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.