play Award. Spain’s four winners qualified finishing 4th, 5th (x2) and 6th. The fact that the only Premier League teams to do well in the Europa League have done poorly domestically suggests that the better English teams allow Europe’s ginger stepchild of trophies to take a firm backseat in favour of concentrating on the league, whilst in Spain those teams progressing to the latter stages of the competition can firmly concentrate on it knowing they have no hope of catching Barcelona or Real at the top of La Liga.
Atletico Madrid last year qualified through finishing 4th and then dropping out of the Champions League in the group stages without winning a single game. They then didn’t win a tie outright from the Europa League Round of 16 onwards, winning three times on away goals and AET in the final. The fact that a team can win the Europa League without winning a game in six in the Champions League simply demonstrates the gulf in class between the Champions League and the Europa League. The same dominant Champions League which is in turn dominated by English teams. Meanwhile, the team placing 4th in the Premier League, Arsenal, won their group and their last 16 tie before being knocked out in the quarter-finals by a supremely talented Barcelona team. So whilst Atletico’s triumph was held up as a shining light of La Liga’s strength, I would prefer to point out that they, the 4th best team in Spain the year before failed to win a game in the Champions League, whilst the exact same placed team in England made the quarter-finals, winning five games along the way.
So much of the discussion has centred on past history with the two leagues, but what about the here and now? After all, the discussion is, “what IS the best league in the world?”, not what has been or what will be. One merely has to look at the respective leagues this season, as well as the Champions League, to deduce the stronger league. Of the current top five in the Premier League, four are in the last 16 of the Champions League. The other, Manchester City, are through to the last 32 of the Europa League, having won their group. In fact, of England’s three representatives in the Europa League this season, two have won their groups. Of Spain’s four, just one has. Two (Atletico and Getafé) crashed out of relatively weak groups, whilst Sevilla edged out Dortmund to qualify in second in their group. In the Champions League, England has three group winners to Spain’s two, with Arsenal slipping up to finish second by playing weakened teams after winning their first three games.
The gap between the top two and the rest in Spain is growing and growing, thanks in no small part to a huge gulf in income from TV, as seen here:
… whist the gap between the top teams in the Premier League is closing to such an extent that pundits can no longer agree on a ‘Big Four’. Or five. Or even six. The gap between 1st and 3rd last year was 11 points. The similar figure for Spain was a staggering 23 points.
Goals mean excitement of course, and both leagues enjoy pretty identical goal records. However, much of Spain’s record comes from the top two. Outside of them, seven of the remaining 18 teams average less than a goal a game. In England, this figure is three. If it’s not Barca or Madrid, don’t tune in – you’re not going to get goals. In fact, is there much point in tuning in at all? Even if you do choose to watch Barcelona, you’re going to get great football, but it’ll all be coming one way. They’ve won 16 out of their last 17 matches by an average of over 3 goals. Boring, boring La Liga indeed. Your average Premier League match will feature more goals and a closer result.
With Manchester City’s meteoric rise, England can legitimately claim to have 5 of the world’s top 16 club teams. Spain, 3. Of the top 10 performing teams in Europe of the last 7 years, Spain has just one – Barcelona. Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool all make it from England. 4 to 1. It’s all well and good having more Ballon D’Or nominees, but not if they’re all located in one or two clubs. Real Madrid, one of those two clubs, haven’t progressed past the last 16 of the Champions League in 7 years.
La Liga boasts the best team in the world, but not much more. The Premier League currently boasts better respective top teams, a closer title race between more teams, goals more spread out and a tighter league top to bottom. There’s a reason it’s the most watched league in the world.
Cover your ears Scousers. Rafa Benitez is not a good football manager. He has managed 7 clubs, and been a ridiculous failure at 4 of them. Of the other three, his successes were very much qualified.
