30 May 2012

On Brendan Rodgers

Rodgers' appointment is imminent according to the BBC and Liverpool Echo, although we're still waiting for confirmation from the club.

Biography Snapshot
Born: 26 January 1973, Carnlough, Northern Ireland
Teams Managed: Swansea (July 2010 - May 2012), Reading (June 2009 - December 2009), Watford (November 2008 - June 2009)
Career Record: 151 matches (62W-33D-56L)

We might as well get the feared, loaded question out of the way up front. Is Brendan Rodgers the new flavor of the month?

There's no comparison – whether in tactics, personality, résumé, or otherwise – to the last time Liverpool hired a flavor of the month. But could Rodgers end up as this season's Owen Coyle?

No matter who FSG chose to replace Dalglish, it would have been a gamble. Martinez? Almost as inexperienced, although Rodgers has a "big club" background due to his time with Mourinho's Chelsea. Villas-Boas spectacularly failed in his last job, and was seemingly ruled out earlier in the process. The fans' choice, Rafa Benitez, was a non-starter; FSG had already been burned by reaching backwards, although Hodgson's inability to do anything right forced their hand in regards to Dalglish. They weren't going to make that mistake again, especially considering the baggage Benitez carries with a distinct segment of Liverpool fans and the British press, as well as his renowned demand for total control. Guardiola, Klopp? Not interested. Capello? Another who'd probably demand more control than FSG were willing to give and with little room for growth given his long CV.

It appears that the choice came down to Martinez or Rodgers. Two of the youngest managers in the league, one who's been in the league for just one season, the other who's never finished above 15th in his three top-tier seasons. FSG are obviously building with the long-term in mind.

Rodgers, unlike Martinez, has a preferred system. His sides play 4-3-3. Martinez's Wigan played every variation of 4-5-1 under the sun in addition to the much-written-about 3-4-3, with varying levels of success. Rodgers' Swansea side used the same formula in nearly every fixture this season: a moderately high defensive line focused on short passes and building from the back, three central midfielders, two fleet-footed wingers-cum-forwards, and a central striker.

Sure, call it 4-2-3-1 if you want – that often what Swansea looked like without the ball, Allen got forward from midfield more than Gower or Britton, and Dyer and Sinclair were as much wingers as wide forwards. Unlike other 4-2-3-1s, even when Allen got forward, he looked more a part of the central midfield than one of the attackers. This probably wouldn't be Rafa Benitez's 4-2-3-1, the style still used to define that formation in most Liverpool fans' minds.

More important than the formation are the ideas behind it. Rodgers, whose managerial lineage traces directly back to Jose Mourinho, is clearly a devotee of Barcelona and Spain's tiki-taka football – mentioned in almost anything written about Rodgers' Swansea and excellently summarized by the first half of this blog post. Two recent interviews are required reading: from the Telegraph in January and the Guardian prior to the May meeting with Liverpool, which are the sources of his subsequent quotes.

“I like to control games. I like to be responsible for our own destiny. If you are better than your opponent with the ball you have a 79 per cent chance of winning the game. For me it is quite logical. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are, if you don’t have the ball you can’t score.”

For fans reared by Benitez's Liverpool, this is a comforting quote. His Liverpool sides also dictated possession, albeit using different means. Swansea were often more ponderous in possession, but Swansea's players were almost totally Premiership novices. As Who Scored wrote soon after the news broke, only Barca (88.5%), Bayern (86.3%), and Manchester City (85.9%) had a better pass success rate in the top 5 leagues this season than Swansea's 85.7%.

It's self-serving to link my own earlier work, but the frustration over how Rodgers' Swansea stifled Liverpool in both meetings still oozes from the screen. And Liverpool weren't the only side to succumb to Swansea in such disheartening manner.

“My template for everything is organisation. With the ball you have to know the movement patterns, the rotation, the fluidity and positioning of the team. Then there’s our defensive organisation. So if it is not going well we have a default mechanism which makes us hard to beat and we can pass our way into the game again. Rest with the ball. Then we’ll build again."

