In their time together, Steven Gerrard and Rafa Benitez shaped Liverpool’s best years in the 21st century yet. Even if he wasn’t the best of friends with Benitez, Gerrard would do well to take a leaf out of his vast managerial book.
There was a buzz of anticipation at Anfield as half time dawned to a close on the 22nd of March, 2015. Liverpool were facing Man United in England’s most iconic fixture, and captain Steven Gerrard was about to be subbed on. Gerrard had grown up hating Manchester United, not unlike most other Liverpudlian faithfuls – his father once nearly beat him when he dared to bring in a United jersey to their house when he was a little boy. And now, Liverpool’s greatest player of the modern era was about to square off against their greatest rivals for one last time in his career. The fans expected a farewell coronation.
38 seconds later, pandemonium. It was a wave of disbelief that spread across the stadium as referee Martin Atkinson showed the captain a red card, and he was off the field no sooner than he had come on. Gerrard stamped on Ander Herrera as he let his emotions take the better of him, and down the tunnel he went. Dejected fans, some who had travelled from far and wide to witness the last derby for Liverpool’s great talisman, could do nothing but wish this was all a bad nightmare.
The game is a feeling
Steven Gerrard, if nothing else, was a player who played with his heart on his sleeve throughout the ninety minutes. He could spot a defence splitting pass like few others in world football, but he would as easily rush into hard tackles and risk being booked. A successful challenge against Manchester United was celebrated as if it was a stoppage time winner in a cup final, and a goal against Everton was like an intoxicating high for the man. As the seasons went by, Gerrard learnt to keep his emotions under check as he took on the mantle of the leader, but deep within he always remained the boy from Liverpool who wanted to get to every ball he didn’t already have. In a way, that is what made him so good – the desire to see his team succeed, the drive to lead the Reds to the Promised Land.
And now, over three years removed from the stamping incident, Liverpool’s former hero has accepted the managerial role at Rangers FC in Scotland as he looks to take the next step in his career. Gerrard had been coaching the Liverpool youth for over a year before landing the Rangers job, but this will be his first attempt at managing a club at the senior level.
The question has to be asked – what kind of a manager will Gerrard be? Will he be as emotionally charged as he was on the field, or perhaps are we going to see a calmer, more composed version of the man?
Like every new manager who had once been a footballer of any significance, he will be massively influenced by the managers that he himself has played under. Stevie has worked with several coaches, all with different styles.
There was Gerard Houlier, who made him the Liverpool captain, and then there was Brendan Rodgers, under whom Gerrard nearly won the league title. There are managers better not talked about too (ahem, Roy Hodgson). But when you discuss the playing career of Steven Gerrard, it will always be incomplete without that one phase under a certain manager, when both Stevie and his gaffer touched their respective zeniths.
It was Istanbul in the 2004-05 campaign that propelled Gerrard towards international stardom and cult status at Anfield, and it was Rafa Benitez who made that night possible.
Working in seemingly flawless synergy, Stevie and Rafa took Liverpool back to the dizzying heights in European football which they were once frequent visitors of. You would think that the two of them shared a great bond off the pitch that made them so good; you would be wrong.
Gerrard, who was used to the personal touch of Houlier, was not a big fan of the direct approach that Benitez had. He was used to being a friend of the managers that he worked with; merely being an employee did not sit well with him.
He even went on to say that the gaffer barely praised him during their time together, and that he called everyone else by their nickname barring Gerrard, which really irked the midfielder. Their first meeting went something like this –
“Gerard (Houlier) introduced Rafa to my mum. Rafa shook her hand, said hello and then immediately asked her a very blunt question: ‘Does Steven like money?”
“Apart from a standard ‘Hello… good to meet you’ introduction, those were the first words Rafa said to my mum. I thought: ‘What kind of question is that?”
“I can pick up the phone and speak to all of my previous Liverpool managers. Except for Rafa. It’s a shame because we probably shared the biggest night of both our careers — the 2005 Champions League victory in Istanbul — and yet there is no bond between us.”
Rafa Benitez and Steven Gerrard are polar opposites. For the former, small talk and feelings are not something he gave a lot of importance to. He was your manager, not your father. For the latter, emotions could never be separated from the dressing room. If Gerrard gelled well with you off the field, chances are you played well together on it. The differences do not end there.
The man with a heart of steel
Rafa’s beginnings were different than those of Stevie’s. Even he was obsessed with the beautiful game, but his playing career was sadly nothing like Gerrard’s. An injury in his youth meant that he had to retire early, and there were no on field heroics for the man. Not having a successful playing career broke him; but it prompted him towards something else – the world of football management. The Spaniard had a degree in physical education, and that became crucial as he joined the Real Madrid staff in 1986.
The former Real Madrid manager’s obsession with the beautiful game was a thing to behold. While footballers start entering their prime at around the age of 26, Rafa at the same age entered the boardroom with whiteboards and pages full of tactics as to how to stop the opposition. His forced retirement from the field had made his dream of achieving something in the world of football even stronger, and therein developed the “cold-hearted” man who did not seem to care about how his players felt or how their families were doing; he cared about how they performed on the field and how he could help improve their game.