Benitez took over at La Liga club Real Valladolid in 1995, and was sacked after 23 games, with just 2 wins and the club rock bottom of the table. He was replaced by Vicente Cantatore, and Valladolid immediately improved, avoiding relegation in 16th place, and finishing 7th the next. From here, Benitez joined Segunda División outfit Osasuna, and this time just lasted 9 games, with only 1 win. After two clubs, Benitez’s record read – 32 games, 3 wins. With this sterling record, he joined another Segunda División team in Extremadura, and this time led them to promotion. However the following season Extremadura under Benitez were relegated back to the second tier. He took a year out working as an analyst and studying in England and Italy before rejoining the game with Segunda División Tenerife. He achieved promotion, finishing third in the league, before leaving for La Liga giants Valencia. Here, his record was very good, winning two La Liga’s in three years. He then left in 2004 after arguments with over transfers.
It was here he joined Liverpool FC. Inheriting a side that had seen Gerard Houllier leave after finishing 4th, Benitez’s first season in charge saw the club finish a disappointing 5th behind bitter rivals Everton. However this was all forgotten as Liverpool claimed their fifth European Cup, beating Milan on penalties in the final after trailing 3-0. The following season they improved to 3rd and won the FA Cup, again after a penalty success following a 3-3 draw. The next two seasons saw 3rd and 4th place finishes as well as another European Cup final, but defeat to Milan. 2008-09 saw Liverpool’s first challenge for the title under Benitez as they finished 2nd, four points adrift of champions Manchester United. However the following season, Liverpool finished a disastrous 7th and Liverpool and Benitez parted company. He joined European Champions Inter Milan, and they currently occupy 6th place in Serie A, nine points off leaders AC Milan.
Taking it for granted that his reigns at Valladolid and Osasuna were disastrous, and his record at Extremadura was so-so, let us take a closer look at Benitez’s successes and failures at Tenerife, Valencia, Liverpool and Inter.
On the surface, Benitez would appear to have done an excellent job at Tenerife. Scratch a little deeper however, and it begins to look a little less impressive. Benitez inherited an extraordinarily talented team by the standards of Spain’s second tier, with the Tenerife side filled with talents like Mista, Curro Torres, and Luis Garcia. Amongst the favourites for the league, they scraped 3rd and therefore promotion with a late goal on the last day of the season. Benitez had made no significant new signings.
He left for Valencia in time for the start of the 2001-02 season. His record here must be commended, winning two leagues in three seasons, the first being their first in 31 years. However, again, scratch beneath the surface and this becomes less impressive. He inherited a fabulously talented team from Hector Cuper, including the likes Santiago Cañizares, Roberto Ayala, Rubén Baraja, David Albelda, Vicente and Pablo Aimar. The team had reached two successive European Cup finals, and challenged strongly in La Liga. It must be noted that Valencia’s season without a league under Benitez was a disaster – finishing in 5th place and 19 points off the top of the league. It must also be noted that La Liga’s two powerhouses, Real Madrid and particularly Barcelona were going through transitional phases. Barcelona struggled under the presidency of Joan Gaspart as he replaced talisman Luis Figo with Petit and Overmars, and managers came and went. Madrid blew extremely hot and gold with the Galacticos policy, with egos clashing and results fluctuating. The struggles of the Big Two led to some more unfashionable teams claiming La Liga’s in this period, with Valencia capitalising as well as Deportiva La Coruna. To illustrate the paucity of quality at the top of the league at the time, Valencia won their two titles with 77 and 75 points, standing in stark contrast to the 98 and 97 points amassed last year by Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively. However, credit where credit is due – Valencia took advantage of this and a more attacking style of play reaped rewards. Unfortunately this was the exception rather than the rule during Rafa’s managerial career.
On the back of this, Benitez joined Liverpool. In six seasons, they won two trophies, both on penalties after 3-3 draws. Now it must not be said that penalties necessarily devalue the winning of a competition, and Liverpool fans may well point to the fact that Manchester United have won the 2008 European Cup and the 2009 Carling Cup on penalties. However, this must be viewed in context. Rafael Benitez won 2 out of 2 Liverpool trophies on penalties. Alex Ferguson won 2 out of 23 of his trophies on penalties (identical to Rafa’s record at Valladolid incidentally). Had both shoot-outs gone awry for Benitez, he would have been trophyless in six seasons at Liverpool. Had both gone against Ferguson, his record would have still been stunning.
