May 30, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Bucking the Trend: Why Rodgers Could Transform Liverpool

So the wait is over. FSG have their new manager – or is he a coach? – and a new chapter in the club’s history has begun. For some amnesic fans, Brendan Rodgers will be too inexperienced, not a big enough name, and too much of a risk. Ironic, then, that our greatest ever manager was plucked from relative obscurity, that Dalglish, like Guardiola, had never managed a club when he was first appointed, and that all managers need the chance to prove themselves before they can become proven.

Liverpool football club is in a predicament. With limited funds compared to Man United, Man City and Chelsea, and only the fifth largest stadium in the league, returning the club to its former glories looks an increasingly impossible task. How do you compete when the teams who have just won the league and Champions League are ready to spend tens of millions more to strengthen their grip on the trophies that matter?

There are two ways of doing it. The first, is to join them. Had Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan bought Liverpool instead of Man City, chances are we’d already have won the league by now. With FSG seemingly in for the long-haul, but not blessed with the same endless riches, that option seems unlikely for us.

But there is another. None of Thierry Henry, Patrick Viera, Nicolas Anelka, Robin Van Persie or Gael Clichy were Bona fide world-beaters when Arsene Wenger signed them, and there are many more names which could be added to that list. When Rafa Benitez wrestled La Liga from the duopoly of Real and Barca, he did it not with huge transfers or the best players, but with a playing system which made the team greater than the sum of its parts.

By signing quality players before the world considers them world-class, and playing them in a better system than that of the opponents, David can beat Goliath. What Liverpool needed was a manager who would bring with him a philosophy that could transform the club from top to bottom. Someone tactically astute, with excellent man-management skills, who will use the youth academy to make the club a sustainable force once more.

In Brenden Rodgers I believe FSG have found that man.

The Man

In a time when loyalty and integrity are sorely lacking in football, Brendan Rogers is something of a throwback. When he turned down Liverpool’s initial approach, he did so out of respect to Swansea. He wasn’t about to flirt with another club unless they were serious about hiring him, and his suggestion that Liverpool ought to know all they needed about him after the way Swansea beat Liverpool on the last day of the season showed a steely confidence beneath his personable exterior. When he signed his last contract with Swansea he didn’t insist on any clause allowing him to leave for a top four club, but he did agree to a £5m release clause which needed to be activated by his chairman, but would ensure Swansea benefited from his departure.

Rodgers is highly intelligent. After retiring as a player at 20, he spent years learning about coaching and management in Spain and Holland (he speaks fluent Spanish and is learning Italian), before working with Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. He’s known to be an excellent man-manager, evidenced when he took the blame for Angel Rangel gifting Manchester United a goal, insisting it was his fault because Rangel was only trying to play football as he had asked him to. With support like that, it’s little wonder his players are fiercely loyal to him.

After a season when Kenny’s perhaps understandable belligerence often had the club and the media at loggerheads, Rodgers’ easy way with people may have also been a factor in his appointment. He’s measured in what he says (whether in English or Spanish), calm and quietly charismatic. Jose Mourinho is known to think highly of him, but he’s well-liked generally in the game.

The Philosophy

Brenden Rodgers footballing philosophy is one built on passing, pressure and keeping possession, with all players – even the keeper – involved in defence and attack. If it sounds a bit like Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, it’s because that is what it is based on.

When Dorus De Vries left Swansea for Wolves at the start of last season, Rodgers was gutted.  He wasn’t just losing his goalkeeper, he was losing his eleventh outfield player too, “The difference with us is that when we have the ball we play with 11 men, other teams play with 10 and a goalkeeper.” he told Duncan White of the Telegraph.

To maintain his playing style of using a sweeper-keeper he we would need to find a specific replacement. He found Michael Vorm, who went on to have a fantastic season, “British people had said to me he was too small, which was good for me because it probably meant he was good with his feet. When we got the chance to see him I realised he was perfect. He was 27, humble, and makes saves that a 6ft 5in keeper won’t make because he’s so fast. But, importantly, he can build a game from behind. He understands the lines of pass.”

