By Andy Gargett
LIVERPOOL FOOTBALL CLUB have the quality to compete for top four but not to expect it. Theoretically they could go further if we can get some heroic performances from Suarez and Gerrard in particular. However, the cold hard truth is that over the journey, par for Liverpool would be fourth – seventh. The even colder, harder truth is that historically for Liverpool this equates to failure. However, if Liverpool are to get back to where we believe they should be we need to bridge the gap in quality.
Some will say go out and buy a whole bunch of world class players. Good in theory but we must be aware that in practice, in the current money-driven era, Liverpool simply cannot compete with the financial muscle in the Premiership. We can’t follow what City, what Chelsea and or even what United do and expect to succeed on a consistent basis. Indeed, look beyond these shores and you see PSG, Malaga, Russian and Chinese sides able to outspend Liverpool, not to mention the established European giants. We simply do not have the cash cow, the revenue streams or the stadium. Impersonating your competition on fewer resources is not only stupid, it defines non-ambition. Relying on the very good players you have to consistently be heroes is also risky – they could choose to leave, get injured, lose form and all players age.
Enter Brendan Rodgers. A man with a footballing philosophy that is arguably capable of bridging that gap. This is a philosophy that relies on system rather than superstar players. The superstars will help, but the system trumps the individual.
There is nothing new, or especially novel, about extracting more from a team than the resources you put in it. However, the perennial problem is that there is always a ceiling, that you can only stretch limited resources so far no matter what your system or philosophy. There are numerous recent examples: The miracle of Alcorcon, the Spanish minnow who came within a whisker of being promoted to the Spanish Primera Liga. Blackpool, who the season before last, came so close to defying the odds and staying up in the top flight despite their meagre resources. Everton are another example – Moyes has created a system where he can maximise the outputs of a team despite ever diminishing comparative resources. However Moyes’ current brand of football – no aggravation intended – also has its ceiling and that is likely to be outside the top four. And again this is not good enough for Liverpool FC.
So why is Rodgers’ philosophy different? How can a man who managed to haul Swansea to eleventh in the league help Liverpool bridge the gap to become Champions League regulars and title contenders? See below…
1. The student of the game
Brendan Rodgers is a student of the game. Retiring from playing at a young age, he has dedicated his professional life to understanding football. Like a sponge he has travelled across Europe soaking up football knowledge. The excellent Mihail Vladimirov, of The Tomkins Times, suggests that he has an almost academic approach to football. Rodgers’ relationship with Jose Mourinho, with his painstaking attention to detail, is a case in point. As noted by Vladimirov, Rodgers’ speaks openly about graduating from “The University of Mourinho”. Again to refer to a Vladimirov quote of Rodgers’ – “football managers are like thieves, they steal something from wherever they go.”
And then there is Rodgers’ time at Reading. In his introductory Anfield press conference, he referred to his less than successful time at Reading as a “defining moment” stating that after it he became more “clinical”. He then specifically referred to his adherence to a philosophy but that football is a “business of winning”. Rodgers is a man with an academic devotion to understanding football, who is in there to win. These are characteristics of man who will be capable of adapting his footballing philosophy to the greater demands and scrutiny at Liverpool Football Club. At the very least it is unlikely that he will be found so fundamentally incapable of adjusting his philosophy to the greater demands required at Liverpool, than say West Brom.
2. The philosophy
In a nutshell, the Rodgers’ philosophy is all about possession, a high defensive line with advanced fullbacks, high pressing and breaking the pitch down into eight zones. The centre point of Rodgers’ philosophy is control. Control, though possession, in football can be a circuit-breaker to the status quo. It tilts the odds in your favour – against lesser sides it enables you to dismantle them; against similar sides it enables you can outmanoeuvre them and against superior sides it enables you to smother them.
Dominating possession, through short passing, often in triangles, allows you to drag an opposition side from one side of the pitch to the other, to patiently change the point of attack until the defensive shuffling breaks down. It also enables you to create overloads in the opposition’s defensive set-up. This, plus forcing the opposition to chase the shadow of the ball, is how you can dismantle sides of a lesser or similar ability. Placing a premium on possession against superior sides can enable you to starve a dangerous opposition of opportunities to hurt you. Obviously, you can always get hit on the counter, but it is a simple fact that preventing the opposition from having the ball prevents them from hurting you with it. Taking chunks of time out of a game through ball retention is a far less risky defensive strategy than setting out your bus on your eighteen yard line. In essence possession helps you taking control of the game.
