The Rodgers revolution

brendan-rodgers

Brendan Rodgers. Photo by Geoffrey Hammersley, http://www.flickr.com

Last week Liverpool returned to the Champions League after a five year absence so this feels like a reasonable point at which to assess the impact that Brendan Rodgers has had on the club. It’s been just over two years since Rodgers was appointed manager at Anfield and he’s used that time to instil his playing philosophy and construct a squad that is comfortable with it.

Liverpool last won the league title in 1990. Thatcher was still in Downing Street, the Soviet Union was still intact, and Madonna was atop the charts with Vogue. Later that summer the number one slot would be held by New Order and the England squad with their Italia 90 anthem World in Motion featuring a rapping John Barnes. That’s right, Liverpool last won the league before Italia 90 (my formative World Cup at the age of 9).

Shortly after his appointment Rodgers said: “I find it all very inspiring, from the minute I drive through and walk through the door. You see the little bust of Bill Shankly, you walk in every day and walk past the European Cup.” Here was a man respectful of the traditions of the club and comfortable with its ambitions.

Rodgers was a young British manager given a shot at one of the country’s big clubs. A year later the same chance was afforded to David Moyes at Manchester United. The comparison is an interesting one. Both replaced club legends in Dalglish and Ferguson although there’s no doubt that the task facing Moyes was the more daunting.

Rodgers, inspired by Shankly and the sight of the European Cup, grew into the role, looked at ease, and as if he felt confident that he belonged at the level at which he’d arrived. Moyes however seemed to shrink before the sheer enormity of Manchester United. He looked uncomfortable and hesitant. In fact he looked a bit like Ed Miliband does now.

Miliband is intelligent, passionate (albeit in a slightly geeky sort of a way), and was politically savvy enough to win a leadership contest in which he was regarded by many as an outsider. One of the biggest challenges that he faces is that people really struggle to see him as Prime Minister. There’s something in the way that he carries himself that just doesn’t seem very prime ministerial. Similarly, there was something in the way that Moyes carried himself that just didn’t seem like the manager of Manchester United.

Rodgers does not appear to lack self belief which perhaps comes from serving part of his apprenticeship under Mourinho. The self-proclaimed ‘special one’ walks as though he believes not only that he could manage Manchester United or anyone else but that he should probably be Prime Minister as well.

Both Rodgers and Moyes made a mistake that is quite common with managers that move to bigger clubs, that of taking a player from their former club who’s not good enough to improve the 1st team at their new club. For Rodgers it was Joe Allen, for Moyes it was Marouane Fellaini. Neither has made much impact.

In fact, I must admit to being somewhat sceptical of Rodgers and his vision in the early days of his Liverpool reign. The signing of Allen made me wonder if he could really judge the quality of footballer that Liverpool would need to compete back at the top of the Premier League and while I greatly admired his passing principles there was a spell when his Liverpool side seemed to pass for the sake of making a pass rather than for any more adventurous purpose.

The first time that Rodgers took Liverpool to Old Trafford (in January 2013) was a case in point. Manchester United won the game 2-1 but were far more comfortable winners than the score line suggested. Allen had a nightmare, frequently giving away possession and he was not alone. Almost every time that Liverpool tried to play the ball out from the back – and that was pretty much every time they had the ball at the back – they put themselves under huge pressure.

It looked as though Rodgers was trying to recreate Barcelona but seemed not to have noticed that he lacked ball playing centre halves and Messi. Since then though, my admiration for his work has only grown. He has proved himself to be more tactically flexible than he first appeared, he has been lauded for his man management skills and under his direction youngsters such as Henderson and Sterling have been utterly transformed.

Last season he took Liverpool as close as they have come to winning the title since 1990. The fact that they came so close actually says more about shortcomings elsewhere than it does about the undoubted progress being made at Anfield but it was still a remarkable achievement.

Until very recently Rodgers also had to deal with the circus that is Luiz Suarez and mostly did a reasonable job of it. Perhaps he could have hired a lion tamer as well as a sports psychologist for dealing with the Uruguayan.

