Friday, 4 April 2014

How Brendan Rodgers Has Revolutionized Liverpool

Hired in June 2012, armed with a 'five-year plan' that would take Liverpool back to the top of the English game, Brendan Rodgers has exceeded all expectations and brought them within sight of that elusive Premier League title within just two seasons.

Rodgers, who's just 41, worked as part of Jose Mourinho's coaching team during his first spell at Chelsea. He worked as youth team manager and reserve team manager before leaving to make the step into senior management in 2008. He had spells at both Watford and Reading in  the Championship but it was at Swansea where he really began to make a name for himself in football management. In his first season at the club he led the Swans to promotion to the Premier League via the playoffs and followed this up by consolidating their top flight status the following season with an impressive 11th place finish. Rodgers had probably taken this team as far as he could given their resources and the summer of 2012 would prove to be the right time to move on.

Swansea's playoff triumph at Wembley in 2011

Under Rodgers, Swansea played some of the best passing football in the division. In the 2011/12 season they averaged more passes per game than anyone but United and Arsenal, who finished 2nd and 3rd respectively, and had a higher success rate than everyone besides City, who finished the season as champions. Such was the growth of Rodgers reputation that at the end of the season he was offered the biggest job available in the country at that time, the chance to follow in the shoes of some of the best managers of all time and take charge of Liverpool.

Liverpool at this time were in a period of decline and had been for about three years since Rafa Benitez led them to a credible 2nd place finish in 08/09. Rodgers primary task was to stop the decline. His first season represented an improvement on any since Benitez left the club. They won more games, more points and finished one place higher than they had under Dalglish. Notably, they almost doubled their goal tally from the previous season, highlighting the new emphasis Rodgers had placed on attacking football.

There were some other notable statistics that emphasized the change in philosophy Brendan Rodgers was bringing to the club. He was making his mark on this team, inspired by Barcelona's famous tiki-taka brand of football of which he is an avid fan.

  • Liverpool enjoyed a higher average share of possession in 12/13 compared to 11/12, an increase of roughly 3%, not enormous.
  • Liverpool's pass completion rate increased from 80% under Dalglish to 85% under Rodgers in 12/13. It's stayed at roughly that level this season.
  • The average amount of passes played per game has increased under Rodgers, starting out at 390 under the old regime it has since jumped significantly to 475 per game. 
  • In tandem with this, the amount of long passes attempted per game has reduced from 67 per game under Dalglish down to around 50 under Rodgers, showing his preference for a shorter passing style over Dalglish's more direct approach.

One of the first things Rodgers did upon his arrival at Anfield was make it perfectly clear that Liverpool's record signing, £35m striker Andy Carroll would not be part of his plans for the club. Carroll was allowed to leave on loan for the season in August and permanently twelve months later. This was seen by a bold move in some quarters and Rodgers received a lot of criticism as it left him going into the 2012/13 with Luis Suarez as the club's only recognised striker. In hindsight, it was a smart move. Carroll is about as direct a player as they come and Rodgers style of play is anything but direct.

Henderson is one player Rodgers has got the best out of

This has in turn allowed Luis Suarez to thrive as the club's lead striker, unleashed, the Uruguayan duly looks set to not only secure the golden boot this year but also to break the Premier League records for goals in a season. Under Dalglish he was often being wasted, used in tandem with Carroll as part of an old fashioned  big-man/little-man, Niall Quinn/Kevin Phillips type duo, the quicker nimbler forward feeding off flick-ons from the taller man. Under Rodgers he's become an unplayable tenacious, ruthless, complete striker more like Didier Drogba than Kevin Phillips.

This season, the good work Rodgers did in his first season and the foundations he laid down are reaping massive rewards. Liverpool have been undoubtedly the most exciting team to watch in the division and now head the table with just seven games remaining. Rodgers has made minor tweaks to his strategy game by game. They still play with an adventurous high-line against most opponents which have exposed defensive frailities but going forward, particularly on the fast counter attack which wasn't used so much last season, they look irresistible and should break the 100 goal mark before the season is out. This year they've scored eight times from counter attacks, double the amount of any other team in the league.

Having experimented with a 3-5-2 formation among others earlier in the season, Rodgers now seems settled on one of two main formations with only one minor difference between them. His preferred formation is  a 4-3-3 but at times, such as the recent wins over Southampton and Man United, he has reverted to a 4-4-2 with a diamond structure in midfield.

