Taken from

Paul Tomkins 10 February 2009

There are lies, damned lies and statistics. And there is the absolute guff spouted by pundits who wouldn’t know a fact if it bit them in the part of their body they speak out of.

Of late, I’ve been wondering if Rafa Benítez is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. Now I’m just starting to believe that’s too mild a way to put it. I have never known a manager so unable to win even when he wins. One defeat in 33 ‘main competition’ games, and still the flak flies.

And as I will prove, some of the criticism could not be more wayward.

If ever there was an almost perfect example of how he can’t win, it came at Portsmouth, following the midweek Mersey marathon.

To put it in perspective, if Rafa had played a weakened team at Everton in the FA Cup, he’d have been lambasted for not taking the competition seriously (yawn), and for not understanding the local derby.

He went with a strong team, to try and win the game and keep the momentum going, not least because Mersey derbies have a habit of being blown out of proportion: lose, and it feels like the end of the world; win, and you can get a massive fillip.

But Lucas was sent off for two yellows, when only one was a foul. Steven Gerrard had already limped off injured at the start, and Liverpool were left to play extra-time with ten men and a clearly leggy Fernando Torres. So much then for fielding your best players to win the game early and then be able to rest them: the advice every man and his dog was giving Benítez in the past.

Already physically shattered, a deflected goal in the 119th minute was similarly tough on the psyche. It was a body blow to the, er, mind. So the received wisdom was no use whatsoever on Wednesday.

What it did do was leave a tired, dejected team shorn of its captain and with its best striker seeing the recent run of games take its toll, having returned from a long injury problem to be thrown into a busy schedule.

So what does a manager do in this situation? Play his best players, who were clearly tired (and two of whom – Torres and Alonso – weren’t 100% fit), or use the squad and hope that a little less quality and/or experience is compensated for by far greater freshness, plus the hunger to impress?

After all, Gerrard had just succumbed to an injury from playing too much football; what if Torres followed suit?

With Spain unlikely to rest him on Wednesday, there was a chance that the Reds wouldn’t even get to the upcoming vital weekend break (the one big bonus of going out of the FA Cup) with the striker’s hamstrings intact. So Rafa wasn’t resting him to keep him fresh for Spain; he was trying to avoid another lay-off.

Ultimately, extreme situations demand extreme measures.

I don’t think the result made Rafa a genius, just as having drawn or lost would not have made him a chump. Had everyone been 100% fit and sharp, then it’s a risky judgement call you can perhaps question. But they weren’t. Clearly.

However, there was one very logical reason why, in the circumstances, it was a gamble worth taking. The Liverpool subs looked so sharp precisely because they were entering into a game with the opposition starting to tire, and in which those three Reds wouldn’t need to rely on stamina – just a short burst of effort that didn’t need to be sustained.

What Rafa did in the face of fatigue was pair Torres, Kuyt and Alonso up against an equally tired second-half Portsmouth side, when their quality could tell. Ideally the game would have been won by then, but if it wasn’t, they were there to win it late on. After all, Alex Ferguson has done that countless times in the past, keeping his stars in reserve in case he needed them to come on and win the game.

Had that trio started the game, it could quite easily have been a case of them tiring before the south coast side. Who knows? It’s certainly not unlikely after the midweek exertions, and a whopping 210 minutes of football since Pompey played last Saturday. Either way, it’s an almost impossible situation for the team to play to the best of its ability.

Mixing metaphors somewhat, I just wish the baying hounds would cut Benítez at least a little slack. I honestly can’t recall a top manager being criticised even half as much as the Spaniard – and this with trophies, constant Champions League qualification (and annual progress to at least the semi-finals, bar 2006), along with radical improvements in the league.

After Torres scored the winner on Saturday, one commentator said that Liverpool need to keep him fit and ‘nurse him’; yet there was widespread condemnation before the game for not starting him. So you need to nurse players like Torres and Gerrard, just never rest (i.e. ‘nurse’) them. Oh, okay.

Then later that evening, it was said Liverpool would not have won fielding that side against better opposition.

Which was ludicrously bereft of logic because Liverpool were playing Portsmouth, and that’s the only team the manager could pick a side to beat. Did Rafa select that same XI against Chelsea last week? No. Did Rafa have to pick a side on Saturday to beat Manchester United or Arsenal? Of course not. It was Portsmouth.

In the post-match TV analysis it was all about how Liverpool will get ‘nowhere near’ the title with this squad; having just gone top of the table with 13 games remaining (even if United were still favourites with two games in hand).

And there’s me thinking the Reds had been challenging all season long, sometimes without Gerrard, often without Torres.

