A straightforward win against Burnley, at Anfield. An easy last half hour, soaking up pressure, attacking on the break. Languid running, short, measured passing. What a difference from the 14th December 2014, when Brendan Rodger’s Liverpool side were humbled 3-0 in a humiliatingly easy victory for Manchester United. Rodgers has now masterminded an 11 game unbeaten run since that dark period. Out of the Champions League, which they had worked so hard to get to, realistically out of the running for the Premier League, which had been so cruelly denied them the season before, Liverpool are now looking for a strong finish, potentially top four, and have also got an FA Cup semi-final to look forward to, provided they can overcome a difficult Blackburn side at Ewood Park.
From that day in December, it seemed that Brendan Rodgers’ days were numbered. The man who had unexpectedly led Liverpool to the brink of Premier League glory on the back of 13 straight wins was staring down the barrel just six months later. He seemed to be overcome by pettiness and jealousy- playing a weak team that was set up for damage limitation at the Bernabeu, only for the same tactics that had failed against Chelsea the previous season to fail so miserably again.
Liverpool were out of Europe, virtually out of the title race, and Liverpool themselves were looking fretfully down the table at relegation. What had started out as a season of optimism was quickly falling apart. Losing Suarez was expected, but Liverpool had spent over £100m that summer, and over £50m the year before, planning for that eventuality. Adam Lallana was injured, Ricky Lambert was too slow, Emre Can never played, Mahmadou Sakho was a liability, Dejan Lovren still is. Add this to Sturridge’s injury on England duty, and you can see where the cracks appear. Rodgers had never successfully worked out a defensive formation. There was no plan B. If their furious attack was rebuffed, Liverpool became toothless. You feared for their defence every time the ball crossed the halfway line.
Look at them now. Rodger’s managed to stumble on that (vaguely, I won’t argue semantics) 3-4-3 formation, playing Emre Can as a centre back and using Coutinho as a midfield dynamo. Simone Mignolet has recovered unbelievably well from being dropped in December to come back as one of the foremost goalkeepers in the League. Even Glen Johnson hasn’t given away a penalty for a while. Liverpool are playing with the quick stars and explosive pace and dynamism that served them so well last year, Sterling and Ibe making use of their pace, Jordan Henderson becoming more accustomed to taking the unenviable role of a replacement to Steven Gerrard. Mario Balotelli, whilst still hit-and-miss, is becoming more of a team player. It is a shame for both them and Rodgers it took so long to find it.
Rodgers is more concerned with style over substance. Despite his early failures with Watford and Reading, he cut his teeth with Swansea, taking them through the playoffs into the Premier League. There he found that the tactics that Roberto Martinez had left behind suited his own (ironically now rivals on either side of Stanley Park). Quick passing, fast tempo, intense pressure became staples of Swansea’s tactics from the Championship to the top flight. After an excellent season with Swansea, in which the club finished eleventh, Rodgers left for his most arduous job yet, that of replacing the iconic Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool. Since the departure of Rafa Benitez, the overwhelmed Roy Hodgson and the complacent Dalglish had left much dead wood in Liverpool’s ranks. Brendan Rodgers reorganised and revolutionised the club
Though some of his first few transfers (Borini, Joe Allen) were looked upon with derision, it was a bold move from a man who was consistently looking to build a legacy- Liverpool had recently won the League Cup at the expense of Cardiff and had won FA Cups and the Champions League on that magical night in 2005, but they had not built a dominant side in the League. Andy Carroll just didn’t fit the system. Pepe Reina was much too accident prone. Jonjo Shelvey wasn’t European standard (I wept salty tears when Hodgson called him up for England). Allen was supposed to be a metronomic player, dictating tempo and passing. If ineffective, it at least showed the desire of Rodgers to address the problems in Liverpool’s mainframe.
He had worked closely with Fabio Borini at Chelsea. At Liverpool, where a dedicated board dictates much of the policy, it was a breath of fresh air to see a young, radical manager undo the damage caused by years of ineffective ownership. On the whole, Rodgers’ transfers haven’t been incredibly successful (Balotelli, Perez, Luis Alberto, etc.), but his man management and motivation is excellent. Should he make two or three more world-class transfers, Liverpool could become a great force once again.
Rodgers is the best British coach in the world right now. Yes, his arrogance and perpetual smugness do make him a source of constant irritance. Yes, his stubbornness has been the catalyst for many of Liverpool’s recent failures, in particular that in the Champions League. And yes, he many need to invest in a thesaurus in order to find another word apart from ‘character,’ but this shouldn’t diminish from his achievements. It’s petty to say that Suarez took Liverpool to second. He was definitely the most important player in that squad, not just in terms of goals or even assist, but work rate.
Rodgers did the best he could, refusing Arsenal’s bizarre 40 million and one pound offer in the summer of 2013, and keeping Suarez’s nasty side under wraps in order to make him and Daniel Sturridge an effective partnership. Once Suarez had bitten Giorgio Chiellini, it was unfeasible to keep him at Anfield. He had also come in during a time of great transition. Steven Gerrard, the talismanic midfielder, had begun to lose his legs. Rodgers was still beholden to play him; you simply don’t leave out a player of his significance. Though he was unsuited to the defensive midfield position he was put in (a fact Rodgers probably knew himself), his passing range and leadership qualities made up for his lack of tracking and his failing stamina. Rodgers is a master of improvisation. What he needs to address is his foresight.
And yes, Rodgers has managed to stumble onto solutions rather than think them out, but was this any different to Sir Alex Ferguson, who threw on a young striker named Federico Macheda and hoped for the best? He would score an equaliser in one game and a winner in another, giving United the impetus to go on and win yet another title, at the expense of Liverpool, in 2009. Was it different to Arsene Wenger, who spent a huge outlay on an underperforming winger called Thierry Henry and put him as striker?
Luck and success go hand in hand. Emre Can is not a natural centre back. 3-4-3 was plucked arbitrarily out of the air, as Liverpool has no competent wing-backs. Somehow, it’s all clicked. Even without Sturridge and having puny Sterling as a lone striker, Liverpool could still depend on goals from midfield. It may have just fallen into his lap, but the ends justify the means.
And is it so wrong for Rodgers to be smug? He has managed to build a Liverpool team for the future. His many detractors will point to his sketchy early managerial career and his failures in Europe, but remember that Rodgers is 42. Already, he has led recently promoted Swansea to a respectable mid-table finish. He has brought in young English talent, both from Liverpool’s formidable youth academy, and from across the country, such as Daniel Sturridge. This was his first season in European competition, and he had to face it with Mario Balotelli and Ricky Lambert. He has introduced a new playing style to Liverpool and brought stability where there was none. He has come back from that shocking performance at Old Trafford, and remains unbeaten in twelve games.
Chelsea, league leaders, were given a run for their money, and were unable to beat them in normal time. In time, Jordon Ibe will become an England regular. Jordan Henderson will probably inherit the England captain’s armband after Wayne Rooney. Alberto Moreno, Manquillo, Emre Can, Sakho, Coutinho will become superstars for their countries, and all are under 25. Even if he is sacked by Liverpool, his ability to inspire youth, alongside his Manager of the Year Award, will mean he will always find a job somewhere. Maybe, one day, he could manage England. Why not? Rodgers has been known to throw caution to the wind when it comes to defending. England have been known to start Leighton Baines. Imagine Brendan Rodgers with all the freedom of England’s attack. Imagine a new, young, radical, British manager taking the reins. If you’re a Liverpool fan, rejoice that you have Brendan Rodgers. Because you’ll be sure to miss him when he’s gone.