October 7, 2015 at 4:39 pm

Death by Football and Reanimation

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In the end, even Brendan Rodgers’ most ardent supporters – myself included – were relieved to see him go. The young manager who had arrived armed with an array of colourful soundbites and tales about the enchanting, relentless attacking football we were going to play – and did for one remarkable season – had been reduced to a defensive, fumbling coach who had long lost his way. 

Even after a torturous 2014/15 season some of us were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and another crack at challenging for the title. Now of course it seems obvious that he should have gone in the summer and was a dead man walking from that point on, but if every football manager were sacked after one poor season many of the greatest sides throughout history would never have existed. If Jurgen Klopp is to become the new Liverpool manager we better hope that it is possible for a very good coach to have a very bad season and bounce back.

That comparison is perhaps generous to Rodgers, though. Whereas Klopp’s Dortmund suffered after an incredible injury crisis and several years of success, Rodgers’ problems at Liverpool would appear to be entirely of his own making.

It’s easy to conclude that the near success of 2013/14 ruined Rodgers as he believed his own hype and became arrogant and stubborn in his decision-making, but in fact the signs were always there in the way he (mis)used Nuri Sahin and insisted on playing Steven Gerrard in an ill-suited deep midfield role.

Those tendencies did seem to intensify after the title challenge, however, as Rodgers insisted on trying to force square pegs through round holes as if he believed he had the midas touch and could turn lead into gold. Having previously u-turned on the merits of Jordan Henderson to great reward, Rodgers started refusing to accept initial misjudgements, best illustrated in his deluded preference for Dejan Lovren in defence over Mamadou Sakho. It was as if Rodgers’ ego had grown so big that he couldn’t believe what his own eyes must have seen and accept that he’d got it wrong.  

The failure to sign a quality defensive midfielder to replace Lucas, decision to not only stick with Skrtel but partner him with an even more zombie-like defender in Lovren and blowing £25m on Adam Lallana will all go down as blunders that helped cost Rodgers his job. He leaves having convinced most Liverpool fans that he is a manager flawed by his inability to organise a solid defence or recognise competent defensive players.

Considering how incredibly entertaining 2013/14 was, it’s a shame that Rodgers will be remembered as having been too stubborn to correct his own mistakes and too preoccupied with proving himself right all along. And yet it is the ‘pragmatism’ that many fans wished on him that ultimately led to Rodgers’ downfall. Many will tell you that the title challenge in Rodgers’ second season was all down to one remarkable star player, but Luis Suarez both made and destroyed Rodgers. By straying from his uber-possession philosophy to accommodate the Uruguayan, Rodgers found a successful strategy but in doing so, tested his own faith in patient, passing, possession-based football. From then on he was always in limbo; never able to return completely to the pseudo-Barca style he used with Swansea, or fully commit to a faster paced game without the his World Class dynamo.

Caught between two stools the team lost its identity, and despite never losing the dressing room, it appeared as if the players were no longer sure what it was their manager wanted from them. The death-by-football passing had gone. The relentless pressing was nowhere to be seen.

Being stubborn has its drawbacks, but it’s also hard to believe in someone who changes with the weather and doesn’t appear to know their own mind. When Rodgers changed his tactics three times in one half during the semi-final against Aston Villa it was the desperation of a once-idealistic manager with a well defined philosophy who had abandoned his code and with it his authority.  

Rodgers’ three buzzwords; ‘character’, ‘identity’ and ‘intensity’ came to describe what his team were sorely lacking, and left him looking foolishly unable to implement his fetishes.  

In Klopp, it appears FSG will appoint a manager famed for building teams who exemplify those three characteristics, rather than merely mentioning them repeatedly as if that alone will help them to manifest.

Where Rodgers’ ‘philosophy’ often had the air of reductive self-help manuals, Klopp seems more like the real deal. To many, Rodgers came across like a corny middle-manager with illusions of grandeur and a book of inspirational quotes, whereas Klopp himself personifies the jouissance, drive and emotion that he wants to see in his team.