And there's the Mourinho heritage. Organization, movement patterns, positioning. Not quite a rigid chessboard, but definable routines. I doubt it's coincidence that FSG refused Steve Clarke's resignation after Dalglish's sacking. Clarke worked with Rodgers under Mourinho, with Rodgers crediting Clarke for bringing him to Chelsea.

"I believe if you give a bad player time, he can play. If you give a good player time, he can kill you. So our emphasis is based around our positioning both with and without the ball. And for us, when we press well, we pass well."

Liverpool gave plenty of bad players time to kill them this season, whether by standing off in the final third or in refusing to press when the opposition reclaimed possession. Brendan Rodgers' sides rarely fail to do either.

"You work on zonal pressure, so that when it is in your zone, you have the capacity to press. That ability to press immediately, within five or six seconds to get the ball, is important. But you also have to understand when you can't and what the triggers are then to go for it again because you can't run about like a madman.

"It's decision-making and intelligence. And this was always the thing with the British player, they were always deemed never to be intelligent, not to have good decision-making skills but could fight like hell for the ball. I believe they have all of the [attributes] and, if you can structure that, then you can have real, effective results."

Liverpool also had a problem with a lack of intelligence from some of its British players, especially those acquired in the last 18 months, but the less said about that, the better. I suspect training, something that Rodgers takes full part in, will be an interesting place for the next few months. The Guardian interview, which is where that previous quote came from, is a priceless insight into how Rodgers sees and runs training sessions, and fits totally into the predominant belief that Liverpool are looking for a head coach rather than an all-consuming manager.

“When we have the football everybody’s a player. The difference with us is that when we have the ball we play with 11 men, other teams play with 10 and a goalkeeper.”

That should be music to Pepe Reina's ears. Reina's distribution (and overall form) suffered under both Hodgson and Dalglish, for various reasons. Liverpool's increasingly deep defense – whether Carragher started or not – almost assuredly hindered his talents. Returning to the 'sweeper-keeper' role he thrived in during Benitez's reign will hopefully see Reina's reclaim his place as one of the best goalkeepers in the league.

It's not incredibly difficult to see Rodgers' Swansea grafted onto Liverpool.

Short passes from the central defenders, building the attack from the back. Rodgers' Swansea never pressed as fervently as Barcelona, nor did the back four play as high a line – few, if any, do – but those are still predominant traits. Agger, Skrtel, Johnson, and Enrique should all do well in this system.

It'd be a fairly typical "runner, creator, destroyer" troika in central midfield, although the runner is usually the furthest-forward, with the two deeper central midfielders as deep-lying playmaker and holding tackler, although both midfielders need to have the ability to do both. Gerrard and Henderson can play as the most-advanced midfielder or both can play as the more-creative of the two deeper. Adam and Gower – Swansea's chance creation machine – could be similar in a deep-lying playmaker role, while Lucas is a vastly superior version of Leon Britton. As hinted at in the above formation diagram, after writing him off for the past two seasons, Aquilani could well find himself back in Liverpool's plans; a player who could star in Rodgers' system.

For Swansea, Sinclair cut inside from the left while Dyer or Routledge stretched play on the right. We could see a reversal of that with the disappointing Downing as an orthodox winger on the left and Suarez wreaking roaming havoc from the other side. The Uruguayan has played as a wide forward for both country and his previous club, and is capable of filling any forward role. Carroll is an archetypal English center-forward, better with the ball at his feet than he's given credit for, although he'd assuredly have to improve his movement and finishing to fit naturally into the system. But that's what training's for, right?

Yes, there are clear holes in Liverpool's version of this set-up, most notably in central midfield and up front. Which are obviously priority areas no matter the formation. There are clear holes in Liverpool's squad regardless of the set-up, as painfully proven during the duration of the previous campaign. I thought a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation was the way forward last summer, and I still think similar now. But this is predominantly a conversation for another day. We've got all summer to fret about summer spending.

