WITH a demonstrably cerebral manager at the helm and (I personally believe) a squad that’s both strong and well balanced at his disposal, I firmly believe that with a couple of tweaks, and some coaching nous, we’ll soon be having a whole different brand of conversation about Liverpool Football Club again.
The club has hired a manager whose preferred approach to the game is broadly as follows.
- Keeper as an 11th outfield player
- All players with playmaking responsibilities
- Centre halves who can advance with and recycle ball
- Wing backs with energy and discipline
- Spine in ‘echelon’ – movement to guarantee passing triangles
- Arguably a shift from a ‘3 bands’ formation to an ‘8 Zone’ approach
- Defensive midfielder – playmaker, circulator, destroyer
- 2 advanced midfielders – energy, linking, support for front three, pressing
- Inside forwards – pace, crossing, goalscoring, energy, directness, pressing
- Striker – reference point, goalscorer, bringing support runners into play
- A belief in ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’
- A preference for multifunctional players, as a means to add flexibility, cut squad numbers, and get more from resources.
Collectively, the manager favours possession as means of control. He talks about ‘resting with the ball’, the value of possession for possession’s sake to build confidence and tempo, and to tire the opposing side, and to grow into games as a prerequisite for dominant football.
It’s here that his Swansea side has been talked down in some quarters. Unlike Barca, Swansea didn’t use possession to relentlessly dominate – to pin sides into their defensive third. They lacked the quality to do that, but boasted enough commitment to exert it as far as was practical with the players at their disposal. As a result, their possession stats for the season were just shy of Manchester City’s, while their goals scored tally was far less impressive.
To bring it back to good old Rinus Michels, the reason is simple – this type of football is “sensitive to quality”.
The first question is whether the current playing staff fits his way of playing the game.
- Keeper? A resounding yes.
- Centre halves? Yup – but one who doesn’t, and who is something of a ‘sacred cow’.
- Wing backs? Yup, albeit one who needs clear tactical parameters for his game.
- Defensive midfielder? One perfect candidate, but We could use another like him.
- 2 advanced midfielders? For me, yes – we have several players who are capable of that kind of game, but the more quality we can boast here the better.
- Inside forwards – there’s great debate here, but with the right coaching, for me we have very good players here, and others on the cusp of breaking through.
- Striker? Again, there’s plenty of debate on this one. Can the wee fella muster enough discipline? Can the big fella play enough football? Can others deputise effectively?
Long-Term Progress and the ‘Methodological Beating’
Mourinho, arguably the biggest direct influence on Rodgers in his career to date, talks of the value of a ‘methodological beating’ in engendering lasting long-term improvement in a club’s fortunes, as opposed to the short-term benefits an unthinking change of manager can bring – the ‘psychological beating’.
“[T]he methodological beating… produces long-lasting effects because it brings about structural changes… changes in the work philosophy and the model of play”.
Rodgers has of course seen and digested the Mourinho ‘bible’ during his time at Chelsea, and was responsible for implementing its ways with their youth players. He was one of the people putting the rubber to the road in that context. So there’s a starting point. It means little in itself, but what you can maybe infer is that his ‘methodology’ will have seeped in a little, and it’s arguably the case that his Swansea side bore this out.
Some snippets I personally feel are borne out in Swansea’s football. Relevant to the ‘advanced midfielders’, Mourinho says a player in that area “must display a high tactical level in order to be a link between the defence and attack, but not the defence and attack of the opponent”. They mustn’t lose the ball, or collectively empty their area of the pitch. I think that role’s going to be crucial, and the big challenge in getting the most out of Gerrard in particular. This mode of football insists on players who can coordinate the link between midfield and attack.
Swansea was Different, Rodgers stays the same
Football at a newly promoted Swansea City is different to football at Liverpool. Whether it’s reasonable or not, Liverpool fans expect their team to impose their game, and to win games more often than not. At Swansea, while the collective solidarity was impressive in their group, there wasn’t the pressure to dominate week in and week out.
Again, the key points.
- No hiding place for Liverpool players – they need mental strength
- But… in the Rodgers mode of football, the system is the star
- In that context, Rodgers takes responsibility for errors, insisting that it’s his coaching and expression of the system that’s at fault when things go wrong – that provides a ‘comfort blanket’ that arguably many of Liverpool’s players could benefit from
- Rodgers is couthie by nature – over time that will set exactly the right tone at the club
- Whether reasonable or not, Liverpool will be expected to be competitive in multiple competitions
- With the intensity of the mode of football, Rodgers will need to rotate players
- The ‘decision point’ – when the ball is won – this needs a paragraph or three on its own.
When the mode of football insists on winning the ball back as quickly as possible whenever it’s lost, and when it’s won, having the player with the ball make a pivotal decision: “is it ‘on’?”, it’s here that the whole thing becomes sensitive to quality.
At that stage, does it look likely we’ll open the other side up? If it does, then ‘GO!’ and do it calmly and quickly. If it doesn’t, keep the ball, rest, and work to tire them and draw them out of their shape.
With the greatest of respect to Swansea, it’s here that things will differ most over time at Liverpool (albeit the same transition would have been likely had he stayed at Swansea). If you’re making that pivotal decision each time you win the ball at Swansea, and the players ahead of you are a little more limited, your game will lack penetration, because time and again you’ll make the other choice – to rest with the ball. But if you’re doing it at Liverpool, and Luis Suarez or someone of that quality is ahead of you, there’s maybe more chance of it being ‘on’. There’s scope for your game to be a little more direct and penetrative. It’s here that the whole thing is most sensitive to quality.
Potential Benefits of Devotion to this System
The system espoused by Brendan Rodgers and others of his ilk introduces a little more ‘fungibility’ into the mix. Things are far less reliant on key men – the Xabi Alonsos, or the Lucas Leivas – because the actual structure of the play – the way it ensures passing options and triangles, the encouragement of possession for possession’s sake… it makes it easier to do all of the following.
- recruit new players
- establish a clear coaching syllabus and scouting criteria
- establish a clear and measurable internal notion of ‘value’
- replace individuals game-to-game and season-to-season
- align the Academy to Reserve to First Team pipeline
- improve decision making
- engender confidence and belief…
…and so forth.
The club, if it’s going to be competitive long-term, must find a way to get the best use of its resources (while hoping those ahead of it fail to do the same). That means savvy in the transfer market, as much parsimony as it can muster in contract negotiations, and investment of resources and prominence to youth development – somewhere we’ve made massive strides in recent years.
Rodgers gives us a great deal of that for free, I’d argue. You can only hope the shift to a bigger club sees him continue in that vein. But he does seem to have a clear eye for players who can make his system more effective, and often for peanuts.
Why FSG must help Rodgers assert genuine authority
Growth takes time, and usually involves growing pains of some description. If the club is to have the chance of becoming what it really could be, then reasonableness and patience are going to be needed in abundance. With that in mind, I’d personally hope the structure put in place engenders the kind of support, patience, and commitment to the long-term plan that an aspiring dynastic architect such as a Brendan Rodgers will need to work effectively. Undermine that in any way, be it via PR gaffes, legalistic oversights, giving players too much power, or just plain remoteness, and you put the whole thing in jeopardy.
If we’re being asked to forget what’s gone on before and move on from a new ‘year zero’, then here’s what I think we demand in return. The manager must be allowed to assert his authority, and if there are going to be limits to its expression, be they structural, personnel, or budgetary – whatever their source, you must communicate with him clearly and let him know where he stands at all times.
Do that, and we might just re-establish some stability. Don’t, and we’ll be another controversial incident away from resetting the year clock.