[EDITORS NOTE: THIS WAS WRITTEN AND FOR ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES MEANT TO BE PUBLISHED BEFORE THE MIDWEEK EUROPA LEAGUE TIE, BUT WE ALL GOT A BIT LAWRO’D]
By Andy Gargett
IN early July I wrote this for The Anfield Wrap outlining why I thought Brendan Rodgers’ philosophy has the potential to help Liverpool bridge the quality gap. To give you a brief precis I set out how his is a philosophy which could steer us back in to the Champions League and then subsequently enable us to mount a realistic challenge for the title. I argued that in Brendan Rodgers there is cause for cautious optimism.
Seven weeks later, we’ve played a handful of pre-season games and three competitive fixtures and the season is underway. Has anything changed? Ordinarily it is unfair to judge a manager, a footballing philosophy and a football club over such an infinitesimal timeframe. It is crazy to do this over a pre-season and one league game, particularly one which has been interrupted by travel, the Olympics and players returning late from the Euros. However, having watched us draw with Toronto and Spurs, lose to Roma, and defeat Gomel (twice) along with Sami’s Leverkusen, I for one retained my cautious optimism heading into the opening league fixture against West Brom. A 3:0 loss and in my opinion a whole lot of overreacting later, I think now is an opportune moment to revisit the four non-exhaustive reasons I outlined why Rodgers could be a success at Liverpool.
Caveat: This is not an in-depth analysis of Liverpool’s pre-season nor of the West Brom game, far from it, this article provides my observations about how we are implementing the “Rodgers philosophy”. It will also largely avoid transfer speculation, both ins and outs.
1. The student of the game
Citing Mihail Vladimirov from The Tomkins Times I argued that that Liverpool Football Club’s new manager is a student of the game with an academic fervour for footballing knowledge. It has since come to light that Rodgers has a 180 page football dossier that he has been developing since his twenties. This footballing thesis is the blueprint which will provide the theoretical underpinnings for our footballing decisions. It would affirm what we thought – Rodgers is a student of the game.
Our football has also provided a sneak peek into the advantages that can be gained from a such a rigourous and intellectual approach to football. The goal from Lucas “Prolific From Seven Yards” Leiva against Leverkusen provided evidence of the thought and ingenuity that will now go into our set pieces. Sure the goal was lucky, but that was only because Suarez couldn’t believe how much time he had on the ball. The surprise pass from Downing to Suarez was straight off the training track and a clear indication that we can expect creativity, thought and attention to every detail.
Another area that indicates a scientific approach to the game is fitness. Going into last season we looked very underdone. Going into this season, from what I’ve seen we look fit and ready – this is despite the stop/start nature of pre-season. Lucas aside, who will need time, I thought the team demonstrated they were physically ready for the onslaught of the newly-returned Premiership on Saturday.
One area where Rodgers has come under critique following West Brom was his use of substitutions. I fully understand the criticism and it is not an understatement to say that they did not come off. As a student of the game we can expect that Rodgers will learn from this. Having said that, it’s very easy to sit in your armchair and critique a substitution. Ohh and hindsight is a wonderful thing.
2. The philosophy
There has been a lot of hype about Rodgers’ philosophy – the possession, pressing and aggressive field position. Whilst Liverpool under King Kenny did try to play pass and move, and at time last season acquitted that mandate with great effect, most reasonable views are that Rodgers’ philosophy will take time to implement. However coming into the season you can see the Rodgers reformation is well underway. Liverpool dominated possession against Toronto which in all reality was a practice match. It was however marked by a distinct lack of penetration despite the possession. Against Roma who pressed hard we struggled to retain possession, but since then we have seen steady improvements with our use and retention of the ball. We have also significantly improved our attacking threat.
In the two last fixtures heading into the league season, Gomel and Leverkusen at home, it felt like things were beginning to click. Against Gomel we completed over 700 passes, followed by over 600 against Leverkusen. In the first half against Leverkusen, ESPN reported that Liverpool dominated with 67% of the ball; we had a similar percentage against Gomel. Reflecting the premium that is placed on possession our passing accuracy was 90% against Gomel at home and 89% against Leverkusen (stats from The AnfieldIndex. As an aside for an excellent and detailed analysis of Gomel at home see this by The Anfield Index). Our pre-season ball retention has all been achieved without the newly arrived Joe Allen, whose passing accuracy for Swansea last season was 91.2% with his 2,177 completed passes. To compare, Liverpool’s best last year was the recently departed Maxi Rodriguez with a pass accuracy of 90% from his 394 completed passes.