The Liverpool boss obviously likes a challenge, how else to explain the signing of Balotelli to replace Suarez. If Mario is the answer then it may be worth re-examining the question. To be fair, his debut at Spurs was impressive and if Rodgers can influence him in the way that he has been able to do with Sterling then it’s a gamble that could pay off spectacularly.

This season Liverpool have made a very inconsistent start. It’s not altogether surprising given the number of new arrivals over the summer after Suarez was sold. Consolidating a place in the top four will be considered a success given the improvements that have been made by other teams, most notably at Chelsea and belatedly at Manchester United.

It seems unlikely that the long title wait will end this year and the return to the Champions League is already proving to be a learning experience. A domestic cup is a real possibility however as is the prospect of Rodgers continuing to enhance his reputation as a bold and attacking coach. He clearly learned well under Mourinho but I’m glad that he appears to have been absent the day that Jose was delivering the lesson on parking the bus.

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Mibbes aye, mibbes naw

 

yes no

Photo by Tim Parker, http://www.flickr.com

On Thursday the people of Scotland will be asked one simple question: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ Well, I say the ‘people of Scotland’ – I consider myself part of that people; I was born there, lived there for 30 of the 33 years since my birth, and my two children were born there but I don’t get a vote as I moved overseas (to Malaysia) just over two years ago.

By the time Scotland lined up against the recently crowned world champions at the Westfalenstadion stadium in Dortmund on the evening of Sunday 7 September, the nation was in state of excitement, bewilderment, and agitation which had little to do with Gordon Strachan’s team selection. That morning, an opinion poll on the referendum had put the Yes campaign ahead for the first time: 51% – 49%.

A campaign that had lasted for almost two years, involved all manner of technical, emotional and not infrequently preposterous arguments was clearly coming down to mibbes aye, mibbes naw. For readers of this blog who are not Scottish, roughly translated that means maybe yes, maybe no. It makes me think we could have dispensed with the debates between Salmond and Darling and just asked a few questions of Kenny Dalglish instead.

Even without a vote I proved my commitment to the Scottish cause by getting up at 2.40am for the Scotland – Germany game. As I assessed the Scottish line-up and tried to figure out how the midfield would operate, a very observant and politically astute friend of mine pointed out on Facebook that only one of Scotland’s starting 11 lives and plays in Scotland and thus is eligible to vote in the referendum. If things really are as close as they appear then Scotland’s future could be decided by Charlie Mulgrew.

In the opening 10 minutes it didn’t appear as though things would be very close between Scotland and Germany. I found myself wondering how many it would be – touches of the ball for the Scots that is. For much of the first half Neuer looked more comfortable on the ball than most of our players. He seemed to be playing the game closer to the half way line than his goal line.

After 18 minutes Germany took the lead that their dominance merited as Muller rose to nod a cross back across Marshall and into the far corner. The Scotland goalkeeper, who otherwise had a very good game, seemed at fault to me either in terms of his initial positioning or in being slightly flat-footed.

Going behind actually seemed to settle Scotland down and they produced a more assured display for the rest of the half, gradually growing in confidence. By half time they had done just enough to ensure that I wasn’t regretting my early rise.

I’m not entirely sure what was added to the Scotland team’s half time oranges but they came out in the second half a transformed side. Conviction had replaced hesitancy, confidence had elbowed doubt aside, and the various parts of the side formed a much more cohesive collective whole.

After a very positive opening ten minutes of the second half, Strachan made a bold double substitution. Darren Fletcher and Barry Bannan came off to be replaced by James McArthur and Steven Fletcher (two more English-based Scots without a vote on Thursday).

Darren Fletcher had played reasonably well and it’s wonderful to see him back after his long battle with illness. His status in the Scotland team is overly exalted however in my opinion and seems mostly to be based on the fact that he plays for Manchester United. He’s worth his place, and I don’t even much dispute his claim to the captaincy, but he broke through at a time when the national side was in a bad, bad way and his performances have tended to be quite good rather than really great.

