The manner in which Liverpool have dispatched most of their opposition this season leaves little wonder why the Merseysiders had two bites at the cherry in trying to secure Brendan Rodgers’ services before the 2012-13 season.
Lauded for his attacking style that guided Swansea City to their maiden Premier League berth a season before, Liverpool seemed certain, from their initial overture, that Rodgers was the man to lead the team into a glittering new era.
I, however was less certain, even convinced he lacked the experience required to manage a club like Liverpool, much less return them to the Premier League summit or evenEuropean action. At the time I felt my doubts were rooted in good reason, as so many ‘talented’ managers have moved from smaller teams to the Premier League’s elite with limited or no success.
Newcastle United, for example, after ridding themselves of Sir Bobby Robson in 2004, saw fit in appointing a string of gifted managers from teams lower in the league: Graeme Souness from Blackburn Rovers, Glen Roeder a couple of years after he was removed from his position at West Ham, and Sam Allardyce after his marked success at Bolton Wonderers. Newcastle eventually dropped to the English second tier in 2008-09 as a result of a combination between misplaced trust and impatience with management staff.
In the early stages of his Liverpool tenure, I even felt a little justified in my critique of Rodgers as The Reds recorded their worst start to a league season in forty years, sitting as low as 17th in the early stages of the 2012-13 campaign, with only three wins from their opening twelve games.
But I found a degree of solace in what I started seeing from game to game. Liverpool concentrated on ball retention for a start, and then battled for possession and results from whistle to whistle.
Rival fans continued to mock in spite of the team steadily clawing their way back up the league table, and even Everton’s (at the time) David Moyes claimed that Liverpool were “passing the ball for passing’s sake.”
The loudest cries came in the form of questioning what happened to Rodgers’ attacking style from his days at Swansea. Fear spread that he may have fallen into the ‘great coach for a small team’ mould, in that gifted small-team coaches seldom experience success at bigger clubs, as mentioned before.
Rodgers and his charges paid little heed to such criticism and simply kept their heads down and continued their recovery. Screams of frustration softened to whispers over time as The Reds built attack on their foundation of possession, and positive results began to flow once more.
There’s an old adage that says “you can’t please all the people all the time,” and I’m certain this proverb has its roots in football, as still criticism was leveled at Rodgers and his team – this time for an inability to beat any of the teams above them in the league, despite their continued progression up the table.
Rodgers made a bold decision to bring a somewhat maligned Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinhoto Anfield in the 2013 January transfer window. This time Sir Alex Ferguson took aim at Liverpool in apparent disapproval of Sturridge’s arrival, claiming “his track record moving between a number of clubs suggests Brendan Rodgers is taking a bit of a gamble.”It’s a gamble that paid massive and immediate dividends, to the extent where Sturridge scored within seven minutes of his Liverpool debut, and then formed a near-instant clairvoyant understanding with Kop King Luis Suarez.
Rodgers made further gallant decisions by involving the burgeoning talents of Raheem Sterling and Jon Flanagan more regularly, as well as allowing the likes of Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen a hatful of opportunities to prove their worth – and that with striking accomplishment.
Liverpool would finish the season in seventh – one better than the season prior – trophy-less, but still unbeaten in their last eight matches. The result was no European football in 2013-14, and Luis Suarez stated his intentions to leave the club for pastures greener: another hurdle in Rodgers’ path for success. Couple that to Suarez’s much-publicized 10-match ban for his bite on Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic, and Liverpool’s campaign seemed destined for another season of also-ran obscurity.
Brendan Rodgers though ensured that the club hung onto their prized striking asset, a feat made difficult by Arsenal’s £40 000 001 bid for Suarez’s services. In Liverpool’s refusal to sanction a move, Suarez found a change of heart and largely as a result of their form this season, even committed to a contract extension with The Reds in December 2013.
That Liverpool were able to grind out victories in Suarez’s absence for the first few games this season, and then with Sturridge and Coutinho being sidelined for lengthy periods, is testament to both Rodgers’ tactical ability to outwit opposition managers and provide his match-day selections with the necessary get-up-and-go to claim three points at a time. Liverpool have won 69% of their fixtures this season, bettering Chelsea’s record and fractionally behind Manchester City’s, who are only marginally better off as a result of playing two games fewer than their rivals.
In fact, Liverpool already have their best goals tally in 26 years and may be on course to better their best-ever season total of 99, recorded back in the 1961-62 top-flight season.
Rodgers has tinkered with team selections, formations and tactics to the extent that opposition sides are left baffled, week in and week out, as to how to stem The Red tide and halt their charge for glory. To be fair, Jose Mourinho and Manuel Pellegrini – both of whom’s teams travel to Anfield in a couple of week’s time – are fair tacticians in their own right and are vastly more experienced, but Rodgers seems to have learnt his trade at an incomparable rate. Brendan Rodgers is only 41 years of age, where his mentor, Jose Mourinho, and Pellegrini are 51 and (almost) 61 respectively.
Though Liverpool, on average, are enjoying slightly less possession this season than in the last, they are doing a lot more with the ball in respect of forward movement when they do have it. So Rodgers has combined last season’s possession-focussed approach with sparkling on-and-off-the-ball movement and an irrepressible hunger for victory.
As stated before, and in articles past, The Reds generally press the ball and battle for wins from the first whistle to the very last. Post-match interviews consist of talking up the team, rather than individual performances, and it genuinely shows out on the pitch as oppose to paying lip-service to an ideal.
Recalling the 4-0 victory over Everton at Anfield, Daniel Sturridge narrowly missed out on a hat-trick, and missed a penalty in the process. Steven Gerrard stepped in front of the cameras and claimed responsibility for Sturridge’s missed spot-kick, saying that he made the decision to have the former Chelsea and Man City man take the penalty.
And it’s this sort of camaraderie that Rodgers has brought to Liverpool. The players perform as a unit, and though they have a number of stand-out performers, all the talk is about the collective. Even the manager has humbled himself to his players, recently admitting after the triumph at Old Trafford that “I am fortunate to be working with a group of such highly talented, egoless players.”
But what strikes me most is Rodgers’ conduct in post-match interviews, where he maintains a steely demeanour – all his talk, even after staggering wins like the 5-1 drubbing delivered to Arsenal at Anfield, consists of an overriding message that the job is not yet done and that there’s plenty of catch-up to be made to both Chelsea and Manchester City.
In a recent article in The Guardian, Paul Doyle states that while Chelsea and City have considerably more financial clout than Liverpool, The Reds have opted for a different tact – bludgeoning defences into submission in spite of their financial shortcomings.
Brendan Rodgers’ impact since his arrival at Anfield has brought belief back to the fans and the team. I still don’t think Liverpool will win the league this season even after topping the table following their 4-0 victory over Spurs on Sunday, but lifting the side from 7th last time out to second, third, or even fourth would still be an unprecedented success.
I started this piece by mentioning the manner in which the manager has the team dispatching opposition, and despite evidence to the contrary, it hasn’t been done with disdain, but with respect. Brendan Rodgers has been consistent in his message that there are no easy games in this league, he respects all opposition and takes nothing for granted. He’s also shown his players great respect and they’ve responded in kind. And responded with vigour.
I’m off for another slice of humble pie, care to join me? I love this game!