Liverpool’s run to the ’05 European Cup final must also be noted. Scraping through the qualifiers after a 2-1 over Austrian minnows Grazer AK, they needed goals on 80 and 86 minutes in their final group game to once again scrape through. A relatively kind draw saw Liverpool defeat Bayer Leverkusen and Juventus before facing Chelsea in the semi’s. They advanced to the final despite the unique feat of scoring no legitimate goals, Luis Garcia’s effort subsequently proven not to have crossed the line. Any observer watching the final would also have noted that Milan completely fell asleep at 3-0 up. They were reported to have been celebrating at half-time, and in the second half didn’t close down, passed sloppily and generally had the look of a team who were completely complacent about victory. As it was, it took a deflected strike and a dive for a penalty that got Liverpool back into it, as well as a ridiculous miss from Shevchenko in extra-time. Now obviously luck plays a part in any successful campaign, and it would be nonsense to suggest that it was a fluke, and doubtless Benítez’s tactics were well thought-out and suited to the European competition. But it must also be noted that had certain things not gone very much in their favour, they would not have won. And when this was his only major trophy at the club excluding the FA Cup, you start to come to the conclusion that Benítez needs things to go very much his way to win a trophy. An excellent achievement of course, but with much fortune and at the cost of league form.
Benitez’s expenditure at Liverpool must also be noted. It was the first time he had the chance to really mould a team in his image, having signed relatively little at former clubs due to limited tenures (Valladolid, Osasuna, Extremadura, Tenerife), or an excellent squad already (Valencia). In his reign at Liverpool, Benitez spent almost £300m at Liverpool, second only to Chelsea during this period, with net spend of about £12m per season, compared with Manchester United’s expense of £5m a year. Rafa’s signings for Liverpool were almost exclusively unmitigated horror shows, signing a host of dreadful players for under £10m, and expensive failures like Keane, Babel and Aquilani. Of over 80 signings for Liverpool, only 4 can be considered excellent purchases – Reina, Torres, Alonso and Mascherano – all players whose qualities were obvious and deals expensive.
His tactical failures at Liverpool were at times absurd. Favouring two defensive-midfielders might look positively attacking compared to Mancini, but at the time was poorly thought out, the system was ineffective at home to the likes of Hull and Burnley, however Benitez persisted with it – the result was a host of home draws. The only time Liverpool challenged for the league was in a sense an accident; Benitez had tried to flog Alonso in the summer and replace him with Gareth Barry. Bizarrely, Benitez claimed this was some form of masterplan with Barry to feed balls from the left to Keane who would tuck them away. The Barry deal fell through and Benitez was forced to play Gerrard in the hole with the unwanted Alonso tucked in behind directing play. The result was Liverpool’s best performance in several seasons, with Alonso superb. The following summer he left, citing differences with Benitez. Rafa replaced him with Alberto Aquilani and spent the rest of the money and more on Glen Johnson. Liverpool fell apart. Finishing 7th in the league, their worst finish for years and years, they were also dumped out of the FA Cup in the 3rd round by Reading, and finished bottom of their Champions League group.
Strangely, Liverpool fans were split about Benitez, with many wanting him to stay – complaining he was the victim of a xenophobic media and a paltry transfer budget. Benitez had created a type of cult of personality despite his results, by declaring his love for the club and quoting the lyrics to the club’s anthem at regular intervals. More sensible Liverpool fans pointed out that he had spent a fortune on tripe, brought Liverpool backwards in the league and hadn’t won anything in four years. Benitez was sacked.