McArthur and Fletcher added even more purpose and urgency to a Scottish performance that was improving by the minute. German manager Lowe may have been getting hot under the collar or perhaps was just not entirely happy with the look of his chosen shirt and jumper combination but whatever the issue was, his assistant was called upon to adjust the collar at the back.

With sartorial order restored Lowe could return his attention to the game just in time to witness a superb Scottish equaliser. The move started deep in our own half before the ball was played up to Steven Fletcher on the half way line. He controlled the ball instantly and swivelled as he did so to release a perfectly weighted pass in behind the German right back. Anya raced onto the through ball, steadied himself, and with clinical composure, slipped the ball past Neuer.

1-1 and the match was suddenly as close as the referendum. It really looked as though either side could win it. Scotland’s goal came after 65 minutes and hope was swelling to expectation among the tartan army. Less than five minutes later though it was Muller time again and the Germans were back in the lead.

It was, in truth, a terrible goal to concede. A less than dangerous ball into the box from a corner gave the Scottish defence two straightforward opportunities to clear. Both were met with what we call a ‘sclaff.’ Muller gratefully blasted the ball into the roof of the net from about four yards out.

It would have been understandable if that blow had floored Scotland. But Strachan has fashioned a side in his own image – tough, tenacious, full of energy and prepared to take risks to try and create chances. The Scots refused to take a step back and continued to put Germany under pressure.

Right to the very end it looked as though a point could still be salvaged and it wouldn’t have been undeserved. What was undeserved was the red card shown to Mulgrew in injury time for kicking the ball away as he fired off a shot just after the referee had blown his whistle for a foul.

It was one of several strange decisions by the ref including his final one which was to blow for full time just as Scotland had won a corner. A 2-1 defeat to the world champions was far from a disgrace though and the performance was hugely encouraging.

It was written up in the media as a typically brave performance and it was, but it was brave in the way that Strachan defines the term. I remember once reading a column he wrote in which he said bravery in football  is not about flying into tackles and running yourself into the ground; it’s about showing for the ball, being prepared to receive it in tight situations and being prepared to risk making a mistake in order to create something. The manager can be proud that his side was brave in all of those latter senses.

By the time we welcome Georgia to Ibrox on the 11th of October the referendum will be done and dusted. Charlie Mulgrew will have had his opportunity to vote. It’s a hugely important question but I can’t help thinking that a more important question is: will we make it to France in 2016?

Louis can Gaal

 

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Louis van Gaal. Photo by Ajith Kumar, http://www.flickr.com

On the 19th of May Louis van Gaal was announced as the successor to David Moyes as manager of the 20 time Premiership Champions. A sigh of relief and a wave of optimism was the general feeling around Old Trafford and the global fan base. So, is LVG the man that can?

The ill-fated Moyes era came and went and nothing more need be said about that. So what lies in store for the Man United faithful?

Well they can rest assured that they have a manager that has total faith in his ability, will tell it how it is, and will be ruthless to anyone who is not on board with his methods. The days of last season’s dressing room unrest will be no more; the unrest is still currently sat in the stands.

Like last season United’s transfer activity seemed to start late. With LVG at the World Cup, Ed Woodward and the board may have been hoping for an early Dutch exit so he could get to work, however this was not the case. Hererra arrived before the World Cup had finished although reports suggest this just required LVG’s ok and Shaw followed a day later. These signings provided early optimism that they would not be left holding the Fellaini this time when the transfer music stopped. A centre half and a central midfielder seemed the most pressing requirements.

The opening fixture, a home defeat to Swansea, a team many fancied to struggle this year highlighted this need even more. A more than encouraging pre-season campaign had maybe led the fans to believe that Shaw and Hererra would prove sufficient additions with the emergence of young talents such as Reece Jones and Blackett doing well on the US tour. Morale boosting wins over Roma, Inter and the Galacticos of Real Madrid had United fans chomping at the bit for the new season. 3 games in and it feels like last season all over again. The usual suspects reared their ugly head from 2013/14, good possession with no penetration, a lack of cutting edge and a defence that’s shakier than Shakin’ Stevens.