The preferred 4-3-3 formation shown below consists of:
  • Two centre backs. These are more than mere defensive pieces, they have an art in recycling possession for the more attacking players and playing the ball out of defence when they win it, not just hoofing it long. Skrtel and Sakho average more passes per game than any member of the squad aside from Gerrard and Henderson.
  • Two wing backs: Rodgers has dispensed with out-and-out wingers, appointing the task of providing attacking width to his full-backs. This has left them exposed at times particularly on the right where Glen Johnson loves to get forward and can be negligent defensively. The absence of wingers gives them more bodies inside, closer to the goal and more chance to dominate that area. 
  • Anchor-man: Steven Gerrard, who's been a revelation in this new position for him. He chases down the opposition, wins the ball back and plays it off to a team-mate as they look to set-up an attack. He'd be a contender for Player of the Year if it wasn't already certain to go to his Uruguayan mate further up the pitch.
  • Box-to-box midfielders: Henderson and Allen recently although Coutinho has found himself there. These players need to be energetic, with good engines and levels of stamina. Their main role is to win the ball back by means of tireless pressing and tackling. Once Liverpool have the ball back, these two look to get forward to provide extra attacking options, particularly to the flanks.
  • Forwards: The front-line is pretty flexible and versatile. Lately Rodger's has used Suarez and Sterling as inside forwards, not wingers, and Sturridge as the main outlet up front. The system is fairly fluid however and can be altered depending on the opposition's defence. The pace of all three make Liverpool exceptionally dangerous on the counter attack.

Liverpool's 4-3-3 used of late

Alternatively, as he did against Man United, Rodgers could use Sterling or Coutinho in a more central role. Coutinho would be the better natural fit for this position but Sterling has come on in leaps and bounds technically over the past year, he's no longer just a pacy winger (Rodgers must take some credit for this, whatever way he is being coached is obviously proving effective) and has looked pretty solid when used in that role.

LIverpool's diamond formation

On the pitch, Rodgers has proved himself tactically. He's an excellent motivator, handles the media very well and get's the best out of players who weren't reaching their potential before working for him, Jordan Henderson being the prime example of a player who has improved drastically this season.

The way he handled the Luis Suarez affair last summer was admirable. Rodgers navigated a potentially disastrous situation of a superstar in open revolt and came out of it the other side with his reputation very much intact, perhaps even stronger. He refused to yield to Suarez demands to leave and instead of begging or pleading with him to stay he calmly told him 'You're staying. Oh and by the way, go apologize to your team-mates or you'll be training with the youth team'. Suarez had no option but to give in, relationships were repaired and the rest is (very recent) history.

The Suarez/Rodger relationship seems to be repaired

One area he still remains a little suspect in is the transfer market. Since his arrival, Rodgers has overseeen four transfer windows at Liverpool and spent roughly £100m, yet of the twelve players shown in the diagrams above, eight were already at the club before his arrival. Joe Allen followed him from Swansea, Sturridge and Coutinho arrived for a combined fee of £20m in January 2013, two deals that look like absolute bargains now and by far the best bit of business Liverpool have done under Rodgers. Simon Mignolet arrived in the summer to replace keeper Pepe Reina who left for Napoli on loan.

He's spent big on other players. Sakho cost £17m from PSG which looks a tad expensive for what they got. Other than that the likes of Iago Aspas, Luis Alberto and Tiago Illori have all arrived, not for huge fees individually but it all adds up, and not really contributed towards making the side better. Rodgers will need to spend his money more wisely this summer as they look to establish some real strength in depth.

Speaking of which, that really is the main issue for Liverpool going forward. Beefing up the squad. At the moment they've got a very good first XI but not a whole lot of muscle in reserve. Next year they return to the Champions League for the first time since 2009. This year, without the distraction of European football altogether, they have got away without having to rotate the squad too much and their depth has not been tested. This will change next year with a guaranteed six extra midweek games at least to navigate. There will be extra rotation remove the luxury being able to name virtually the same side every week and the continuity this provides.

All in all, Brendan Rodgers has brought about drastic changes to the style of play at Liverpool. The results have come a lot quicker than perhaps he expected and now club stands within touching distance of a first ever Premier League title.

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