Rodgers also took himself very seriously; so seriously that many saw him as a joke. If any of the players shared the media and fans’ sense that Rodgers was a Brent-like charlatan, it would have undermined his ability to get the most out of them. Maybe older players like Gerrard saw him as a youthful, slick communicator, but the Sterlings of this world may have seen him as yer da trying too hard to be down with the kids.

Klopp doesn’t take himself nearly as seriously, but his players do, precisely because his relative lack of conceit lends him a charming authenticity.

In many ways, Jurgen Klopp is the manager many of us hoped and for a while believed Rodgers was. Klopp’s Dortmund were characterised by technically proficient players, reflexive pressing high up the pitch and a never say die attitude – all traits Rodgers emphasised and promised but ultimately failed to deliver.

For any Liverpool manager, winning the league is the job, and yet despite 26 years without a title Liverpool fans actually want something more. For a club built by legends like Shankly, Paisley and Dalglish, and briefly returned to glory by Senor Rafa Benitez, being the figurehead of a cult of personality is as much as prerequisite as footballing success.

Rodgers’ personality never sat right with much of the fanbase and because of that many had his card marked from day one – something his rather desperate claims of ‘conspiracy’ towards the end suggested he was aware of. Klopp, on the other hand, is already a darling of the Kop (and seemingly every other big side’s fanbase) before even taking charge. While Rodgers was considered too inexperienced, too unproven, too small-time and too full of himself, Klopp has been there and done it at one of the few clubs Liverpool fans would like to emulate both on the pitch and off it. His instant popularity won’t make him sacrosanct for long, but it will at least give him a fighting chance.

It’s almost as if Klopp’s character is as important as the tactics and quality players his reputation will help to bring. His infectious character could help to reunite the fanbase and amplify the fading Anfield atmosphere.

Klopp’s renowned ‘gegenpressing’ strategy perhaps tells us something about his weltanschauung in life as well as football. Klopp is clearly a man who believes in giving one’s all to every moment so as to live without regret; seizing every opportunity the moment they present themselves without a stifling self consciousness. Off the pitch the result is an emotionally open, likeable and humorous character. On it, teams that overwhelm opponents with frenzied pressing and go from defence to attack in an instant.

Rodgers’ death by football died prematurely and left the manager trying to reanimate a corpse devoid of the life Luis Suarez had briefly breathed into it. Now the task of resurrecting England’s most successful club goes to a man who said of his own footballing philosophy:

“So that’s it, it’s very emotional, very fast, very strong, not boring, no chess. Of course tactical, but tactical with big heart. Tactical things are so important, you cannot win without tactics, but the emotion makes the difference. Life in our game, that’s important.”

If anyone can breathe life back into Liverpool’s fanbase, stadium and team, surely Jurgen Klopp is the man?

1 Comment

  • He was a young idealistic manager himself fascinated by an idea of a way of playing that was not rooted in reality or resources, just rhetoric and watching Barcelona like everyone else.
    Swansea were playing great football long before he got there but he took credit for it which is when I first smelled a rat. Saying he was going to teach Liverpool Fc about passing football was the second stinky rodent.

    It wasn’t all Suarez you are right, it was actually when sterling first got into the side around Christmas/new year when we took off. Suarez was being used in all kinds of heinous ways before that.
    Those super quick front players allowed a lot of footballing transgressions to go on behind them as it ultimately played out. He wanted Clint Dempsey not Sturridge anyway and if he had convinced in managerial terms before and after those glorious four months of hope he would still be in a job.
    If there looked like a plan or progress he would have a job. If we were pressing high and passing well he would have a job. No all we have is the same bad defending and deep passing but this time without 80 goals from three exceptional players having great seasons.

    He deserves credit for abandoning his flawed principles for that short period but was not smart or flexible enough to bin them completely so he is unemployed.

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