The Managerial ‘Catch 22’

by Jack Devlin

Come next August we may be witness to some strange sights in London. Rafa Benitez gesticulating wildly on the Stamford Bridge sideline? Someone who isn’t Arsene Wenger looking just as forlorn in the Emirates dugout? This is all conjecture of course. But if the two scenarios, Benitez’s arrival at Chelsea and Wenger’s departure from Arsenal, were to be realised, it would further highlight the harsh ‘catch 22′ facing the professional football manager.

Wenger took over a talented but flawed Arsenal side in 1996 yet managed to turn them into double winners in just his second season in charge. A few years later, he had transformed ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ into possibly the most attractive yet efficient team the Premier League has witnessed. The list of great players, for great value, brought in by Wenger to Highbury/The Emirates is highly impressive. To name but a few:

Patrick Vieira- £3.5 m (signed on the request of Wenger shortly before he was officially instated)

Freddie Ljungberg- £3m

Kolo Toure – £150k

Emmanuel Petit- £2.5m

Sol Campbell- free transfer

Nicolas Anelka- free transfer

Marc Overmars- £7m

Cesc Fàbregas- £500k

Kanu- £4.15m

Robert Pirés- £6m

RVP- £2.5m

Thierry Henry- £11m

Although a less impressive list could be compiled including the likes of Cygan and Jeffers, the good far outweighs the bad.

Wenger raised the bar at Arsenal. In fact, he may have raised the bar too high, to a level that he can no longer reach. This is the extraordinary ‘Catch 22′ of the football manager. Perform poorly and you can expect to be shown the door in a matter of months. Perform extremely well and fans grow accustomed to it. Soon they are no longer willing to accept a standard of results and play that would have been more than adequate before said successful manager transformed the team’s fortunes.

Many Chelsea fans expressed dismay upon hearing the rumours linking Benitez with their club.’ @Iainmacintosh summed up his feelings on twitter succinctly, ‘Chelsea pursue Benitez- Facepalm’ Interestingly many Liverpool fans have also despaired at the news, but for entirely different reasons. A tweet from Liverpool fan Matt Holt summed up a lot of pool fans’ feelings on the proposed move. ‘The idea of Rafa Benitez going to Chelsea fills me with utter dread. 1) He’d make them good again; 2) He’s ours.’ These sentiments from Liverpool supporters may appear strange, as when Rafa was sacked in 2010, it was generally seen as by reds’ fans as a good thing. However, there is a growing consensus amongst Liverpool fans that, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps Benitez’s achievements were underappreciated.

Benitez fall from grace at Anfield is often linked to a paranoid public outburst he aimed at his rival Ferguson in the latter half of the 08/09 season. It seemed Rafa had made the grave error of playing mind games with Fergie. Something akin to challenging Paul Scholes to a mistimed tackle competition. In fact, Liverpool continued improving for some time after this. However, the cracks really began to show in the 09/10 season. Benitez had lost his key midfielder Alonso, a hangover from a failed attempt to replace him with Gareth Barry in 2008. The disastrous duo behind the scenes, Gillett and Hicks, didn’t help matters and, despite Benitez boldly claiming his team would get a Champions League spot, Liverpool finished the season far off the top four.

This proved the final nail in the coffin and Benitez was replaced by Roy Hodgson. However. The Hodgson tenure was so dismal that it led to Liverpool fans soon reminiscing about the great things that had happened under Benitez. The 4-1 win at Old Trafford, the 5-0 humiliation of Real Madrid. That midfield of Alonso, Gerrard and Mascherano working in unison. Torres in his prime. Repeatedly outdoing Mourinho in semi-finals. Reina, the first reliable goalkeeper at Anfield in eons. Consistently strong performances in Europe evidenced by two Champions League finals. A Gerrard inspired FA cup win, one of many incredible comebacks. Istanbul. Two 3rd place finishes and a 2nd place finish on 86 points. Suddenly one off-season for Benitez didn’t seem enough cause for dismissal.

Benitez was a victim of his own success. His time at Liverpool was clearly flawed but the improvements he put in place undoubtedly raised the level of expectation at Anfield. Liverpool, like many teams before them, appreciated that their manager had improved the club’s standing but felt that someone new was needed to take them further. As is so often the case, the new manager can struggle to take the team further. In fact, Premier League sides have often seen a severe drop in the standard of performances and results after moving on a manager they believed to be incapable of ‘taking them where they needed to be.’

A number of Liverpool fans dread the thought of Benitez going to Chelsea because they realize that what he achieved with a limited budget under Gillett and Hicks could be improved upon greatly with the benefit of Abramovich’s millions. Wenger will probably still be at the Arsenal helm next season but the managerial catch 22 may well prove to be his eventual downfall. If it does, it won’t be a huge surprise if, within a few years of his departure, the Emirates faithful find themselves chanting Wenger’s name and pining for the ‘good old days’. Hindsight, as the saying goes, is 20/20.

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