We still don't know the overall set-up of the club going forward. The Van Gaal (who was one of Mourinho's mentors) as Director of Football rumors seem to have slowly faded away, but whether that means Pep Segura and Rodolfo Borrell will split Technical Director duties with Ayre in charge of the purse-strings, whether Van Gaal's still in the frame, or whether Rodgers will have a closer-to-usual Premier League manager power over his domain remains to be seen. I suspect it'll be the former, but I won't pretend to have any inside insight either.

Regardless of the set-up, this appointment needs to be given time and backing. You can't overhaul the structure and appoint a young manager while expecting immediate results. Expectations were too high in each of the last three seasons, and Benitez, Hodgson, and Dalglish paid for it. Next season may well be painful. Maybe even as painful as the previous season was, although I both doubt it and certainly hope not. But unless we're forced to suffered through Hodgson-esque perpetual doom and gloom with absolutely no hope of improvement (or even an attempt at improvement), Rodgers will need license to fail before he can succeed.

Two weeks after Dalglish's exit, FSG seems to have gotten their man for their project. A young manager, more a head coach than club Godfather, who will develop alongside his increasingly younger squad. Even if we're unconvinced by or unhappy with the choice – which I'm not – this project needs to be given full patience for every chance at success.


dReXler said...

Words fail me.

Anonymous said...

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Tom Foolery said...

Nate, your work around here is ridiculous. And, I feel it has been vastly underappreciated. 2 comments? This is likely the best article I've read on the subject at hand, and that's saying something as I've had my L'Pool I.V. pumping the good reads all week. Jeeze, whore yourself around a little more, sacrifice those morals and a possible life outside of the blog-o-sphere and bring in the hits!

Nevermind, bring on B-Rodg, bring on the new season. Hmm...pretty relavent little quote I noticed on the page this time, "At a football club, there's a holy trinity - the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don't come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques". - Bill Shankly

Ahh, the good old days.

Gunit said...

Good read and insightful.

Anonymous said...

a coach who was fired from his two previous coaching positions before swansea is now our hope for champions league football? FML!

nate said...

"a coach who was fired from his two previous coaching positions before swansea"

Um, what? He left Chelsea reserves to join Watford, left Watford to join Reading, was fired from Reading, then hired by Swansea. Fired once.

Incidentally, just as one example, Rafa Benitez was fired by both Real Valladolid and Osasuna (then quit Extremadura after relegation) before succeeding at Tenerife, Valencia, and then some other club.

Rodgers spoke fairly candidly today about how his experience at Reading made him a better manager.

Also, thanks for the kind words in the above comments, fellas.

Mike Georger said...


Jay Wright said...

I think that the aggressive defending is just as, if not more important than the passing football that Rodgers will bring along.

The high pressure football is what defined Benitez's teams (for me) and allowed us to compete at the top level, even when we didn't have the best players.

Hodgson's passive style of dropping back into banks of four was depressing, and Dalglish's systems didn't really allow for effective pressure of the ball high up the pitch.

Hopefully quick wide-men with the ability to dribble behind packed defences are prioritised in the market - if so, I expect a lot of people to be surprised by the dramatic turnaround at LFC.

Li Ming said...

A great post, but I'm interested in how you make your diagrams, they look fantastic!

Anonymous said...

He was fired from Watford. "Mutually left" Watford hated him.

nate said...

I'd stop digging if I were you. The hole's just getting deeper.

In no way was he fired or mutually consented at Watford. He left Watford to go to Reading. Watford did not want to lose him. Reading paid Watford compensation. Here's Watford's statement if you don't believe me. Watford fans only turned on Rodgers after he said he was focused on Watford but then took the Reading job, which is understandable.

Sigh. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

Anonymous said...

With Rodgers at the helm and Carrol still on the team, we will not finish top half of league. End of Liverpool for a decade at least. No more Gerrard glory days. Suarez is a racist jerk. Carrol is overrated. We didn't get Hulk or Neymar or Hazard. The ship is sinking, this time for good. Get out while you can.

Anonymous said...

What a loser. Give this guy a chance. Where is shankly before he met liverpool?

Wes said...

Anonymous. Good description for you. YNWA