Allen’s debut at West Brom demonstrated why Rodgers signed him, he was composed and controlled. He completed 66 of his 69 attempted passes. Whilst I’m sure Rodgers would be hoping him to get upwards of 80 completed passes more often than not, it is not a bad return for a debut game, away from home, where you played with 10 men for half an hour. Despite being down 1:0 to a Gera “worldie”, Liverpool were quite good for the first hour in controlling possession. Paul Tomkins noted that at the 55 minute mark Liverpool had completed 333 of 372 attempted passes compared to West Brom’s 135 of 183. Yes things did fall apart, but for 60 minutes we put in a reasonable shift in ball retention and control. Like everything this will take time.
Our noticeable improvements in ball retention can in part be attributed to further acclimatisation to the Rodgers philosophy. It also directly reflects the introduction of Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger and Lucas Leiva into Liverpool’s starting eleven. These three are key to the system and is arguably why we should simply not sell Agger. Reina is a true sweeper-keeper and his excellent and calm use of the ball is needed as he operates as an “out ball”. He allows us to recycle possession despite being pressed. Against Leverkusen Pepe attempted 55 passes – his season high last year was 40. When Jones and Gulacsi were deputising they looked stressed and pressured under possession and all too often hoofed the ball long, consequently giving it away. Reina also had a fantastic game against West Brom. Agger is a ball-playing centre half, in true Liverpool tradition, a Rolls Royce of a footballer. If you want to know why he is pivotal to our team watch him against Gomel at home. It was a masterclass performance. Then watch how we fell apart after he was harshly sent off against West Brom. Sure there were other factors at play but in my mind it further reiterated the importance of Daniel Agger to the Football Club. If his suspension is not rescinded he will be sorely missed in the coming games. And Lucas, in my opinion, is our conductor – he makes us sing. He sets the tempo for the team, his passing, be it quick and diagonally forward or controlled and sideways/backwards, it makes us tick. His pressing and closing down is central to what Rodgers is trying to do. He was slightly off the pace against West Brom but will improve with every minute of game time he gets.
On the subject of pressing, early in pre-season we heard all about the possession drills in confined space where you had seven seconds to win the ball back having given it away. LFC.tv aired an eleven-a-side game on a half pitch with a clear focus on winning the ball back once lost. This training fosters an ethos of pressing. It was Gomel at home in which we witnessed the real introduction of pressing into Liverpool’s game plan. We have already seen its potential impact. According to The Anfield Index, against Gomel at home Liverpool won the ball thirteen times as a direct result of pressing. Against Leverkusen we won it back fourteen times. As alluded to above Lucas was responsible for five of those fourteen in only 45 superb minutes of football. Henderson and Carroll were next best with two each (both also only played 45 minutes). With 11 men against West Brom our pressing was ok. At times we seemed a little too aggressive and without real thought or structure to our press. The consequent result was that gaps opened up behind the midfield and we were vulnerable on the break. Fitness and acclimatisation means we probably won’t see the Rodgers press in full flight for at least another five or six weeks.
One concern people have had with Rodgers is whether his possession based football will be blunt against sides who park the proverbial bus. The blunt performance against Toronto did little to allay these concerns. As noted by Rory Smith on the recent Anfield Wrap City Talk episode, success in the Premiership is contingent on being a flat track bully. Enter Gomel at home. It was a flat track bully performance par excellence. We played with great tempo and fluidity which the inferior opposition simply couldn’t handle. Liverpool forced the tempo and this did mean we gave the ball away at times. However with a pass completion rate of 90% and possession stats of around 65% we can conclude that control was not sacrificed due to the pushing of the tempo. The performance was the art of domination. Liverpool will do very well this season if we can muster this type of Anfield outing regularly against the bottom half.
Liverpool’s domination at home against Gomel can be contrasted with the pretty poor performance away. In all honesty we were very lucky to leave with an away goal and the win. First half in particular we struggled, especially Gerrard. However, once Downing cut inside from the right (Rodgers does love an inverted winger with the width provided by the fullback) and scored an absolute belter something happened. Post goal Liverpool grew in confidence and began to use possession to take time out of the game. As a result of possession we stifled an opposition who was superior on the day.
Gomel at home and Gomel away provide perfect case studies how Rodgers’ philosophy can be used to batter the lesser sides, and be adjusted to frustrate and stifle better sides.
Unfortunately the profligacy of Liverpool against West Brom was markedly reminiscent to last season. Suarez was the prime culprit and could have arguably had a hat-trick before half time and it would have been game over. To put it simply our finishing must improve. There is little more to say on it. Added firepower is an area where we urgently need some action on the transfer front prior to September.
In my July piece I argued that building a team around a philosophy can insulate individuals within the team from whims of mental weakness. I suggested this is achieved by a side built on the collective rather than Gerrard’s or Suarez’s moments of magic.
