How fitting that Liverpool’s Premier League title fate can be decided by past managers Benitez and Rodgers
When Rafa Benitez and Brendan Rodgers met for just the second time as opposing managers a few weeks ago, there was a lot of mutual respect, but not much talk about their mutual history. Liverpool were barely mentioned.
That is set to greatly change. It is another of football’s typical narrative flourishes that these two have been fated to oversee two crucial run-in matches on the penultimate weekend of the season, ones that could end their old club’s long wait for the league championship trophy.
Benitez and Rodgers are not just former Liverpool managers, after all, but the only other Liverpool managers to have been involved in proper Premier League title races this late. They know what it’s like, they know what it means, they know all the stakes.
Those experiences have imbued this season’s title race with even more emotion and tension, but also framed and conditioned so much in this weekend’s high-tension matches. Only adding to all of that is the different ways the two men played up to the messianic status the Liverpool support tend to afford managers, and how that can affect current seasons, as well as lasting legacies.
Both Rodgers and Benitez are hugely proud of their achievements at Anfield, but remain a little disconcerted at how it all ended, and how they feel they were treated.
Much of this will echo around this weekend, but maybe with more reverberations, and twists.
There is first of all the very lay-out of the games, as Liverpool are going to acutely acquaint themselves with the strengths and weakness of both managers at this intense stage of the season from the other side, having already done so with their own side.
Rodgers has the more debated Anfield legacy, but also the chance to forever endear himself to the club, if his in-form Leicester City get a result away to Manchester City on Monday.
Benitez has always been the more popular figure, but that legacy has become more complicated as time has gone on, and can be sullied even more if his impressively obdurate Newcastle United deny Liverpool before that on the Sunday.
There are at least now a number of sublime character sub-plots to this title race, as it continues its singular course, with both sides looking like they will just win all of their games.
It is for the latter reason Benitez’s 2008/09 run-in has parallels with this campaign, even though it feels 2013/14 has naturally been brought up more.
While the “facts” press conference is the element most remembered from 2008/09, it is too easily forgotten it was the most relentless title race until now. Benitez’s Liverpool actually won 10 of their last 11 games, only dropping points in the raucous 4-4 draw with Arsenal, forcing Manchester United to respond by winning seven successive games to also win the title.
That isn’t as impressive as the current runs, but it was arguably the superior title race in terms of excitement, because it went to far greater limits in terms of drama. “It was crammed with stirring comebacks, memorable wins, strange incidents and worry,” Steven Gerrard says in his autobiography.
With Liverpool arguably undone by an injury-time winner against Aston Villa by 17-year-old Federico Macheda, that season saw many of Benitez’s finest qualities come together for a thrilling peak, only to then release the flaws that would ultimately undo him.
Liverpool benefitted from his steady team structuring, his ice-cold mentality, and his supreme tactical mind - especially for individual matches, something that Jurgen Klopp is going to have to work around this weekend.
Some who worked at Anfield at that time felt Benitez actually had the perfect personality to balance “the hysteria” the fanbase can be prone to, to cut through the noise to maintain calm. That was all the more important because, as one source says in a positive manner, “the nerd” in the Spaniard loved the adulation of the masses. It wouldn’t distract him, though. For Benitez, it all pales next to the tactical specifics of a game. That will be all the more relevant to Saturday.
The problem back then was many senior players gradually tired of this detachment. Gerrard admits in his autobiography they now don’t have any kind of relationship. “Other players just couldn’t stand him,” Gerrard says.
It meant Benitez didn’t get the benefit of the doubt when decisions inevitably began to go wrong. It was this that ultimately made the squad lose faith in him. The senior players questioned his bizarre belittlement of Robbie Keane, the desire to discard Xabi Alonso for Gareth Barry, and the promotion of David N’Gog.
“Rafa, for me, made a lot of decisions with himself in mind,” Gerrard argues. “He wanted power and control.”
Such clashes have fed into that disconcertment over how he left, but also how he always wants what he feels is rightful recognition.
It is why he so badly wants a result this weekend. His professional pride trumps any affection he has for previous clubs, but there is even more to it than that here.
Some who know Benitez say that pride extends to resentment over the fact his 86-point record from that 2008/09 season has been beaten by Klopp. There is even a belief he might be against Liverpool winning the league because he wants to be the one responsible for the club’s last great achievement, in winning the 2005 Champions League. That’s how deep the pride goes.
There’s then the undeniable fact that he feels he is a far superior tactician to Klopp. This is another chance to prove it. Sources say he has been fastidiously preparing for this all week.
Whatever happens at St James’ Park will frame City’s match, but this match won’t necessarily frame Rodgers’s thinking.
The Leicester manager doesn’t have Benitez’s mind for reactive tactical pragmatism - as that infamous match against Chelsea in 2013/14 encapsulated - but does have bigger ideas for how he wants to play, as well as a defined identity. He is also more of a “footballer’s manager”, with virtually every player he’s worked for admitting they were initially blown away by his coaching.
“Everything he said made perfect sense,” Luis Suarez explained in his own book. “I was completely convinced.”
Rodgers was similarly convincing in terms of his decisions. He immediately made calls on Andy Carroll and Charlie Adam, realising they couldn’t play in his system, only to decisively change his mind on Lucas Leiva because he realised the Brazilian could. This earned the respect of the players, something that only increased when results improved with the effect of the coaching.
Leicester are going through a similar process now. This is why they’re on their current form, this is why they could be so dangerous to City. Leicester will have no fear.
That could yet see Rodgers reclaim the adulation he briefly received from Anfield in 2014.
He probably appreciated it even more than Benitez did, but it didn’t fit as naturally. It was more forced. One comment on Rodgers then was that he hadn’t yet fully figured out who he was as a manager, wasn't yet brilliant at man-management, and players grew puzzled by mixed messages.
Suarez admits this outright, revealing he was perturbed at how Rodgers went to the press about his 2013 attempt to go to Arsenal, rather than speaking to the Uruguayan about it first.
“Brendan had said that I had shown a lack of respect to the players by speaking out publicly of my desire to leave. I think if he had said that to my face it would have felt totally different. But he had said it publicly. Why had he not just come to me and said those things?”
There was the manner that his assistant Colin Pascoe was sacked in the summer of 2015, with many feeling “Rodgers had lost his way and compromised on his identity in an attempt to preserve his own status”.
Sources say “Brendan’s personality was an issue to the players”. Those who work with him however say that personality has matured. “He has an awareness now that he lacked.”
Leicester now have an attacking identity they lacked.
That wasn’t quite as formed when they met Benitez’s Newcastle in April. Nor was it for Liverpool on the manager’s first meeting in April 2013, when Benitez was at Chelsea. That was the 2-2 draw that saw Suarez suspended for biting Branislav Ivanovic.
Their meeting last month was a win for Newcastle, and defeat for Leicester.
Similar this weekend would for Liverpool be another unhappy development with two managers they once enjoyed such happiness with. They are among the few that know what this tension feels like, with this club.
By Monday night, they’ll ensure we all know a lot more about where this title is going.
Independent News Service