It’s funny how managers are treated so differently in the media.
Some are able to do no wrong, regardless of any periods of under-achievement or mistakes they might make.
Others can do nothing right, and their achievements are belittled – or credited entirely to someone else.
An example of the former is Mark Hughes, who did well with Blackburn, though achieved little beyond what was expected of him during spells with Man City and Fulham.
Hughes quit Fulham a year after taking charge, as the club failed to match his expectations. He wanted to manage at a club competing for trophies, or occupying Champions League positions.
Speaking of Fulham, his agent said at the time: “They are a great top 10, mid-table club and I think Mark really wants to be right up there competing in the Champions League positions, up there competing for titles. He’d like to win some cups.”
Quite what attracted Hughes to QPR given his lofty ambition remains a mystery. A promise of investment might have turned his head, but there was certainly no immediate prospect of silverware at a club battling to stay in the top flight.
The managerial change had little impact on the fortunes of QPR, and they finished the season in exactly the same position as they were in when Hughes replaced Neil Warnock – a single point outside the relegation zone.
Still, given a favourable perception of Hughes throughout much of the media, there’s unlikely to be too much criticism handed out, despite a dreadful time in charge of the team who are now firmly rooted to the foot of the table.
Contrast that to the reaction of Rafael Benitez’s appointment at Chelsea, which has been treated with rather a lot of scepticism – not only by fans of Chelsea but in the press, too.
“Benitez has plenty to prove” was the heading to an article by the BBC’s chief football writer, echoing the sentiments of Chelsea supporters who regard the Spaniard as not being a particularly good manager.
It’s unfortunate that such a view of Benitez has stuck, but it demonstrates the power of the media to influence minds, often based on some personal biases or club rivalries.
Benitez arrived in English football at the same time as Mourinho, though brought much less charm with him than the Portuguese – an important quality these days it seems, as others have found out.
In taking charge of Liverpool, he also took on a far greater challenge than Mourinho was tasked with at Chelsea. There was money to spend, but the amount was limited each season and in undertaking the complete overhaul of a squad which had failed to deliver under Gerard Houllier, Benitez needed to bring a host of players with the budget.
It would have been far easier to identify an entire team of superstars and sign them up instantly, as Chelsea’s wealth allowed them to do.
The sheer amount of work required to take Liverpool from a a fourth place to title challengers was something that critics were either unappreciative of – or who simply chose to ignore it in order to continue piling the pressure on Benitez.
At the start of the 2004-5 season, Benitez’s first in English football, he was competing with two sides who already had Premiership winning squads at their disposal – both had been crowned champions over the previous two seasons – and the might of Abramovich’s free-spending Chelsea.
The fact that Liverpool competed for the title at all during Benitez’s tenure is testament to the huge improvement which took place over the five years he was at Anfield.
Yes, the final season was a disappointment but it was also one in which the whole club was embroiled in off the pitch problems. Football was overshadowed by politics and transfer windows passed by with Liverpool expected to make a profit through player sales rather than continue investing to secure their position as title challengers. Few managers, if any, would have coped more admirably under the circumstances than Benitez did.
Up until the final year, the overall picture was one of massive progress.
Under Benitez, Liverpool reached two Champions League finals, something not even Man United had managed to do in the Champions League era.
Domestically there was a memorable FA Cup triumph and even if other pieces of silverware wouldn’t impress the likes of Chelsea or Man United, such as the UEFA Super Cup or the Community Shield, they were nevertheless trophies that the overwhelming majority of Premier League sides would have been delighted with.
Outside of Merseyside though, little credit is given to Benitez for a lot of what was achieved between 2004 and 2009.
His Champions League win was with Gerard Houllier’s team, the critics say. But if that’s the case, then Jose Mourinho shouldn’t be given any credit for what he achieved at Chelsea, given that he was successful only thanks to the team that Claudio Ranieri built. Even some of the key signings who only arrived at Chelsea after Ranieri was sacked, such as Petr Cech and Arjen Robben, were players who struck pre-contract deals in January – long before Mourinho was in the frame.
Noone would believe that to be the case and Mourinho should rightly be credited as the man who secured the Premier League title with Chelsea, just as Benitez was responsible for leading Liverpool to Champions League glory in Istanbul. The argument against Benitez crumbles even further when bearing in mind that Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia – two of Liverpool’s most important players throughout the successful campaign in Europe – were signed by him.
Of his signings, there were mistakes made certainly. But with the restrictions in place – i.e. no bottomless pot of cash – gambles had to be taken and some quite obviously didn’t pay off. Again, he’s not alone in that regard. If the list of failed signings at Man United and Chelsea were carefully analyzed, there would be mistakes there too. The question would be, is the team still improving? And in most cases, the answer is usually yes, despite the mistakes.
To focus on the mistakes serves to do little justice to an overall record that included huge successes. In 2009, Liverpool’s side included some of the continent’s best players in almost every position with the likes of Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger, Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres all players signed by Benitez.
The last argument levelled at Benitez is regarding the amount of money spent, something else used by his detractors to “prove” that he is simply not a top manager. As already mentioned, his Liverpool side was one that needed an almost complete rebuild of the squad, and with the squads of rival clubs were in a much healthier state, requiring much less investment.
But even after considering the vast difference in quality of the squads inherited, Jose Mourinho still outspent Benitez during the three years that they each managed in England together. Should not the ‘special one’ have been able to get more out of the considerable resources already at his disposal?
In Benitez’s case, he was under almost the same amount of pressure to deliver a title. Liverpool fans are often accused of believing that they have a divine right to compete for titles, but whilst many were realistic enough to see the size of the task Benitez faced, there was unrelenting pressure from the media for Liverpool to challenge for – and win – the Premier League title.
Other teams who haven’t historically been as successful as Liverpool, would be under no such pressure, even in the same circumstances. Tottenham, for example, invested heavily and on paper were able to put together a strong enough squad to compete with the top four teams. But their top four finish in 2010 was celebrated as a monumental achievement when the same end result at Liverpool would have been deemed a failure.
Now at Chelsea, there’ll be many who are hoping that Benitez fails in order to prove that they were right about him. But with a good set of players available, I fully expect him to have Chelsea competing for the title this season.
The doubters will be disappointed to know that Benitez is a man with quite a thick skin. And based on the vast majority of his nine years with Valencia and Liverpool, he’s also quite a good football manager.