Career Management: Liverpool FC midfield

Thursday, August 6th, 2009 - career coaching, career management, contract negotiation, Employment, europe, Immigration, job offers, job search, professionalism, recruitment, sunday thoughts

Career Management: Liverpool FC midfield


As a Liverpool FC supporter of some years standing – I was at Junior school in the 1970s, my local team Bristol Rovers weren’t doing too well in the third division, and there was this wonderful team which played passing football and won everything – the recent trails and tribulations surrounding the midfield of Liverpool Football Club are a lesson in man management that many who don’t follow football, let alone the mighty reds, would do well to learn from.

Management vision

Rafa Benitez came to Liverpool from CF Valencia for one reason and one reason only: control. In Spain in La Liga, the structure of clubs means that the word coach is used more literally, over the old British term of football manager. Coaches coach teams and suggest to mighty presidents the types of players they need, whilst boards decide if they have faith in the coach and if so show how much by giving some else a cheque to spend on his behalf: possibly on the players he wanted, possibly in the positions he wanted, but probably not. In the English Premiership, the old term manager still means that the bloke in the dug out on a Saturday afternoon has hold of not only who and how they play, but also the who they bring in or sell. Many managers in the daily world of business would do well to study the differences, to assess the actual world in which they themselves operate best.

Benitez came to Merseyside in summer 2003 with a plan to turn the leaden pace footed Gerrard Houlier LFC into the mighty champions they once were. In the five years since he has rebuilt the team from the back forward, culminating in the 2007 purchase of Fernando Torres to add cutting edge to a team which tactically by then employed a dual moving line defence system, capable of snuffing out the creative play of most teams in Europe. At the centre of all this is a two man sweeper system, made up of original recruit and player maker Xabi Alonso, and midfield general Javier Mascherano.

The problems with Benitez’s system, if I am being frank from the viewpoint of the terraces of the Kop, is that it balances the risk of winning on snuffing out the opposition, over scoring goals. Hence, the junior school kid of the 1970’s would prefer the cheque book bravado of Real Madrid president Florentino Peres and forget the defence for a wonderful all attacking style, over a penny spent on defence. However, the middle aged man recruiter thinks that Benitez has probably got it right on Merseyside bar one element – that of recruiting and developing young talent to his main team – in the five years he has been in charge.

Team Management

Come summer 2008, and Benitez knows from his time in the Premier League that he needs two things: more goals from his midfield, and more English players to cope with UEFA’s new rules of European competition. Thanks to a combination of court action by Belgian Mark Boosman and European Human rights law implementation by UEFA, the result is that footballers over the age of 23 in the last year of their contract can now buy themselves out of their contracts by paying their clubs the remaining value of the full salary and bonuses they are due. Now, much as though this at times makes a football fan want to pull their hair out as the balance of power shifts to a combination of ambitious players and shadowy agents, when the boot is on the other foot it can be very exciting.

Benitez makes a move or Aston Villa midfielder Gareth Barry, who makes it known he’d love to play Champions League football in a red shirt. However, the board at Liverpool make it clear to Benitez that he must sell first before he can buy. So, as Barry is to replace Alonso, Benitez starts hawking Alonso around Europe, eventually offering him to AC Milan for £17million. In the mean time, Benitez negotiation with Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neil has reduced to a series of mutual nuclear strikes via the pages of the British tabloid press. In all of this, after a season he would prefer to forget as did both of his feet, did anyone think of Alonso? The conclusion of the neutral would be: not until Aston Villa refused to do business at a cut-price level; and AC Milan refused to come up to Benitez’s asking price. Suddenly Benitez was very happy to have retained Alonso

In the 2008/9 season, Alonso probably has his best season in a red shirt. Peres comes back to become President of Real Madrid, and Benitez gets full control of the Liverpool transfer policy. Come summer 2009 and the first thing I expect to happen is for Barry to complete a transfer to Merseyside, Alonso to go to Italy, and all to be well in Mighty Red land. But the seeds of what happen were sown in summer 2008. Barry had sacked his agent, and moved to Manchester City – I think in part disappointed by the lack of a move in 2008 to LFC, and not wholly by the money. Peres, who now has spent some £250million on transfers in his new presidency, makes his move for Alonso – which Benitez is now in a weak position to resit. However, having gained control of the transfer process, he extracts every single penny he can from Peres in the resultant long transfer saga – double the price for a player in one year is a spectacular business result. His replacement is quickly lined up, and former Italian under-21 captain Alberto Aquilani is due for a medical at Melwood on Thursday. Not exactly British then, but then when you have replaced a Spanish right back with probably the best raiding defender ala-Garry Neville style in Glen Johnson, who needs Barry in the middle of the park?

Managerial lessons

Who could have seen this outcome of events in summer 2008? I don’t think anyone could have, but the seeds of Alonso’s departure were sown at latest is summer 2008, thanks to a series of career management and man management choices by the main players:

  • Career management is about regular positional development: five years anywhere for any employee is far, far too long in this modern world. There is an old saying in politics that when things stay the same, people think they are going backwards – the same can be said of career management. Alonso had itchy feet
  • Team management is about tactics and communication: Rafa has his team style, but the clear communication break down with both Barry and Alonso in summer 2008 meant that the odds of the move occurring in summer 2009 were highly slim
  • Management is not about who you please, but who you annoy and who you inspire: Rafa sold a project to Alonso to get him to LFC, and he fulfilled 90% of that vision, all bar winning the English Premiership. Peres sold a similar new project to Alonso at just the right time in his career to inspire a move to Real, as did Mark Hughes to Barry at Manchester City. Same again was never going to work for Benitez in retaining Alonso
  • You always need a back-up plan: was Aquilani Benitez’s first choice? No, I and the tabloid press doubt it, it was Gareth Barry…..
  • You need people on your team who want to be there: the moment Barry put the doubt in Benitez mind that he didn’t want to only be on Merseyside, Benitez didn’t want him. He is wholly ruthless in his execution of that dictat, and many in the commercial sales world look blunt in comparison
  • Public debate never works, for you or your whole team performance: the old LFC way was back room and quiet, while modern football is media and money driven. Alonso leaving LFC was new money football, Aquilani joining is old Liverpool-style and best HR practise: quiet, pre-planned and seamless. I hope it stabilises the wider team, as great sports performance is built on 110% belief

I hope LFC do well in 2009/2010. I am sure Benitez is a tactical genius, and we will get some amazing results – and some disappointments, such is the life of a football supporter. It will take time for Aquilani to get used to both the speed and pace of the Premiership, but I have no doubts he has the opportunity to be a better Premiership player than Alonso: he has more pace, he is happy to be less protected, he gets further forward, and he has a foot which can distribute and score long distance goals – Alonso+ is the possibility if he can adjust.

I just hope as a middle aged man in the recruitment world, that Merseyside can go back to some old LFC and best HR practise now; while on the Anfield pitch the men in red can fulfil the dreams of the junior school kid and win the Premiership.

Good Luck!


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One Response to “Career Management: Liverpool FC midfield”

  1. american football Says:

    great read, man… it’s rare you stumble across writing of this quality in the silly season these days. thanks for wading in and dropping some knowledge.

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