JUST OVER A year ago, Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton defeated Liverpool 3-1 to effectively end the Anfield club’s hopes of finishing in the top four last season.
The Liverpool team that day was as follows: Jones; Johnson, Jose Enrique, Agger, Skrtel; Gerrard, Phillippe Coutinho, Downing, Allen; Suarez, Sturridge.
An encouraging end-of-season run was brought to halt, as Liverpool fans experienced a feeling they had become increasingly accustomed to in recent campaigns — failure.
The sense then was that it was a team in transition, and one which was in need of major renovation — Gerrard was past his prime, Henderson wasn’t good enough, Coutinho was erratic at best, Sturridge was a Chelsea reject…
Little did they know that just over 12 months later, with more or less the same core group of players, they would be on the verge of history in the form of their first league title in 24 years.
Accordingly, below are some of the qualities that helped Rodgers mastermind this incredible turnaround, rendering him the only suitable candidate for Manager of the Year in the process.
Liverpool finished in seventh place last year, yet they’re now odds-on to win the title. Such a rapid improvement in such a short space of time very seldom occurs in football and is verging on miracle-worker territory. Quite simply, it’s difficult to imagine any other manager taking control of this Liverpool side at the start of the season and getting them to the position they’re now in.
Perhaps Jordan Henderson epitomises their incredible transition from no-hopers to potential league champions. Branded a flop by some commentators before this season and strongly linked with a move to Fulham, the central midfielder played all bar 22 minutes of Liverpool’s title campaign before his sending off against Manchester City last week. Many people thought he was destined to become one of the many young English midfielders who prematurely fade away despite an extremely promising start to their career, yet a combination of his own improvement and the self-belief that Rodgers gradually instilled in him has turned the ex-Sunderland man into a key member of this Liverpool side, belatedly enabling the 23-year-old to fulfill the potential that earned him a £20million move to Anfield in the first place.
So as impressive as the achievements of Mourinho, Pulis et al have been, there is no question that Rodgers has overachieved more than anyone given the limitations he’s been forced to deal with. It would consequently be a travesty if he failed to win this season’s Manager of the Year accolade, irrespective of whether or not the Reds ultimately claim the title.
Over the course of the season, Liverpool have recorded comprehensive victories over some of the league’s top teams. Tottenham, Manchester United, Arsenal and Everton have all been roundly outclassed by the Rodgers’ side at one point or another.
Few people would argue that Liverpool have considerably better players than the teams in question — certainly, not to the extent that they should regularly be beating these teams by four or five goals. Instead, they have a manager who showed superb tactical acumen on each aforementioned occasion, while ensuring the team’s pre-match preparation and understanding of the system they were playing was exemplary.
Over the course of the season, Liverpool have interchanged from 4-5-1 to 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 to the diamond formation. Yet the side have rarely looked ill-at-ease despite these consistent alterations. To acquire such success in this regard, a club needs two things: players who are intelligent enough to adhere to such tactical versatility and a manager who has the bravery and communication skills to enable his players to buy into his philosophy. Clearly, in Rodgers and the core of this team, Liverpool have both.
Handling of the media/players
(Steven Gerrard has spoken highly of Rodgers’ managerial ability)
For managers, demeanour is everything. David Moyes, over the course of the season, has been exposed time and again in post-match interviews. From his ill-advised admission that United aspire to be like City, to his often nervous and uncomfortable disposition, he gives the impression of a man ill-at-ease with his surroundings who hardly seems equipped to inspire a group of underperforming millionaires.
Brendan Rodgers, by contrast, this season has invariably given the impression of a man in complete control of the situation. Unlike Mourinho, he has refrained from ever lashing out at his players and he clearly has their respect.
As high an authority as Steven Gerrard, for instance, recently said of Rodgers: “I have been absolutely blown away by his sessions, his tactics and his maturity in the job and I am learning from him every single day.
“When you become a little bit of an older player, you look to see how the manager does certain things and he has been fantastic for me personally. He keeps tweaking and tinkering with the formation and making little subtle changes to personnel and tactics and it is coming off from week to week.
“He manages every single player differently. He knows we have different characters in the dressing room and his one-on-one management is the best I have known. He makes you go out on to the pitch feeling a million dollars — full of confidence and belief. He is a very confident manager.”
What separates Rodgers from the average manager is his willingness to take risks and continually succeed in doing so. His conviction in making these decisions is consequently what’s made his Anfield project such an overwhelming and near-instantaneous success.
Many critics considered his decision to sell Andy Carroll at the time to be an unwise one. Could he not keep Carroll as a Plan B, in case Plan A doesn’t work, they once asked. Yet Rodgers was determined to stick to his unique vision — if it could not accommodate the England striker, even a player of his impressive ability had to go.
Similarly, some people initially wondered whether playing Steven Gerrard so deep in midfield was a good idea. A footballer often criticised for his lack of discipline and positional sense surely wouldn’t be able to cope with the restrictions of his new role. Yet once again, Rodgers proved the naysayers wrong, with Gerrard playing an influential role in their title challenge, and picking up a Player of the Year nomination for his troubles.
Brand of football
It’s sometimes wrongly assumed that attractive football and outright success are mutually exclusive. Arsenal are often cited as an example of a team that have customarily been beautiful to watch, yet have enjoyed little success in terms of silverware in recent years. However, Liverpool and, to a degree, Manchester City, have proved this theory to be incorrect over the past few months.
Liverpool, in particular, have gained a reputation as the neutrals’ favourites, owing to the thrilling brand of football they’ve adopted (as well as the fact that they haven’t spent to the extreme levels of City or Chelsea).
And again, Rodgers must be credited with masterminding this turnaround. Before he arrived, Liverpool were lumping balls up to Andy Carroll and often finding goals hard to come by. This season, however, the Reds’ commendably adventurous style has been reflected by the fact that they scored their 93rd goal of the season against City last weekend — in the process, breaking their all-time record goals total in the top flight, previously secured in the famous 1963-64 season, when they won the league under Bill Shankly.
The Northern Irish manager demanded a similarly enterprising and swift brand of counter-attacking football when he was at Swansea, and crucially, this style tends to be as effective as it is easy on the eye. Of course, it will count for nothing if they don’t win the league, but either way, it’s admirable to see a manager urging his team to take such a positive approach — in contrast, for instance, with the more laboured style of Jose Mourinho-managed teams — and especially, when a number of the players at his disposal are not overtly brilliant technically.