15 February 2010

On Rafa Benitez: Part V

The continuing series between Ed from Liverpool Offside and I on Rafa Benitez's reign. Part V is on media relations – how Rafa deals with and is portrayed by the media.

Part V: In the Press
Intro | Managerial Record | Tactics | Man Management | Transfers

Ed: I'm always hesitant to give much weight to clubs, players, managers, whoever when they talk about the unfair treatment they receive from the media. My default position on these types of things has usually been "you asked for it, you got it;" it simply comes with the territory of being a professional athlete. They find themselves as the story on a daily basis whether it relates to sport or not, and while at times it's likely a bit of a burden (slight understatement), I think they also gain a tremendous amount of validation and power that comes from the constant attention.

As supporters we do the same thing, just without the pressure or power. I know that I'm prone to calling immediate bullshit on anything negative written about Liverpool, or at least anything negative that doesn't line up with any negative feelings I already had. I'm especially likely to push the spoon away if I feel like I'm being force-fed a blatant literary agenda---I'm my own man dammit, and I'll form my own opinions. But how long do you stave off the narrative that's being written (to borrow your phrase) before it almost insidiously creeps into your psyche and starts to shape your view?

With Rafa Benitez it's tough to tell what's created and what's real, and the unfortunate thing for us is that we'll never really know fact from fiction. But I think we (speaking of supporters in general) should at least try to do so on both ends of the spectrum---smart enough to call bullshit on the good and bad press and not accepting of a perception that's being created for us.

Obviously the first thing that many people will think of with this topic is Facts, Rafa's one-man drama in January of 2009. Talking to the media largely about Sir Alex Ferguson and the preferential treatment United receive, it was...f***ing awesome. At least that's what my first thought was after seeing it. Sure, I thought it was brash, ballsy, and slightly bizarre, but what more could you want? He was never out of control, he threw his hat in the media game, and actually made some valid points.

But then comes the aftershocks. "Disturbed." "Crazy." "Astonishing." "Heading for a Keegan-style breakdown." And in the time since, that has become one of the defining moments in Rafa's time at Liverpool, and it can't be defined as anything but failure. It's parody at this point. Shit, the guy even parodied himself earlier this season. Although I can't help but think that it wasn't that big of a deal, not that crazy, not that astonishing. What we read afterward certainly was, as we were able to see Sir Alex striking the stupefied victim the rest of the season, vindicated by United's ability to win yet another title. Really showed Rafa. Made him eat his words. Just "looking after his family." Played Rafa perfectly.

All of that, though, is if we're to believe that the intent of Facts was a manipulative act by a man who was seizing on the brink of madness, desperate to play old Red-Nose's game. In that light, you can't help but view it as failure. But I think about my initial reaction vs. where I stand on it, even now. Was it that crazy? Am I completely incapable of original thought? Or is it just that I have original thoughts, but they're so fragile that they can be shaped by the press an ocean away?

I don't intend for Facts to be the sole focus of our discussion here, but as I mentioned, it can't help but be the first thing that people think of. And as you brought up earlier, there's much more to this than one press conference. So I'm interested in your take on this, but also the role that media's played in Rafa's time at the club.

nate: For once, I might not know my history well enough. And this conversation is one where being on the opposite side of the ocean makes it harder to fully comprehend. But it seems like Liverpool's been both target and scapegoat since Thatcher's days. It's near impossible to relate to as an outsider, but I wouldn't trust a media that claimed Liverpudlians pissed on and robbed from their own dead either. Whether an anti-LFC bias is due to consistent and comprehensive Liverpool successes in the 70s and 80s or Thatcher's persecution of the industrial north is debatable. But I don't think it's simply imagined.

I'm in complete agreement with how you saw 'Rafa's rant.' I thought it was brilliant, and more importantly, necessary. Every single word was true. Granted, I'm clearly biased, but United always seems to get preferential treatment, whether it's in the amount of injury time added, soft penalties, or whatnot.

Rafa is never out of control. His press conferences have become far more revealing and entertaining as his grasp of English has improved (being able to understand his Spanish interviews made 10 years of taking the language in school worthwhile), but he's always known exactly what he's saying. That's why the coverage of the "rant" seemed to disproportionate to me. Nothing was ranted. And nothing was wrong. When Ferguson or Mourinho do it, it's mind games. When it's Benitez, he's disturbed.

'Rafa's rant' never reached the comedic heights of Keegan's ‘I’D LOVE IT!’ speech. But the media made out as if he came into the briefing room foaming at the mouth and lifted his leg on the press corps. That Liverpool went into their usual mid-Winter slump starting with the next fixture only fed into the "he's cracking up" narrative that Fleet Street was so eager to promote. And United being United, getting to the top of the table and just staying there, evidently proved Benitez's blistering insanity. Or something. You know what? The season turns out exactly the same if Rafa never ranted. United was (gulp) deeper and more experienced.

