Rafa Benitez once again avoided committing his future to Liverpool after the Europa League semi-final defeat to Atletico Madrid. Asked whether he would be at the club in August, Benitez would only talk about the upcoming games:
Considering Rafa also mentioned the need to bring in four or five players, and the club’s need to “balance the books” over the last few seasons, it suggests Rafa Benitez is holding back on committing his future until he gets some assurance from the board about transfer funds. I have mentioned before the net spend last summer of £4.95m and Rafa surely will not stand for the same amount again, as there could only be a repeat of the disappointing campaign this season if such a small amount of investment was authorised. “Wheeling and dealing” has been the order of the day for the past two years, and although there have been mistakes in the transfer department, most notably Robbie Keane, the amount of money invested in the team compared to many of the club’s above us is small by comparison.
Such a lack of investment, encouraged Rafa to look at other ways to bring in players, and one of most important elements was to look at Liverpool’s academy. In the last decade, youth players coming through the ranks at Anfield have not been good enough, and one of the crucial elements of Rafa Benitez’s new contract last year was to get the youth system directly under his control. It was no coincidence that straight after he signed his new contract, Benitez assigned Frank McParland last March with the task of assessing the state of the Academy. It led to a complete reorganisation last summer with the likes of Barcelona youth coaches Pep Segura and Rodolfo Borrell coming in, along with 14 other non-playing staff.
From this, it is clear that Benitez had a long term strategy in place to improve Liverpool as a club, not merely the playing staff but facilities, culture, training techniques and medical expertise. It is for this reason, the prospect of Benitez leaving is concerning. Even after the signing of Jonjo Shelvey, Benitez was talking of the need for the club to bring more young English players that have passion for Liverpool. It is part of a long term plan he says to reshape the club below first team level.
Central to this plan is Rodolfo Borrell. As I have mentioned in articles before, Borrell as Under 18s coach has a crucial part to play in this restructuring. A man who coached Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique in the same team, Borrell knows what it takes for a youth setup to work properly. He was stunned at the poor standard of the club’s academy when he joined Liverpool in the summer. He told the BBC:
“The reality of what we found here was unacceptable.”
It is a worrying indictment of what has been going on at the Academy over the last ten years, and why the club has only really developed one Premier League class player in Stephen Warnock during that time. Borrell went on to explain in the interview with the BBC as to why:
“The under-18s had no centre forward, no balance. They had no tactical level, no understanding of the game. We are working hard, but you can’t change things overnight. I think we have made a lot of progress over eight months, but we need to improve a lot more to get more players into the first team. I think if we keep working hard maybe in two years somebody can appear in the first team.”
It will be a long term project to improve Liverpool’s young players both technically and tactically after year’s where the training has not been at the required level. It is not just on the training pitch where Rafa wants a marked change though. He wants to replicate the culture of Barca’s La Masia youth academy, where everything is incorporated around the club and where there is a central core of local, passionate talented players. Borrell states:
“When I arrived the first thing Rafa told me was that the biggest interest is to try to develop English players. I agree – the best players to defend the Barca shirt are Catalan players, the best players to defend the Liverpool shirt are English players. . . We have to fight to make English players arrive. If in two or three years one of our players does make the first team, I think he will be English.”
If Rafa leaves, Borrell and Academy Technical manager Pep Segura may not get the two or three years they need to transform the fortunes at Kirkby. Every new coach will want to bring in their own backroom staff and it might lead to an exodus of the Spanish coaching team, including Borrell. Where would that leave the Academy? Halfway through a transition process without those who were at the centre of initiating it. For me, Rafa leaving would have consequences far more wide-ranging than the change of first-team personnel, it could also set back a crucial part of Liverpool’s future, the reformation of the Academy which is still in its infancy.
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