A great example of how possession creates control, is Gerard Pique’s response on how to stop Cristiano Ronaldo in a Sid Lowe Guardian article: “It’s not an individual duel; it’s collective. The key is to control the game. If we have the ball, he’ll participate less and cause us fewer problems”. And as Sid suggests, that is your light bulb moment. Controlling the ball and pressing high up the field operates both as an offensive ploy (having the ball, winning the ball back closer to goal) and a defensive ploy (starving the opposition of the ball, not allowing them to push you back). For those that think this possession-oriented football is an art form you are wrong. At times it might appear to be artistic, but the short passing, the fluidity of movement, the aggressive positioning all have their roots and rationale in one thing: pragmatism through control. It maximises your ability to get a return.
In our cliche-driven era it is easy get lulled into thinking that a possession-oriented game is some kind of homage to football in its purest form. It is not. A possession-oriented game is pragmatism at its zenith. Control the ball, control the game. One team chases shadows, whilst the other, as to quote Rodgers, “rests on the ball”. As a result the possession and the pressing etc. is a mechanism to maintain control. Jed Davies superb piece on Rodgers’ version of the Barca inspired Tiki-Taka details at length how despite all its aesthetic appeal at its core is all about winning.
Iain Macintosh has recently written a riposte to those claiming Spain’s passing game is boring. It is fantastic, and clearly articulates that behind all the pass and move (or the tiki and the taka), there is not a sacrifice to the football gods due. Behind Spain’s passing is nothing but pragmatism. An understanding that in modern football, control of possession, high field position with fullback’s providing your width, numbers in midfield, fluidity in attack and aggressive possession, you are more likely to succeed.
Movement out of possession must not be neglected. High aggressive pressing is pivotal under this system. A high defensive line, and high pressing, does a number of beneficial things for a side: One) It inhibits an opposition side who do want to keep the ball from doing so. The performance of the Portuguese for large chunks of the Euro Semi-Final v Spain is a testament to this – their pressing interrupted the Spanish passing metronome. This can be very effective against superior sides. Two) It elicits from the opposition long (and under-pressure) balls from deep positions. Odds are that your defensive will sweep this up and begin recycling the ball. Pressure adds. Three) High pressing creates turnovers in dangerous positions often with defenders out of position – we’ve all seen the offensive pressure created by Suarez’s defensive pressure.
Rodgers’ pressing is not erratic ball chasing. It is cold and calculated, and therefore sustainable. A possession-oriented game is the perfect complement to a high pressing game; arguably it is the only way that such an approach can be sustainable throughout ninety minutes and over the course of a season. Further, as noted by Stephen McCarthy, a high pressing game is about high intensity for the six seconds immediately following losing the ball. The rule is you lose the ball, you immediately press in packs, if you cannot win the ball back, reorganise, and wait for the pre-decided trigger for the team to press again.
This philosophy when dissected is far from that of an aesthetic ideologue. It is a philosophy grounded in football understanding and pragmatism. It is a philosophy of winning.
An often forgotten element of football is the mental aspect. Liverpool were a lot of things last year, unlucky being one of them, but at some stage it appeared we lost mental strength. We became easy to beat, we missed chances for fun. There can be little doubt there was a mental element at play.
Creating a team that is built around a philosophy, that demands and expects faith in the system, can insulate from individual whims of mentality weakness. A team and its collective identity becomes about exactly that, the team. The mental strength is not about hoping Gerrard grabs the team by the scruff of the neck, it is not about Suarez running an opposition defence ragged, it is about how the team works as a team. That is the prize, the desire. When the team succeeds it is because of the system (keeping egos in check). When the team fails, it is also because of the system (insulates those egos from challenge).
