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While this website has made it’s name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. In this piece, Shubham Ahuja takes a look at what makes Brendan Rodgers, the man who divides so much opinion, worth the fuss.
Before dreaming of football philosophies, Brendan Rodgers dreamed of becoming an accomplished footballer himself. He played for Reading as a teenager and even captained the youth team. Unfortunately, the dream of playing senior professional football was cut short by a genetic knee condition, forcing him to retire at the early age of 20.
The Irishman, however, stayed at Reading as a youth coach and would go on to become the Academy Director. In between, he paid frequent visits to Spain and learnt Spanish. More importantly, he began to understand the Spanish language of football.
The path of footballing education soon led him to Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. Mourinho himself had built a career through meticulous study and tactical analysis of football, and perhaps saw a bit of himself in Rodgers. The Portuguese manager made Rodgers in-charge of the youth team and, subsequently, the reserves of the Blues.
The desire of expressing his passion for football after a failed career as a player, accompanied by his fascination for the Spanish way of playing and the experience of working under a tactician as accomplished as Mourinho has made Rodgers the man of football that he is today.
His approach to football is testament to this.
In his early years as manager of Watford and then Reading, Rodgers was unsure of his playing style. There would be frequent experiments with an English 4-4-2 formation, which was clearly at odds with the pass-and-move style he so coveted.
At Reading, however, things did begin to fall into place. Rodgers brought on loan Gylfi Sigurdsson, an attacking midfielder who played behind the striker. The presence of Sigurdsson in midfield as a creative as well as a goal-scoring outlet convinced Rodgers that the key to dominate football lay in midfield, and that is where his team should be the strongest.
His subsequent move to Swansea could not have been better-timed. Swansea had established a tiki-taka style through Roberto Martinez and Paulo Sousa, and Rodgers got the perfect platform to exhibit his philosophy. For this, he brought Sigurdsson on loan once again and assembled his team as seen below-
The result was an unconventional amalgamation of two apparently contrasting styles.
The presence of attacking full-backs (Taylor and Rangel), a holding midfielder (Leon Britton), a playmaker with a metronomic, Xavi-like way of passing and moving (Joe Allen) and inverted wingers (Sinclair) was clearly an off-shoot of tiki-taka and ‘juego de posicion’, whose modern-day model is Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
The system of Rodgers at Swansea was, therefore, predominantly based on:-
Having said that, there were slight tweaks to improve efficiency and goal-scoring, probably made in light of the fact that there was no Lionel Messi in Swansea. Instead of an elusive dribbler in midfield in the ilk of Iniesta, Rodgers had a running, goal-scoring midfielder (Sigurdsson) much like Frank Lampard of Mourinho’s Chelsea. He also had an out-and-out striker in Danny Graham instead of a ‘false nine’.
In doing so, Rodgers added a pinch of Mourinho’s pragmatism to Guardiola’s ideals, thus ensuring he could play possession football without compromising results.
In 2012, Liverpool came calling. There were lofty expectations at the Kop End, a desire to return to the glory days of Shankly. On the other hand, Rodgers scarcely had the personnel to fit his philosophy- players like Jordan Henderson, Stuart Downing and Andy Carroll were more suited to the traditional 4-4-2 system.
After a difficult first 6 months, Rodgers brought in Coutinho and Sturridge and assembled his team thus:
Recognizing that, in Luis Suarez, he had a forward of extraordinary ability and personality, Rodgers built a team around the Uruguayan’s attacking prowess. From a possession-based team, the Reds turned into a high-pressing, vertically passing group which launched counter-attacks at breakneck speeds.
The skill of Suarez upfront was complemented by the pace of Daniel Sturridge, while Raheem Sterling, with his mazy dribbling, provided channels for the forwards to run into. Steven Gerrard was re-invented as a regista, ably assisted by Coutinho in playmaking duties and Henderson flourished in the box-to-box role.