It was at this stage that Inter Milan chief Massimo Moratti made the frankly bizarre decision to hire Benitez. Inter had just had the most successful season in their history, winning Serie A for the fifth time in a row, as well as the Coppa Italia and the Champions League for a wonderful treble under José Mourinho. Benitez once again inherited a splendid squad, with Julio César, Lucio, Wesley Sneijder and Diego Milito, the European goalkeeper, defender, midfielder and forward of the year, as well as the likes of Samuel, Santon, Maicon, Cambiasso and Eto’o. Under Benitez, they won only 6 of their 15 games in Serie A, and lay 7th at the time of his sacking. They were also comfortably beaten in the European Super Cup final by UEFA Cup winners Atletico Madrid. Interistas complained of bizarre team selections and poor man-management, hallmarks of Benitez’s managerial career, as well as injuries due to over-rigorous training sessions. Since his sacking, Inter have won 5 straight games.
It is time to put the myth of Rafael Benitez as a quality manager to bed. He has had certain qualified successes in his manageral career, but they are completely overshadowed by his failures.
He won 3 games in 31 at Vallodolid and Osasuna. He promoted and then relegated Extremadura. He scraped promotion with an extremely talented Tenerife team. He achieved two La Liga’s and a 5th place with the twice reigning Champions League finalists. He won two trophies on penalties in six seasons with Liverpool, spending £280m. He took the five-in-a-row Italian champions, and reigning European Cup champions to 7th in Serie A.
Former Liverpool coach Jacques Crevoisier:
“Liverpool’s current failure is linked to three people – [Rafael] Benitez, [Tom] Hicks and [George] Gillett. Benitez is an excellent coach but he recruited over 60 players during his time in charge. And, apart from Fernando Torres, Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso, his signings across five years were pitiful. Benitez brought in a staggering amount of players and at some cost. He is a very bad recruiter. His communications were weak and his links with the players did not work. When the team lost it would be the players’ fault and, when they won, it would be thanks to him. People who were at the club at the same time as him told me he was a megalomaniac, with people having to pledge allegiance to his way of doing things.
The three players I’ve mentioned don’t require an army of scouts to tell you they are very good, while all the rest were average. If you look at Benitez’s legacy, you’ll say his scouts were no good. Has he left the club in good health? No. Has he prepared for the future? No. Benitez is a charmer. He comes on TV with a nice smile but I’m not fooled.”
Sir Alex Ferguson on Mourinho to Madrid and Benitez to Inter:
“That favours Madrid, no doubt about that”
Jan Molby after Liverpool’s Carling Cup defeat to Northampton:
“We are seeing the result of Rafa Benitez’s legacy”
There’s an old mathematical joke that goes, “there are 10 types of people in the world – those who understand binary, and those who don’t.” On Planet Football, there are 10 types of people, and nine of them don’t understand Dimitar Berbatov.
Critics of Berbatov point to his inconsistent goalscoring record, his laziness, his lack of pace and seemingly his lack of care about football. But are these valid points?
Firstly, it must be noted that “doesn’t score enough” has changed to “doesn’t score consistently”. Goalposts are changed so frequently with Berbatov you begin to wonder whether some have a pre-conceived notion of the Berb, and nothing he does on the pitch can change this. True, eight of his 14 Premier League goals have come from two games, but it must be said that three of these sunk Liverpool in a thriller that will live long in the United memory, and the other five destroyed Blackburn in a performance that gave Ferguson’s men much-needed confidence as they kicked into a tough December schedule. “The last time United really put a team to the sword was when Tevéz was in the team” was a refrain form Berbatov’s detractors. The performance against Blackburn – with Berbatov at the fulcrum – shows us that United can kill teams with Berbatov. In September, Berbatov was magnificent against West Ham, however others around him were not on his sparkling wavelength, and so a potential ‘Blackburn’ became simply a 3-0 stroll.
