10 October 2007

Rafa's numbers just don't add up

by Des Kelly

Study the extended sequence of numbers below and see if you can crack this week's sporting enigma code. The puzzle is: 6, 6, 4, 7, 5, 5, 6, 2, 9, 7, 5, 5.
Any ideas? No, it's not some tedious Sudoku grid. It isn't Stephen Hawking's chassis number. It's got nothing to do with bingo either, although it is associated with a lottery of sorts.
The sequence actually details the extraordinary number of changes made by Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez in every game this season.
Following victory over Aston Villa on the opening day, the Anfield boss has chopped his personnel around so often that he is averaging more than five changes per match.
When his team is winning, this squad rotation policy can be seen as an astute management of resources. But when Liverpool struggle, Benitez is cast as a man trying to solve a Rubik's cube despite being colour blind.
Fiddling for fiddling's sake doesn't provide an answer, as another magnificent statistic demonstrates; one so startling it deserves to be served on a silver platter and accompanied by a glass of vintage red. In a total of 153 matches, Benitez has named an unchanged side only once.
So what happened that week? What was different? The momentous occasion, which deserves to be commemorated by The Kop in song, occurred last season on Tuesday, October 31, 2006 — three days after Liverpool had beaten Villa at home.
On that night, Benitez confounded everyone by selecting the same 11 against Bordeaux in the Champions League, a wild and crazy notion that was rewarded with a 3-0 victory.
Afterwards the Liverpool manager justified this behaviour, saying: 'I thought if we are playing well, we have the confidence and we have time, then we can use the same team.'
Brilliantly simple. But not so brilliantly simple that he ever tried it again. And if that was his rationale back then, are we to presume that he hasn't opted for the same line up again because his side hasn't been playing well in the intervening period? Not even after beating Derby 6-0? Or was Benitez being contrary for a more selfish reason that night?
The Bordeaux game was his 99th in charge and it is more likely his selection had less to do with fitness and more to do with him wanting to dodge headlines referring to a 'century of tinkering'.
Whatever the reasoning, all this twisting and turning is obviously not doing much good right now. It's not so much a rotation policy as a tragic roundabout.
Liverpool have picked up one League victory since September 1 and a single point from six in the Champions League.
The devil in any successful operation is in the detail and Benitez analyses the data more than most. As he sifted through the debris of another disjointed performance against Tottenham on Sunday, he spared nobody. Except himself, that is.
'We need to learn,' he seethed. 'The small details change games.' And indeed they do. The smallest of details can make the difference between a win, a trophy, a title, or absolutely nothing at all. But how can players concentrate on the small details when they are having to double-guess who will be playing alongside them week in and week out?
A team succeeds by building an almost telepathic understanding on the field, forging instinctive relationships that enable them to trust and react to one another without a second thought.
That doesn't follow when the numbers on the teamsheet look as if they have been plucked off a roulette wheel. Right now, the Liverpool players look like strangers to one another. They are spinning in and out of the team so often they are bound to be a little disorientated.
Yes, it can all click for a cup run, and there is silverware enough in the cabinet to excuse Benitez from criticism in a knockout scenario.
But the League requires consistency, team spirit, self-belief and a certainty that the best 11 equipped for the job are on the field, with reinforcements on hand if required. Isn't that how titles are won?
This Anfield scenario might sound horribly familiar. Liverpool have certainly been cursed by the revolving door approach to selection before.
In 2002, Gerard Houllier managed to go two years without sending out the same side in consecutive matches. He also had success in cup competitions but, like Benitez, never found the consistency required to succeed in the League.
History is now repeating itself and at a moment when Liverpool were supposed to have their best chance of being crowned champions in almost two decades.
Benitez is an astute, intelligent manager and even in this sticky patch of form it is worth remembering Liverpool have yet to lose a league match, so this mini slump hardly ranks as a crisis.
However, there is no doubt the manager has put himself in a difficult situation when he has to stubbornly insist his complicated calculations are right, even though they keep spewing out the wrong results. Benitez may even be close to the ideal winning formula by now but if it happened, how would anyone be able to tell?

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