It worked,at least in the 2000’s. Benitez won the league with Valencia, which was the first club that he had managed in a top division. If doing it even once seems impossible, given the financial and structural superiority Real Madrid and Barcelona enjoy, Benitez went ahead and did it twice, and threw in a cool Champions League final appearance just to top it off. His tactics were praised, and his systematic approach to the game paid dividends.
Post Valencia, it was Anfield that beckoned. Of course, that season is in the history books now – a Champions League winner in his first season at the club. Liverpool won the FA Cup next season, reached another Champions League final the season after that and finished runners up in the league under the same man. For many fans, it was a glimpse into the good ol’ days when the Reds dominated English football.
Liverpool’s best spell in the 21st century has come under Rafa Benitez, and he has been described by Gerrard himself as a hard man to please. In a way, it was Rafa’s uncomplimentary nature that pushed the likes of Gerrard to play even harder so that the boss would be impressed. Calm as a cucumber, even in Istanbul it was his controlled demeanour during the half time talk as well as his tactical changes, alongside Gerrard’s own heroics that led the club to a comeback of epic proportions.
Rafa’s experiences had shaped him. He realised early on in that in football there were winners and losers – and he was not willing to lose the battle of tactics. Every game was approached differently. Rafa prides in reading his opposition and setting up his teams in a way that will exploit weaknesses. He did it at Valencia, he did it at Liverpool; and even though his career has derailed since he left Anfield, it is indeed impressive what he is doing at Newcastle United now. Rafa has adapted and learnt, and he is most comfortable in his office as he plans how his squad is going to stop next week’s opposition. His teams have a proper spine that are difficult to break down, his moves always calculated.
Who remembers Benitez jumping around the touchline and dancing like a madman in his tracks? No one, because that is not Benitez. He does not operate like that. If you score a hattrick, he will tell you about the pass that you could have given instead of opting to shoot from distance, for that would have been a safer option.
“He didn’t put his arm around us, he didn’t speak to us, but I couldn’t care less because the biggest acknowledgment a manager can give is to pick you. If he’s picking me and helping me win I don’t need him to say, ‘How’s it going?’ – Dietmar Hamann
And that, is what Gerrard needs to learn. For Gerrard prefers the personal touch – he will always prefer Houlier more, or even Rodgers, who treated him like a friend or a protege, not solely as an employee. Rafa and Stevie thus never got along off the pitch, because there was a massive difference in ideologies. Quietly, they both let the results do the talking.
“I don’t think Rafa Benitez liked me as a person,” said Gerrard in his latest autobiography. Indeed a turbulent relationship.
It was a masterstroke by the Spaniard to nullify Mourinho’s Chelsea at Anfield in the Champions League in 2005; but that would have been impossible if not for Gerrard’s genius against Olympiakos earlier that season. When both of them worked in tandem, the duo was almost as lethal as any on-field combination.
Stevie G, the gaffer
It has been 13 years since that historic Liverpool season. Of course, that is not to imply that he role himself around Benitez fully – even the Spaniard had his own set of flaws. At times he was stubborn to a fault that led to his team dropping points, at times he wanted Gareth Barry to replace Xabi Alonso. Go figure.
But as Gerrard does step into management, he should remember what it was like to work under Rafa. Steven Gerrard has to, ideally, find the right balance between his emotions, and the calmness and clarity that a manager like Rafa has. The former Liverpool captain cannot be the same man that wanted to do it all by himself, he has to evolve and realise that now is the time for proper tactics as much as it is for the big, heartfelt emotional speech. Steven Gerrard the player was most often the one who changed the game by taking it by the scruff of its neck. As a manager, he can tell his players how to kick the ball – he cannot go on the pitch and do it himself. He will need to be patient, he will need to learn to work with players that he might not like him on a personal level; but he has to make them score the winning goal for him. Whatever happens on the pitch is the most important thing – ideologies and attitudes off it is something the emotional side of Gerrard must learn to efficiently deal with.
Gerrard once compared Joe Cole in training as akin to watching Lionel Messi train. No doubt he meant it in a positive way to make his teammate feel at home, but someone like Benitez would never have done that.
“Joe Cole? He’s okay. There is potential, but he can improve.” Is probably what Rafa would have said. And therein, lies the difference.
Of course, in football management, there is no right way to win a game (just as there is no right or wrong way to praise Joe Cole). You park the bus or you play fluid football – three points are three points. But in order to get the three points, the man on the touchline has to be as inspirational, and as astute as possible. Steven Gerrard is definitely one of those things – time will tell if he is the other as well.
All things considered, Steven Gerrard and Rafa Benitez were a perfect match as far as the football was concerned. The captain said explicitly that Benitez was the best manager he has worked with – here’s to hoping he takes a page or two out of his old manager’s book.
One of Gerrard’s biggest assets is his ability to take the game so personally that he cannot stand to lose; if he compliments that with the tactical acumen that a manager like Rafa Benitez had and he learns how to WIN, fans are in for a treat.