We’ve all witnessed the appointment of new managers at our respective clubs who’ve came in, played some half decent football, lost a few matches and consequently been harshly discarded in the view that football is a ‘results business’. So should Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers be treated any differently, and is his ‘possession football’ mantra becoming a bit of a smokescreen which asks for the blind faith of the Liverpool fans. Rodgers’ results so far haven’t been good enough for a club of Liverpool’s stature but we are consistently told that they’re a club in transition – and bit of patience is rightly expected. There is certainly not a crisis at Anfield, but with a less than average start to this year’s campaign some questions are naturally beginning to surface. Rodgers’ ambition is to have Liverpool play a possession game where they control matches with efficient use of the ball. In his words
“In my cultural upbringing, on my travels, the statistic that interested me was if you were better than your opponent with the football you have a 79% chance of winning the game.”
A fair observation, but surely the majority of managers aspire to build a team that can control games; most though are burdened by the fact that they need to take a pragmatic approach in selecting their style of play – this is their means to the promised land of possession football. Managers like Everton’s David Moyes and Newcastle’s Alan Pardew are doing relatively good jobs with the resources they have available and indeed try hard to induct technical players into their teams, but they also recognise that tempo, the direct ball and physicality are still vital Premier League traits.
When Rodgers arrived at Liverpool he came with a 180 page dossier citing his ‘philosophy and methodology.’ This sporting tome would be impossible for Rodgers to articulate in its entirety without giving away his secrets or remaining digestible to his public, and herein lies the problem: How can Rodgers continue to convince the fans of his ambitious scheme by only using casual slogans like ‘possession football’ and ‘one club mentality’. There seems to be a large element of trust embedded in Liverpool’s grand design.
The Liverpool manager has made some articulate public appraisals of the modern game and on a playing level fans might sum up the kind of style that Rodgers desires in the following rudimentary terms: Rodgers wants his deep lying midfielders recycling the ball with their own defenders comfortably in their own defensive third; his advanced midfielders are charged with taking the initiative to carousel in Barca-like passing triangles further up the pitch; his strikers have to make the choice between looking for the final incision, or, returning the ball back into the passing machine. Most importantly, Rodger’s vision of circulation/possession football is about quality of chances not quantity of chances so players must curb their gung-ho Premier League type decision making skills and be more inclined to recycle possession back into the Tiki-Taka system.
This is a curriculum many Premier League managers would subscribe to – after all, which manager wants his side to waste possession? The trouble is most managers need to play the short-game and use the players they have to achieve short term results. Brendan Rodgers’ idealism is both convincing and refreshing but can he keep wheeling out the same lines about a ‘club in transition’ if Liverpool are in mid-table by the end of the season.
Rodgers recently attempted to sell his long term vision to the fans in the following terms,
“The vision is simple. Firstly, to win the most trophies we can. That’s the bigger picture. The second is to play attractive, attacking football to win games. The third is to bring through as many of the young players as we possibly can. When I became a manager I always wanted to go into a club with a philosophy so it’s clear in terms of where everyone is heading. Thankfully at two of my three clubs as manager I’ve been able to create a one-club mentality and it’s been successful.”
Of all of those three points the first two suffer from gross over simplification but the third seems the most salient and understandable at present. Rodgers isn’t afraid to blood young players – Wisdom, Shelvey and Sterling are prime examples of his philosophy coming to fruition and if he can breed a tactically obedient mind-set into these players he can begin to enjoy the comparative advantage that a coherent set of technically schooled players has over big money signings; an advantaged we saw to full effect in the Man City vs. Ajax games. Most of the Ajax side were youth products with a cumulative value of £2.75m (£2.5m taken up by Moisander alone). Ajax were inferior in terms of talent but on the pitch they were tactically and technically much more fluid.
Unlike his predecessors Dalglish and Hodgson, Rodgers has a questionable but real tactical vision which will buy him some time and it has become clear in the last few years that if you wish to compete with the top three, you’ll need an alternative strategy – cue managers with sales pitches such as Brendan Rodgers.
The young Liverpool manager seems to have the support and patience of the Liverpool faithful who are an educated crowd and will be able to grasp if the project is working in a year’s time. Rodgers is paving the way for a great story in the English game, and if he can achieve his goals he may ultimately be seen as a revolutionary of Shankly proportions. Until then Rodgers has gone on record as saying that he understands football is a ‘results business’, so let’s hope for his sake that he can get enough points to carry on justifying his bold experiment.