“I am very, very proud to be joining one of the most important clubs in the world in one of the best leagues in the world – and I want to win.”- Rafael Benitez, June 2004
“It’s the biggest honour I can imagine, one of the biggest clubs in the world. I’ve been given the opportunity to help in this situation, but it’s not so difficult as some people in this room think … It’s not a normal, usual club, it’s a special club.” – Jurgen Klopp, October 2015
This weekend’s fixture pits Liverpool manager against former Liverpool for only the second ever time in the Premier League.
In April 2016, with Newcastle doing the best they could to be relegated, Rafa was appointed to at least delay the inevitable. He brought the Magpies to Anfield five days before Jurgen Klopp’s side were due in the Estadio El Madrigal to play Villareal in the first leg of the Europa League semi-final. Liverpool had dismissed Everton in midweek with a first choice side but, come this game, it was time to rest players. It wasn’t often Liverpool included Connor Randall and Kev Stewart in the XI and even the perennial substitute Joe Allen made a rare start.
And it worked to a point.
Liverpool ran into a 2-0 in half an hour with Sturridge and Lallana netting early. Come half time the Reds were cruising.
Enter Rafael Benitez.
The man loves a tactical substitute.
Off came the more attacking Ayoze Perez and, for the first time in his career, Gini Wijnaldum touched the Anfield turf – this time in black and white stripes. Suddenly, Liverpool didn’t have things their own way in the middle of the park. First Papiss Cisse, following an error from Simon Mignolet, and then Jack Colback scored to see out a 2-2 draw. Frowns all round but Liverpool had bigger fish to fry that week. For their part, Newcastle were grateful of the point but still had Sunderland and Norwich to fight with in the bottom four – Aston Villa being already down by then.
The two managers had, in fact, met before that day. In September 2013, they clashed in the Champions League group stages when Rafa’s Napoli beat Jurgen’s Borussia Dortmund 2-1 thanks to first half goals from Gonzalo Higuain and Lorenzo Insigne. Dortmund won the return leg 3-1 and eventually topped the group while Napoli dropped into the Europa League.
The first months of Dalglish’s return aside, Rafa was the last Liverpool manager to receive the same adulation Jurgen receives today. Sure, he had his critics come the end of his tenure, but until his one truly awful season – his last in 2009-2010 – his name was praised all over the Red world. We even ran through the streets of Cardiff with his painting held high.
As with Leicester recently, the Spaniard gave the lie to the idea that footballing success comes only in increments. Ordinarily you’d expect a side to go close to a dream, miss out narrowly and then make the final step. Alex Ferguson did this before his stranglehold on the Premiership began in earnest when he lost the league on Merseyside in April 1992. Not for Rafa the gradual increase in rewards. Just eleven months after he first pitched up at Anfield he had the Champions League trophy sitting on his desk. Match that, world.
Jurgen too exploded onto the world stage with a Dortmund side who fought, matched and then overcame the all-powering Bayern Munich. He too has a strong European pedigree and reached a European final in his first season as Liverpool manager with another man’s side. The similarities are remarkable. While Liverpool had some strong players in October 2015 when Brendan was dismissed, the possibility of reaching two finals seemed a little optimistic. Equally, Gerard Houllier’s last game in charge – though it contained eight players who featured in Istanbul – was a dog of a game at the end of a dog of the season with all invention eroded from what had once been a promising squad. Both sides needed a new man at the helm to bring them to the boil.
Of course, there are differences too. Tactically they are streets apart. Benitez is obsessed with defence and midfield dominance. Arguably he is the last Liverpool manager to be so. For Rafa everything is about controlling the pitch from the centre rather than speed up top, which the German prefers. Look at his insistence in a proper defensive midfielder. He inherited Hamann, bought Sissoko and then Mascherano to sit next to his creative twosome of Gerrard and Alonso. In 2006 he even placed the mercurial captain on the wing in order to hold more muscle in the central midfield area. That was where battles were lost and won for him.
Klopp is somewhat different. It’s a myth that he has abandoned the defence altogether, but every single one of his front six plus the two full backs are given licence to push forward and create his brand of ‘heavy metal football.’ Everything is about tempo and speed – beating the opposition into exhaustion – with the Reds hunting in packs. Rafa is far more pragmatic and wants dominance in two key areas to fuel the third.
Whether you prefer one over the other is one of personal choice. Both are equally valid. This isn’t to say that everything is black and white. Defensive Rafa brought Fernando Torres to the club while attack-minded Jurgen’s first signing was Steven Caulker! But it’s fair to say that both have their styles.
So what of the weekend? Well, Liverpool are currently playing some glorious stuff, but only taking average results. Rafa’s Newcastle have won three and lost three of their League fixtures as they try to stabilise their form. Liverpool should be the stronger side, but St James’ Park is an odd place for the Reds. I’ve been there to witness some absolute thumpings from the away side, but we’ve struggled there too – usually in scrappy games where the opposition do all they can to stop us playing. The sort of game where Rafa Benitez excels.
Such is Liverpool’s inconsistency that it would take the brave man or woman to gamble on the outcome of this game and though Liverpool shouldn’t lose, I’d rather the Reds were facing the other former Liverpool manager working in the division than this one.