The answer to this question a week ago would have been an emphatic “no,” after all Rafa had his best finish in the Premier League without his trusted number two last season, but after Rafa’s recent run in with Ryan Babel, it’s a question which is worth pondering once again.
There is no doubt that Pako Ayesteran was well liked among Liverpool players before he left, especially among the Spanish contingent. He had been Rafa’s assistant for over seven years since his days at Tenerife and assisted Rafa during his fantastic spell at Valencia where he won two La Liga titles, before following him to Liverpool where he helped mastermind Liverpool’s Champions League victory in 2005 and FA Cup success in 2006.
It is known in football that every manager needs a decent assistant manager to support him, Rafa was no different and there were questions raised after Pako’s departure in 2007: how crucial was Pako in helping Rafa to succeed as a manager? How instrumental was the assistant in the La Liga successors at Valencia and the Champions League triumph at Liverpool? There were two competing theories at the time, one that came out of Liverpool dressing room that he was just a fitness coach, the other from journalists that Pako was the man who kept a good relationship between players and management.
Certainly if we look at what Jamie Carragher said about Pako’s departure, the assistant’s role in the club’s success seems less significant:
Gerard Houllier had the same thing thrown at him when Patrice Bergues left, and in that case I do think that had a big impact. But the difference now is that Rafa Benitez is a coach, while Gerard Houllier was more of simply a manager and observed coaching rather than actually taking it. I got on great with Pako, he was superb at his job and he had a great relationship with the manager, but he was the fitness coach. Rafa is the coach. At the end of the day, we’ve lost a fitness coach, not a football coach, although it’s a fitness coach who was outstanding at his job. But it’s still the manager picking the team. Rafa is the football man and that hasn’t changed.
Certainly nothing changed in regards to training and coaching after Pako left but what about in terms of man management? Benitez has always been seen as a coach rather than a manager. He analyses tactics, statistics and initiates training accordingly but he never felt that managing players was in his remit. Something Steven Gerrard and other players such as Xabi Alonso have mentioned about Benitez is that he operates in a different way to most managers by being pretty aloof from his players. Pako’s job may have been to fill this void while at the same time giving Benitez a sounding board for his ideas, disagreeing on footballing matters when he saw fit.
The loss of his confidant and the lack of somebody else to talk to regarding tactical or player advice was seen as a main reason for a slump in form during the 2007/2008 season, but such talk evaporated during Liverpool’s relatively successful campaign last year. In the meantime Sammy Lee had been installed as Liverpool assistant coach, and there is certainly great affection for the scouser in the Liverpool dressing room. The appointment may have had a significant impact on Liverpool’s season but this is by no means certain.
Rafa as the coach always has the tactical ideas and when things were going well last season he may have not needed to turn to Lee for advice that often. The fact remains Lee has not been a confidant of Rafa as long as Pako was. Pako knew Benitez’s training methods, style of play and mentality inside out and would be able to provide ideas on the same wavelength as well as to reject them in the same measure from Rafa. Now when things started to go wrong this season, who did Rafa turn to for ideas? And just as importantly, who did the players go to when they were low on confidence? Certainly not to Rafa. The run in with Ryan Babel maybe a situation which Pako may have dealt with in the past, and although it has been resolved now, the rest of the team including Gerrard have certainly looked low on confidence many times this season.
Has Sammy Lee been the man to get the players out of the doldrums when they have needed it, and is he the man who tells Rafa the problems in the team tactically? They are questions I don’t have the answers to but what I do know is Benitez needs less ‘yes’ men and more ‘no’ men for he is one stubborn man and Lee in the future will need to be Rafa’s confidant in the same way as Pako once was.