The zonal marking debate is another of my favorites played out in the media. Benitez handled it perfectly prior to the Derby, making me wish he'd made the statement years earlier. Zonal marking and Liverpool's susceptibility on set plays has been a stick frequently used to beat Benitez. I've argued in the past that it's down to the players more than the system – zonal marking and set plays were far less of a problem with Hyypia in the team – but the media seem convinced it's the system's fault. Andy Gray and his Sky Sports brethren love bringing it up. Benitez's response in reference to Tim Cahill will probably silence that criticism for a while, though. You might not know it from reading the papers, but he can actually be witty sometimes.

Prior to "zonal marking," it was "rotation." Remember when Rafa went 99 games without using the same line-up in consecutive games? It’s still being mocked. The same newspaper has repeatedly lauded Ferguson’s United for the exact same tactics.

I realize that what many see as "media bias" is just the media's self-interest in selling as many papers as possible. Both controversy and Liverpool sell papers. Liverpool controversy seems to sell even more. Plus, there's a bit of South Park's take on The Lottery in it; build them up to bring them down, and kick them on their way down.

Because if it's not that, my only conclusion is there's some sort of xenophobia involved. I know that's a reach – Rafa's not the only foreign manager in England – but he certainly seems to court more criticism that the likes of Ferguson, Redknapp, O'Neill, or even Hughes. I'm still stunned how quickly pundits lined up to suggest Benitez should be sacked earlier this season. Hughes got an easier ride when City were drawing almost every match, and now he's the one out of a job.

So is it just paranoia or are they really out to get us?

Ed: One of the things you touch on, particularly in relation to "the rant," is a lack of cause and effect when it comes to press conferences and pitch results. I think it flatters managers, whether it's Rafa, Ferguson, Mourinho, whoever, to say that their words on a Thursday or Friday will have a direct impact on Saturday or Sunday's result. For me, that's as clear a case of media manipulation as any--the "posterboard material" that spurs a team onto victory. And in many cases, it's also wrongly applied to the course of the season. Nevermind that after Rafa foamed at the mouth Liverpool went on arguably one of the finest runs in recent memory, including a 4-1 humbling of Ferguson's United at Old Trafford. But Rafa had already cursed the season back in January, right? No matter that Liverpool had started to slip in November, first drawing with Fulham, then West Ham, then Hull, as well as Arsenal at the Emirates. If anything, his rant had...no impact.

I'm in agreement that the thrust of the media's intent can be lost in the Trans-Atlantic shuffle--I'm lost as to how Rafa can be roundly criticized for that, while stateside we watch Denny Green blow a gasket, Mike Gundy preach about manhood, or Bobby Cox break his own record for number of times getting tossed from a game and then forget about it the next day. Chalk it up to being American. But I do think there's something about Liverpool in the post Spice-Boys era that makes the club easy to mock. Decades of success combined with pomp and no follow-through makes for an easy target, and while the Houllier and Benitez years have been a stark shift from those days, I think there's a residual resentment that could only be refuted with a championship. Liverpool are the easy target for their failure to win league since 1990 in the same way that it's easy to say Chelsea are as green as they are blue, or that Arsenal play lovely football but can't finish. Of course, both those mentioned have more recent titles to assuage any faltering self-esteem.

And with Rafa it's taken the next logical step given his early success. You brought up the idea that he's a victim of his own success in an earlier section, and I think it's just as applicable here. He won the Champions League and FA Cup in his first two years and was the darling of Merseyside. But whether it was a lack of mastery of the English language or a reluctance to assert himself in the press, he was as anonymous as a manager of Liverpool can be in the media. This might be my relative inexperience as a Liverpool fan, but I'm hard-pressed to identify any memorable press conferences, good or bad, from Rafa prior to January of 2009.

One of the things that's easy to lose sight of, at least for me, is that there's always a counter to what we read in the press, but you'll never read it on a large scale. Zonal marking is a perfect example--that link you provided is something that few outside of eseason subscribers will have seen, and it might have gotten an inch or two in the papers. What we never hear is that whether it's man marking or zonal marking, men are still responsible for the execution, and it's men who are largely at fault for gaps in either system. Completely without supporting evidence, I'd be comfortable in asserting that the breakdown in the system wasn't necessarily due to a faulty system, but faulty execution. It's always going to come down to the figurehead, and rightfully so in some cases. But the responsibility can only go so far beyond the touchline.

So is it xenophobia? It's not something I feel qualified to comment on, given how removed I am from the climate and culture. But there is a "different-ness" that managers like Benitez and Wenger have that ruffles some sort of feathers. Fergie is lovably British, Ol' 'Arry has endless anecdotes, and there's a familiarity with O'Neill that's comforting. That doesn't really exist with Benitez, and when it comes along with a failure to win league, a lack of positive results, occasional lapses in tactics or performances, it's almost hard not to find fault.

nate: I think you hit the nail on the head with the line: "Decades of success combined with pomp and no follow-through makes for an easy target, and while the Houllier and Benitez years have been a stark shift from those days, I think there's a residual resentment that could only be refuted with a championship." It's something I should have been clearer about in the last section. Liverpool are an easy target for mutually dependent reasons: one, because the club used to win titles religiously, and two, because they haven't won the league in going on two decades. It's not quite pre-2004 Red Sox, but there are parallels.