Never before has a player had his price tag quoted so much against him, so much so that for a while, there was a danger of his tomb stone being engraved Dimitar “£30.75m” Berbatov. Even Robinho, who did half at City of what Berbatov has done at United for £1.25m more hasn’t had it levelled against him as much. His off days, which were accepted at Spurs in the face of his brilliance on other days, were highlighted and casitgated, inevitably with “you expect more for £30m”. Yes, Berbatov’s price was inflated, due to a bidding war with Man City, and essentially compensation for tapping him up. Is this Berbatov’s fault? Of course not, yet it was thrown in his face at every single opportunity. His first season at United disappointed those who quivered at his YouTube highlights, marvelled at the stories of his enigma and cultured personality and whispered “Cantona?”. However, was it really that bad? Nine Premier League goals was doubtless disappointing compared to his 15 the previous season for Spurs, but 10 assists left him as the second top assister in the league. It must also be noted that he played 500 less minutes at United, as well as playing in a more withdrawn second striker role with Rooney at the centre of most United attacks. Moments of genius such as that piece of skill against West Ham and crucial goals like the 90th minute winner at Bolton showed how valuable he could be.
Berbatov’s second season at United has become one of the most underrated season of recent times. Despite spending two months out with injuries, Berbatov managed 12 Premier League goals – the highest of any second striker in the league. Crucial and brilliant goals against Sunderland and Blackburn led to fans and commentators alike proclaiming “now we are seeing the real Berbatov”.
However, injury to Wayne Rooney in March against Bayern Munich killed Berbatov. He was often placed up front on his own, or else with a clearly unfit Rooney, and United missed their up-to-then brilliant partnership, crashing out of Europe and blowing the Premier League. Berbatov took the brunt of the blame and suddenly his season had been a disaster, and he had to be sold.
Ferguson, once again proving himself to be wiser than the baying mob, kept faith in the Bulgarian, and Berbatov started this season like a house on fire. An excellent pre-season, followed by nothing short of magnificence against Chelsea, Newcastle, Fulham, West Ham, Everton and Liverpool saw Berbatov shoot to the top of the goalscoring charts and back into the hearts of the United fans. However, Rooney’s ankle flared up again and the goals dried up for Berbatov. Not necessarily performance though, in seven of his ten goal-free games he was very good – only playing poorly against Tottenham and Bursaspor – and largely anonymous against Valencia through not much fault of his own. But suddenly due to his lack of goals he was ‘Lazy Berbatov’ instead. Again, an unfair stigma – he has tracked back well this season, and covered good distance in most matches. Against Rangers at Ibrox he sprinted back to win two challenges deep in his own half. He started and finished the move for the 4th goal against Blackburn, covering a good 90 yards in the process. He’s no Carlos Tevéz, but then again, should United fans really want him to be?
Tevéz for all the plaudits he is rightly getting these days, was an average second striker at United, often lacking the quality or the nous to play in this position. He would frequently misplace passes, fluff great scoring chances, or be out of position due to chasing the ball – all traits which could be said to be more annoying than not covering marathon distances during games. He has improved no end at City, primarily because he’s playing in a different position, which he’s better at, and also is the main man – as a confidence player this is important for him. However pining for the player he is now is no good – he was never that player at United and was never going to be. Berbatov is having the season now that Tevéz never had at United, and is a more harmonious dressing room presence to boot – with Alex Ferguson cryptically referencing Tevéz’s moaning in the dressing room when placed on the bench.
Even with Tévez in such sparkling form for City, he is being outplayed by Berbatov. Yesterday saw Tévez draw level with Berbatov at the top of the scoring charts with 14 goals each – however Tévez’s total includes four penalties, as well as having played 300 minutes more. The Bulgarian is comfortably the league’s highest ranked player in terms of goals-per-minute, scoring on average a goal for every 98 minutes on the pitch.
With Berbatov on form as he is, this season could well see Manchester United capture that 19th title against the odds, and challenge in Europe. For all his failings in his first two seasons at United – and doubtless there was some – he has been unfairly castigated based on his price tag, unfair comparisons to others and personality traits. By the end of the season, perhaps everyone will recognise Berbatov’s genius touch, exceptional hold-up play, clever passes, and maybe, just maybe his goalscoring prowess. And then, Planet Football will be a better place.