Playing with a sweeper-keeper has some obvious benefits, the first being that it allows you to play with a high defensive line. The risk of playing with centre-backs high up the pitch is that it leaves a huge space between the defensive line and the goalkeeper, which can be exploited by through balls or balls over the top to a quick striker. Quick defenders who can get back and recover quickly help limit the risk, but a sweeper-keeper who is both quick and good with the ball can close the gap and nullify the threat.

With a defence comfortable sitting on the halfway line – like Arsenal in Sol Campbell’s heyday – a team can squeeze the opposition in their own half, without leaving big gaps between the defence, midfield and attack. Under Houllier, the space between Michael Owen – who played on the defender’s shoulder – and Sami Hyypia – who was too slow to push up – was huge, leaving a massive space for the midfield to marshall in-between. Even under Benitez there were times when our back line sat deep because of Carragher’s lack of pace, stretching our play and preventing us from attacking as a unit.

By keeping the defence, midfield and attack in touching distance, players can hunt in packs, closing down opposition players in their own half to regain possession closer to the opposition goal. Attacking players are expected to defend from the front with highly organised zonal pressing. Winning the ball in your own half is good. Winning it in the opposition half might yield a chance, and this was the philosophy of Pep Guardiaola at Barcelona, “You win the ball back when there are thirty metres to their goal not eighty.”

It isn’t only when the opposition have the ball that Rodgers makes extra use of his keeper, though. Preferring patient build-up play from the back, Rodgers asks his goalie to make himself available for the ball to give them an extra man. The danger with passing around in defence is getting caught with the ball, but with a keeper prepared to receive and give passes, the team essentially has an extra outfield player, meaning there is always a spare man somewhere.

One criticism levelled at Swansea last season is that despite having the highest passing statistics of any team other than Man City or Man Utd, much of their build-up play took place in their own half. The idea is that while you have the ball, the opposition can’t score, but for it to work, you need defenders who are comfortable on the ball.

Much has been said of Martinez’ 3-4-3 system at Wigan making use of wing-backs, but although Rodgers lines up with four at the back, he uses his full-backs in much the same way Martinez deploys his wingback-come-wingers. Without the ball, Rodgers’ full-backs drop into more traditional defensive positions, but when Swansea had possession they switched to 3-4-3, with Leon Britton dropping deep between the centre-backs who pull wide, allowing the full-backs to push up high to join in with the attacking play. 

With the full-backs providing width, the two wide attacking players are expected to find space between the lines, often cutting inside and creating chances. Nathan Dyer and Scott Sinclair both had good seasons this year, either side of a central striker whose job is to score goals and bring others into the game with layoffs.

One of the stars of Swansea’s season was Leon Britton, who has gone from being an unheralded journeyman player to being compared to Barcelona’s Xavi. While the comparison flatters Britton, it’s the role he has played – picking up possession from the defenders, passing it simple on the floor, getting it back and doing it again – which has led to it being made.

The idea is to have a player consistently free to receive a pass who rarely loses the ball, and to keep the ball moving to make the opposition work.

Another player to have earned plaudits at Swansea last season was Joe Allen. Playing further up the pitch than Britton, Allen turned heads for his intelligent passing play, dribbling ability and movement. Completing the midfield trio when he arrived in January was Gylfi Sigurðsson, who added some attacking thrust to the tidy play of Britton and Allen.

With Britton playing as a deep-lying playmaker always open for a pass, Sigurðsson bursting beyond the forward players from a more advanced midfield position, and Joe Allen playing as a box-to-box midfielder between the two, Swansea’s midfield was balanced, dynamic and organised.

With an almost religious obsession for keeping the ball, passing along the floor and pressing the opposition when possession is lost, Rodgers’ philosophy is that of a modern purist, combining beautiful passing with rigorous organisation and in-depth tactical planning.

Look out for a piece detailing how Rodgers might use Liverpool’s current squad in the next few days.

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