And simply having Benitez as manager increases that pressure because of the reasons we've elucidated. He's not a media darling, nor is he eminently quotable, and that he's a foreign manager feeds into some of the British media's stereotypes. I like that you compared Benitez to Wenger; the two managers have been defending the other in public recently, both before and after the Liverpool/Arsenal match. Both foreign managers, both under increasing pressure to end the trophy drought. Football makes strange bedfellows.

You say that there have been few memorable press conferences, but since when are press conferences supposed to be memorable? To continue with American sports references, they can't all be Jim Mora's "PLAYOFFS???!?!" The sole purpose is to feed the beast prior to kickoff. And maybe that's the problem. Mourinho fed the beast. Ferguson, when he's not avoiding post-match interviews so he can start drinking sooner, feeds the beast. Redknapp assuredly feeds the beast, and with a lovable Cockney accent to boot. Benitez, on the other hand, wasn't fluent in English for the first few years and doesn't suffer fools. And when the beast isn't fed, it writes its own headlines. And we get to read about how Rafa ranted Liverpool out of the title race.


drew said...

There is scarcely a more parasitic, vile class of creatures than English journalists. To those on top they offer abject boot-licking (as Tevez might have it, sock-sucking) servility, but even then they are waiting for the slightest waver or sign of vulnerability so they can slip the knife in. And for those who are down, they put the boot in, over and over and over; there is nothing they love so much as kicking a man who is down.

Compound this with the entire era of journalists* now prominent growing up in the 70s and 80s, which means they either supported Liverpool or hated them blindly and couldn't wait to throw themselves behind whomever supplanted them at the top of English football.

Most of them would love nothing more than to see Benitez run out of Liverpool, partly out of desire to see Anfield in chaos but mostly because they can feel like they've made it happen, that they stirred up the people against him and brought him down. And what's worse is they're part right, even Liverpool supporters I hear down the pub blathering on about the zonal marking or rotation or the Lucas/Insua hate--whatever the papers are on about that day.

American sports journalists are vacuous, stupid, and all too eager to turn isolated events into vast metaphors for perceived faults in society. English sport writers are far more intelligent, but also cynical, condescending, and bloodthirsty. With very few exceptions, I wouldn't piss on them if they were on fire.

* also referees, but that's another matter and problem

nate said...

As someone with a master's degree in journalism, you'd think I'd take offense to that, but I most certainly don't.

Nice summary. Could have saved Ed and I almost 2000 words.

Ed said...

I'm not opposed to putting that in place of anything I wrote.

Earl said...

I watch a few games a week on Setanta and FSC. You're right, DirectTV rules. I'll watch some of their news or wrap-up shows too. But as far as print media, I don't read much other than ESPN, blogs and The Guardian UK. The rest seem like the NY Post or tabloid types. Am I missing any credible papers? I'm guessing from your links and the above description no.

nate said...

I link it in the sidebar, but the local Liverpool media, specifically the Liverpool Echo, is required reading.

drew said...

Also Tony Barnett at the Times, who came out of the Echo. Olly Kay has his moments, and Henry Winter will write a good column once or twice a season.

The Guardian is a strange case; they've tried to diversify since moving and dropping the Manchester from their name but with respect to Liverpool they're still largely motivated more by hatred (and more recently contempt) than by schadenfreude and the sheer love of chaos.

Hmm. I guess what I'm trying to say is that with the Guardian at least you know it's personal.

Varmenni said...

I haven't had much exposure to your print media and how they deal with what passes as sports in you parts.

I have however been watching a bit of NFL through the years. Up until recently I had to make do with what passes for "Football Experts" over here. Some blokes who went to college in the US and played the game there. Then suddenly they decided to cut costs and started to broadcast the MNF and TNF games, and the game from the last kick-off block on Sundays with the original commentary from the US. And what a relief it was to finally get decent commentary from people who actually knew the game. Who had played it at top level and even had coaching experience. People who actually spotted things that we the uninitiated missed and provided useful commentary that went beyond just voicing their views and what was blatantly obvious.

How many commentators in the UK have actually had an even remotely successful career in management? I'll go on a limb and suggest the grand total of one, David Pleat, the rest are just former players at best. And it gets even worse in the written media, where the majority are just fans who might have a degree in journalism, but have absolutely no expert knowledge when it comes to the game itself. And these are the folks telling us that one should play with two up-front, man-mark and make substitutions at a whim.

But it gets worse. The worst ones are those who played the game some 10-20 years ago, who cant seem to fathom the game played in any other way than they did during their career.

And then are the ulterior motives behind a lot of their writings. For some it is personal vendetta (Collymore), for some it is neoptism (Redknapp) and for some it is personal feelings clouding their judgment (Winter). Then there are those who let their feelings for a rival seep into their writing.