Benitez’s Liverpool was very mentally strong until 2009. I have no doubt that his systemic approach made it far harder to beat Liverpool. Football was made easier for our players, which conversely made it difficult for opposition players. Neil Scott in the latest edition of Well Red mentioned that Liverpool had lost 39 games in the last three seasons. This is an astounding statistic. It means losing one in three. A side does not compete when they lose one in three. They lose faith in what they are doing and in one another. There is obviously the Hicks and Gillett factor at play, but the system, and belief in it, also had a role. It is systems which make you hard to beat on a consistent basis.
Rodgers’ last season saw his Swansea back four defended when they gave the ball away leading to a consession. It was his system that was at fault, he wanted them to play the ball. This cannot be underestimated. Swansea, with due respect to them, are not made up of world beaters, yet they could pass the ball better than most in Europe. Undervaluing the mental insurance of being able to blame any mistakes on the system is naive. It provided them with the freedom to play. The system provided them with the necessary information to play. As a consequence, the system made it easier for them to do what they had to do.
4. A good fit for Liverpool Football club
It is commonly felt that FSG are trying to implement a Barca model at Liverpool. Rodgers with his known appreciation of the Barcelona inspired Tiki-Taka has thrust this front and centre into peoples’ minds. As is outlined in the excellent article by Si Steers, another from The Tomkins Times, Liverpool FC have a lot in common with Barcelona, in terms of football, culture and success. He even argues persuasively, I believe, that the two clubs share “core values”.
What has this got to do with Rodgers and his chances of success? Well his philosophy (as outlined above) is no stranger to Liverpool FC. As Steers suggests “Tiki-Taka may not have been the definition in Shankly’s era, but a possession-based game with quick, short passing, high intensity, and attacking were part of Liverpool’s DNA”. It is also understanding that Shankly was also the first to drive his back-line up the pitch. Paisley with his adherence to “it isn’t about the short ball or the long ball, it’s about the right ball” possession-based pragmatic philosophy, further cemented this into Anfield folklore. The Paisley sides that dominated Europe were built on pragmatic, high pressure, possession-based football. To again quote Steers “Rodgers’ project isn’t about copying Barcelona; it is about the re-birth of Liverpool”.
Another reason why I believe Rodgers is a good fit for Liverpool is his obsession with tactical organisation. This is a trait clearly “stolen” from Jose. It is especially important for Liverpool FC battling to compete with rivals on greater resources. Why? Because tactical organisation constrains reliance on the individual, and maximises reliance on the collective. Every individual has a well-defined role working in harmony with others in the team. Sure, dropping a random Suarez-shaped bomb on an opposition back line might herald some memorable moments, but Luis Suarez, plugging into a well-oiled machine, where he has a defined and constrained role, in a fluid, high pressing, linked-up side is a fearsome prospect. Think Gerrard – his best and most consistent form for Liverpool has come when he was a cog, with a clearly-defined role, under Rafa’s tenure.
An adherence in system, also enables you to negate the natural tendency to rely on superstars, which unless you are laden with them is a lottery. Steven Gerrard is the best player I have ever seen play for Liverpool. I saw snippets of Kenny, and have since seen the videos, but in all honesty aI m too young to make a fair comparison. Gerrard’s undoubted greatness aside, he possesses a serious challenge to Liverpool FC circa 2012/13. How do you maximise a player of his ability within the constraints placed on him by his ageing body, without hurting the team? The answer: you build a team around a system. Players plug into it, rather than dictate it.
Brendan Rodgers faces a huge challenge at Liverpool Football Club, the biggest of his career. He is aware of this, he understands football, so he understands that managing Liverpool is a “destination”. Liverpool as a football club is at the cross roads, the glory of the Champions League is in danger of drifting into the distant past. We would all love it if Liverpool went out and bought a raft of world class players, but the reality is we won’t and can’t. What we do have is a good squad, a fourth-seventh squad, and a manager who if given the time – and with a bit of luck -has the philosophy that can bridge the gap and get Liverpool Football Club back to where we belong.
Are we nailed on a success? No. But in Brendan Rodgers Liverpool have a manager who understands that football with an established set of principles is more than capable of succeeding and communing with our own footballing institution. In Brendan Rodgers Liverpool fans have cause for cautious optimism.