The same was said on TV on Sunday morning: journalists declaring Liverpool’s squad as too weak to mount a title challenge –– whilst that very squad is clearly making a challenge. It’s like three blind mice leading equally vision-impaired followers.

(Please, fellas, if you’re reading, stick with it, but I’ve a lot to vent. The facts are on their way. Read them, and consider their implications.)

The result is the only justification of team selection, whether you get the winner in the first minute or the last.

I said last week, when Man United score late, it’s the sign of a great side; when Liverpool do, it’s luck. And yet even before Torres came on, Kuyt had put the Reds 2-1 up with a goal that was wrongly chalked off for offside, while Pompey’s opener looked offside. And Liverpool are ‘lucky’?!

Had that Kuyt goal stood, there’s a fairly good chance Liverpool would have won without their two stellar names even featuring, and yet the Setanta pundits and Sky journos were adamant about how Liverpool are too reliant on Gerrard and Torres.

Again, I ask people to go check Manchester United’s results without Ronaldo and Rooney. And again, I ask people to see how many games Liverpool have won without Torres and Gerrard this season.

If you can’t check, let me do it for you: United lost five league games last season. Rooney missed four of them, Ronaldo missed three, and they did not play together in any of those defeats. Of these opponents, only Chelsea were a team in the top eight, so it’s not skewed by difficult games.

In the 12 league matches Rooney did not start, United’s accrued a 69-point average when extrapolated over 38 games, as opposed to the 87 they actually racked up. In the seven games Ronaldo did not start, the average would have made an even worse total: 65 points. Or the tally that saw Everton finish 5th.

Shockingly, in the four games in which neither started –– against Manchester City, Bolton, Sunderland and Spurs (again, no giants, but admittedly one derby) –– they dropped half of the available points: meaning an average of 57 if extrapolated over 38 games. Or equivalent to finishing 8th, like Portsmouth.

(Also, of the three league games Ronaldo missed at the start of this season, United dropped five points, which is the form of a mid-table side.)

Yes, United have other good players all over the pitch, but do these facts not suggest that they are overly reliant on their best two attacking players?

While United have coped well in the last few games without Rooney, without either him and/or Ronaldo on a regular basis, the form book suggests that they are not a title-winning side. Indeed, far from it.

(Of course, if United did not have these players on a very regular basis, or indeed at all, they’d try to buy similar replacements; just as Liverpool obviously would in the case of Torres and Gerrard.)

Now look at Liverpool without Torres and Gerrard this season.

Gerrard has failed to start four league games –– Villa, United, Fulham and Portsmouth. Two of those are clearly very tough fixtures, against top-three sides. Two were at home, two away. And yet Liverpool’s record is won two, drawn two. Over 38 league games, that is worth an impressive 76 points.

Due to injury, Torres has failed to start no fewer than 15 league games. These resulted in ten wins, four draws and just one defeat. Over a 38 game season, that ratio would earn an incredible 86 points. That is a title-winning tally; last year United got 87, but needed only 86.

Perhaps due to Torres playing at least half a dozen games when lacking sharpness, Liverpool have actually fared better without him; with him starting, the Reds have won five and drawn five, which is 76 points in terms of form over 38 games. (Though he did win the weekend’s game from the bench.)

It gets even more amazing. In each of the two league games Liverpool started without both Torres and Gerrard, the Reds won: against United and Pompey. It’s only two games, of course, but it’s a 100% record. Or 114 points over the course of a season! (Silly, I know, when based on such a small sample, but a 100% record is a 100% record.)

Yes, these are statistics – but then league tables are formed from similar statistics relating to win, lose or draw, which are the most important kind. And yes, United’s figures are based on last season (when they won the title) and Liverpool’s this season (as they challenge for it). Even so, it’s valid.

But even I was shocked at how remarkably disparate the win/lose/draw statistics were. I’m no genius; I just sat down and bothered to check some team sheets and calculate some figures, rather than just make ignorant assumptions like the McPundits.

So why are Liverpool the team perceived to rely on just two players? Why does someone like Tim Sherwood say that United don’t rely on their key men and Liverpool do?

Why isn’t the truth –– that United cannot seem to cope very well without Ronaldo, and certainly not well at all without both him and Rooney –– more well known?

Why isn’t Rafa praised for getting so many great results without his key men this season, rather than just constantly criticised?

Why isn’t Ferguson accused of being lucky or relying on Rooney and Ronaldo to get him out of trouble?

I’ll leave you (and anyone in the media who reads this) to draw your own conclusions. But based on these figures, if I were Alex Ferguson and United lost Rooney and Ronaldo to serious injury, I’d be very worried.

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