The first thing to note about Liverpool’s mentality as we head into the new season is winning. As Didi said on Twitter (if you don’t follow him, you’re mad or not on Twitter – @DietmarHamann) after the Gomel away win, “winning is a habit”. This is a truism. Liverpool enter the season with three wins on the bounce, all of which have be achieved with the further implementation of the new philosophy. With each win, as Rodgers’ system is further entrenched, trust by the players in the system is also further entrenched.
The second thing to note is the marked pre-season improvement in Downing and Enrique. Form in a couple of pre-season games should barely be a barometer for success. Having said that Downing was poor and West Brom and Enrique was absent, an absence, as outlined by Steve Graves which harmed our attacking intent. Enrique in particular has excelled under Rodgers more structured football. His assist for Sterling’s super goal against Leverkusen was class. He has looked far more confident than he did after Christmas last year. It is very possible this is due to a combination of Rodgers’ football and and that Rogers’ tactical discipline will suit Enrique. In essence Rodgers could do the thinking for him. It will be interesting to see if those who underachieved last season because of mental fragility or and/or a lack footballing intelligence thrive this season.
Now onto the Club’s mental fragility that was so graphically demonstrated against West Brom following Agger’s red card. Liverpool have been inflicted with a brittleness since Rafa’s last season. However, nothing I saw against West Brom shook my belief that Rodgers’ systems football can and will build mental resilience and belief. As Roy Henderson so wonderfully put here it will take time, patience and support from us fans.
4. A good fit for Liverpool Football club
I, like Si Steers, suggested that Rodgers’ philosophy adheres to Liverpool’s footballing traditions and ethos. Importantly at his first interview, and every time he has spoken to the media since, Brendan Rodgers has sounded like a Liverpool Manager. For example he speaks of the Club as an institution and a destination. He appears to understand the club, its values and traditions. This should be of no surprise given he is such a footballing student.
Liverpool fans should also have an affinity with the style of football which will be on offer at Anfield. Controlling football is part of Liverpool’s DNA. In terms of the Anfield crowd one moment has stuck out in my mind this pre-season. About 20 minutes into Gomel at home, Lucas gave the ball back to Reina who was put under significant pressure by two Gomel forwards. Reina, instead of going route one, calmly drew the Gomel players and passed the ball five yards back to Lucas. This simple act of possession football drew huge applause from the Anfield crowd which understands the premium of possession.
In addition to benefitting the likes of Downing and Enrique, I believe a systems approach will enable our key men to flourish. I’ve already commented on the importance of Agger and Lucas, but the signs are that both Gerrard and Suarez will flourish under Rodgers. Gerrard was particularly poor against Gomel away and again against West Brom. However in the Gomel home tie, once shifted higher up the field into the most advanced of the midfield three, he was a totally different prospect. His linking play with Suarez was reminiscent of his lethal partnership with Torres. Whereas in the away tie Gerrard seemed intent on doing everything, at home he plugged into the system and added invaluable tempo and movement. The signing of Joe Allen instead of Gylfi may be a Rodgers masterstroke as it will ensure we are likely to see Gerrard in more advanced positions. This will negate his ‘Roy of the Rovers’ desire to be everywhere and do everything as well as maximising the impact of his absolute quality. A key challenge for Rodgers is he can get consistency out of Steven Gerrard.
Suarez’s finishing must improve. It remains to be seen but Suarez, who is such a creative force, might be better suited to playing on the right or the left of the front three. Nevertheless Suarez looks like he’ll benefit from fitting into a system. In addition to his partnership with Gerrard, his linking and interchange with Borini against Gomel at home was very promising. Borini looks like he could be the perfect foil for Suarez, efficient in front of goal with fantastic movement and importantly he understand the Rodgers’ way. Borini, despite being quiet against West Brom, showed some excellent movement. It might take him a number of games to adjust to the cut and thrust of the Premiership but I think he’ll be a good acquisition. It is clear however that Rodgers will need to reinforce our ranks, particularly by bringing in added firepower.So what does it all mean?
Yes we lost our first game 3:0. And yes this was to West Brom. Neil Atkinson the host of the Anfield Wrap podcasts has mentioned a number of times that he thinks we’ll be on the end of the odd tonking this year as we adjust to Rodgers’ system. West Brom was certainly that. However, I think Brendan Rodgers has shown encouraging signs that he is up for the challenge that is Liverpool. This is a massive challenge, of that there is no doubt. To get us back where we need to be he will by his own admission need to fight for his life for the club. It is always going to take time to re-build a dynasty. We have shown some very encouraging signs but there is much to be done. For one our squad requires more depth and a touch more quality – hopefully we have a fruitful end of August and will retain Agger.
In terms of implementing the Rodgers system I feel we are, despite the West Brom hiccup, progressing quite well . There is much work still to be done, however what I’ve seen so far confirms my belief that in Rodgers, Liverpool have cause for cautious optimism. One result poor result will not shake that belief.