The Liverpool of 2013/14 turned out to be an efficient counter-attacking unit and showcased Rodgers’ ability to adapt and evolve. When he knew that his Swansea tactics had little chances of success, he turned to man-management and built a system based on the strengths of individual players. The message was clear- when a manager’s ideas do not work, he turns to his players and knowing his players’ strengths and weaknesses needs to be a part of his tactical philosophy as much as any pre-conceived ideal.
He had been hired to make Liverpool the English Barcelona; he ended up making them the English Dortmund. Not that the Anfield faithful were complaining.
Liverpool’s counter attacking moves explained:
The 4-2 win against former employers Reading in the Championship Play-off Final (2010/11) with Swansea was an important victory for Rodgers. Not only did he confirm the Welsh club’s Premier League status, but also quelled doubts over the success of possession-based team-play in England, at least at the Championship Level.
His debut season in the Premier League with Swansea dispelled any remaining apprehensions about his philosophy. In a stellar first season, the Swans ended in 11th position. On the way, they won against Chelsea and eventual-champions Manchester City at home, and held Liverpool to a 0-0 draw at Anfield, receiving a standing ovation from the Liverpool fans at the end of the match.
Their most significant achievement, however, was beating Arsenal 3-2 at home. Arsenal, in the past decade, has been the team to watch when it comes to playing flowing, attractive, passing football. By winning against the Gunners, Swansea and Rodgers announced their arrival on the English scene as an accomplished possession-based team.
The move to Liverpool brought about a tactical evolution in Rodgers’ philosophy and nowhere was this more evident than in the 5-1 win against Arsenal at Anfield. From beating the Gunners at their own game, Rodgers adopted almost opposite tactics this time and targeted Arsenal’s soft centre. The result- 4 goals scored in the first 20 minutes.
“There comes a time when you have to let them go (and play), because sometimes you never know until they are in the arena, they just want that opportunity.
“I (realised) that I could help young players and prepare them, and if I told them they were going to play they would play. Then they would be given the opportunity.
“Each player is different, you look at their pathway and what is going to be best for them but ultimately I want them to play for the first team, to feel that passion, to feel the love of the supporters and to be given the opportunity to show they can be a professional.”
Rodgers acquired considerable experience in developing youth during his time as youth coach at Reading and then Chelsea. That, along with his aforementioned views, has turned him into an ideal manager for youngsters.
Joe Allen is one such player. Under Rodgers’ tutelage, the diminutive yet gifted midfielder became a regular starter at Swansea and followed Rodgers to Liverpool in 2012.
At Liverpool, Rodgers has helped winger Raheem Sterling blossom into one of the most highly-rated youngsters in England. The 22-year old would be ill-advised to leave Rodgers for Manchester City at this stage of his career. For this, he needs to look no further than Scott Sinclair, another talented winger who was prolific at Swansea under Rodgers, but went to City too early and hasn’t played regularly since.
The player for which Rodgers deserves the most credit for, however, is Jordan Henderson. Henderson was one among the several British signings made under Kenny Dalglish and was unfortunately made the scapegoat for Liverpool’s failures. With Rodgers’ arrival, he has developed into a capable box-to-box midfielder. More importantly, he oozes confidence, determination and tactical awareness on the field and is set to be made captain of Liverpool with the departure of Steven Gerrard.
Brendan Rodgers’ tactical philosophy is not without fault. The Irishman is occasionally guilty of placing too much faith in youngsters instead of proven footballers. His recruitment policy at Liverpool has not been immaculate either.
Having said that, it is safe to say he has shown enough to be considered one of the most tactically innovative young managers in football. What’s more, he is not afraid of making necessary changes in formation or personnel when even more experienced managers would hesitate.
What Rodgers needs now is a touch of reality to go with his imagination, similar to the Mourinho-like adjustments he made to Swansea’s philosophy. For him, that might well turn out to be the difference between greatness and oblivion.