So why should this season be any different to last? Because LVG is a man with a plan. A man that has enough self-confidence to drop his trousers to make a point to a player, hardly a tactic you can envisage the great Sir Alex doing, but maybe just as effective a way to get a point across as the Hairdryer. He gives an air of confidence and authority at his press conferences, no sign of the squirming demeanour of Moyes when facing such questions a little over a year ago. He is either incredibly confident or very naïve but he walks the walk (clipboard in hand) and he looks the part.

When Holland turned up at the World Cup, they did so without great expectation. Yes they have world class players in Robben and RVP, but with a number of youngsters and a somewhat unknown defence, coupled with a group including reigning world champions Spain and the much fancied Chileans, getting out the group would have been considered a success.

So fast forward a month, and Holland finish a very worthy 3rd place in the tournament playing a disciplined yet attacking brand of football in an unconventional 3-5-2 formation. Van Gaal raised eye brows along the way by substituting Cillessen for Tim Krul with a minute to go in order to be in goal for penalties. This shows the confidence that he has in his own ability.

Arriving at Old Trafford mid-July, LVG quickly moved to implement his favoured 3-5-2 formation at United on the US tour. On arrival he felt he didn’t have the right players for it although playing some players out of position seemed to pay off pre-season. For example Young played well in a wing back role but for this to work , and by that I mean qualify for the Champions league, LVG still appeared a few players short.

The transfer window has now slammed shut and it remains uncertain whether the deals completed (Falcao & Blind) are enough to resurrect Manchester United’s season. For a start, who does he drop? Will he continue with his 3-5-2 system? Van Gaal has already stated he was restricted with personnel, so do the latest signings change this? 4-3-3 is widely suggested as a suitable alternative but this may well lead to playing players out of position (something Moyes was constantly slated for), or leaving some big names out altogether.

Seen as a saviour last season, a big question mark now hangs over Juan Mata, although a player of his ability surely has to be included. Will Blind take on a central midfield role or will he play at the back? I guess Van Gaal has a pretty good problem in the fact that when everyone is fit, he now has several options in terms of personnel and formation. Below are options available without even mentioning the likes of Carrick, Fletcher, Januzaj, Evans, Young etc. All of a sudden Manchester United have a very healthy squad:

(4-3-3) De Gea – Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw – Hererra, Blind, Di Maria – Rooney, Falcao, RVP

(3-5-2) De Gea – Jones, Blind, Rojo – Valencia, Hererra, Mata, Di Maria, Shaw – Falcao Rooney

Defence is still the main issue although it is expected that Hererra or Blind can provide bite in the midfield which should take some pressure off those behind them. Van Gaal appears to still have faith in his defenders, including young Blackett. I have never heard a manager use a word as repetitively as Van Gaal does with “philosophy.” The only thing close to this I can recall was Rafa Benitez’s love of “Focus”, or going back to my Sunday League days, the coach’s most used phrase was “Neil, offside!” but that’s another story.

The club, the players, the fans have all been asked to have patience until the new “philosophy” is embedded which as we are constantly told will take time. With his faith in his own ability and proven track record, I am sure he will stick with his slow build up play from the back, working to make United’s defenders comfortable on the ball, bringing the play into midfield and trying to create space for their “strike players” in Di Maria, Mata, Rooney, RVP and Falcao. If the players can grasp the philosophy it is hard to see how even the most stringent defence will cope with that forward line.

So what will be a successful 1st season for LVG? Champions? Top 4 finish? Or will the fans and board settle for a steady improvement on last season, providing they can see a change in philosophy being put into practice? With the signing of Falcao, I think that United have sealed their own fate and now have to finish in the top 4. A signing of that magnitude and with a squad that possesses the attacking talent they have, it would seem unimaginable that they finish outside the top 4. Things need to click quickly, 3 months according to LVG.

3 months of course is a long time in football but if LVG can embed his philosophy before the turn of the year, and United are not too far adrift from the top of the league then there will be reason to hope that the manager will keep his trousers up when the season reaches squeaky bum time.