One of my favourite Liverpool Twitter accounts, Kopology – run by a Liverpool fan not afraid of calling out sexist, racist, homophobic Liverpool fans while providing decent analysis of Liverpool’s performances – recently made a case for why he believes Brendan Rodgers may be a socialist.
The implied hypothesis seems to be that a progressive world view translates into progressive football values. Specifically, Kopology’s argument draws on Rodgers’ philosophy of understanding and developing individuals in a rounded manner according to their abilities and needs, nurturing youth rather than appropriating existing talent, developing players capable of performing multiple roles rather than dividing labour into atomised categories, and Rodgers’ principled approach to the establishment of team ethics and values – most notably the establishment of a meritocracy within the club.
We also know that Carnlough, the village in Northern Ireland where Rodgers was born, has a strong Sinn Féin presence. Much of Liverpool’s fans’ pride in their current manager comes from a perception of his channelling of the father of Liverpool’s modern values – Bill Shankly, who was famously a socialist.
The Liverpool transformation under Rodgers has been nothing short of phenomenal. To take a team from 7th to title favourites in one season is unheard of, let alone while playing an exciting brand of attacking football with a team featuring the lowest average age in the division at various times during the season and with a net spend of around £15 million. Liverpool’s wage bill is just more than half of that of title rivals Manchester City, and if they win the league, they will have done it with the smallest revenue, wage bill and squad relative to rivals since the beginning of the Premier League.
Liverpool fans can’t quite believe their luck – just over three years ago the club was under management by the avuncular and owlish former Northern Transvaal under-13 coach Roy Hodgson, but now they have arguably the best young manager in world football and a man of the people at a club famously in decline in the aftermath of the Thatcherite handling of the Hillsborough disaster.
Much of Rodgers’ first season in charge of Liverpool featured laboured criticism of his supposedly dogmatic insistence on “death by football”. Regressive British football punditry loved to pillory Rodgers’ comments on how “79% of the time, the team with the most possession wins the game”. They also took associated issue with his decision to get rid of donkey Andy Carroll, a relic of the olden days of burly English centre forwards, noting frequently that “the problem with Brendan Rodgers’ system at Liverpool is their lack of a Plan B”.
For me, the fact that Rodgers drew such criticism trying to unlock the tactical potential of a Liverpool side steeped in backward football ideology spoke to the fact that, well, English football is locked in backward football ideology. One only really has to look to that fact that it was West Ham’s “Big Sam” Allardyce (of Allardici fame), who ended up signing Carroll from Liverpool.
So, what has Rodgers got right for Liverpool on the field this season? The most important thing has arguably been his tactical nous. At various times this season Rodgers has deviated from his favoured 4-3-3 as a result of analysis of opponents’ strengths and weaknesses or because of personnel issues. Apart from the 4-3-3 Liverpool have played this season, they have also made use of the 3-5-2, the 4-4-2 or the 4-1-2-1-2. Against Norwich recently, Rodgers used a 4-3-2-1 for the first time.
Mostly, these formations have been extensions of Rodgers’ desire to get full value out of the prolific Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge strike partnership – responsible for 53 premier league goals. The 4-1-2-1-2 (or 4-4-2 diamond) has been the latest experiment, to good effect, allowing Suárez and Sturridge to play in central positions up front while providing greater control in midfield through the use of four midfielders in central roles (usually the revitalised Steven Gerrard in a deep-lying controlling role, the little magician Philippe Coutinho on one side, the engine-room Jordan Henderson on the other side and pacey 19-year-old Raheem Sterling at the apex of the diamond making undetected runs from deep, as witnessed by the first goal against Manchester City last week).
Many managers would have been reluctant to try out such a formation, having used the 4-3-3 to ruthlessly destructive effect against preseason rivals: results at Tottenham away, Arsenal at home and Everton at home ended 5-0, 5-1 and 4-0 respectively, while Liverpool were unlucky not to come away with all three points using the system at Manchester City and Chelsea away (both 2-1 defeats). The fact that Rodgers has deviated from this highly successful approach and yet earned creditable victories against Manchester United away (3-0) and Manchester City at home (3-2) using the 4-1-2-1-2 is testament to his tactical confidence and bravery.Channelling such qualities, some may refer to him as the anti David Moyes, even.
What makes the football Liverpool play wonderful to watch is that regardless of how opponents play against them, the side always seems capable of responding to the challenges imposed on them by the opposition’s attack. Rodgers’ Liverpool have already scored 100 goals this season, of which Suárez has scored 30, with two games remaining. To put this into context, Liverpool scored 47 goals the season before Rodgers came to the club, Suárez getting 13 in that campaign.
The mechanics of their goal-scoring prowess relates to the fact that when teams sit back against them, they have the creativity, movement, persistence and patience to unlock defences – even when teams park the bus and when they are under the yoke of expectation (as they were against Sunderland at home recently). When teams attack Liverpool, they have the energy, intelligence, pace and incision to hit opponents where they hurt. Their performances against Tottenham away, Arsenal at home, Everton at home, United away and City at home reflect this.
Within certain systems, Rodgers has made minor tweaks to best exploit specific weak points in the opposition, such as when he played Suárez on the right against Arsenal at Anfield to expose the weakness of Nacho Monreal, or his use of Sturridge on the left against Everton at Anfield to exploit John Stones’ inexperienced positional play. Relentless pressing from central midfield has also been an important factor in victory against Liverpool’s preseason rivals. Rodgers’ tactical intelligence in both interpreting the strengths and weaknesses of his opposition and formulating strategy to mitigate and exploit these strengths and weaknesses reflect his progressive football philosophy.
Rodgers’ coaching has been another highlight of the current campaign. Testament to this is the improvement seen in the likes of nearly every Liverpool player, but the improvement of Jon Flanagan, a Scouse player given his debut by Kenny Dalglish in early 2011, deserves special mention. Flanagan had been seen as largely out of favour with Rodgers, particularly after a moment in the cringeworthy Being Liverpool documentary series when Rodgers tells Flanagan off for attempting to bomb down the wing, noting that he’s not exactly Cafu. This season, Flanagan has been back in the fold. Having impressed in training, Rodgers reintroduced him into the first team as a right-back away to Arsenal. Liverpool and Flanagan were outplayed by an incredible show of fluid attacking movement on that day, but Flanagan has since established himself as a crucial part of what is being achieved at Liverpool as a no-nonsense, tough-tackling left-back.
The highlight of the season for Flanagan thus far (and possibly for many Liverpool fans) has undoubtedly been his sweetly struck half volley against Tottenham – the look of sheer joy and disbelief on his face and the resultant celebration from the rest of the Liverpool team was a joy to behold for Liverpool fans and best reflects the mentality and team spirit Rodgers has managed to cultivate. The mentality Rodgers has cultivated within the squad has clearly been a product of his approach to selecting the team based on merit. If there is no sense of favouritism and a sense that ultimately attitude and performance in training and in matches will be the basis for team selection, clearly one lessens the possibilities for disharmony within the squad. Flanagan has not been the only recipient of this approach – Martin Škrtel was similarly out of favour at the beginning of the season but ultimately established his place as the club’s premier centre-half after an impressive performance against Manchester United early on in the season.
Perhaps central to an appreciation of Rodgers’ philosophy and approach to the game has been the way he handles himself. His behaviour helps breed a certain culture within the club. Forget José Mourinho’s histrionics directed at referees or Alex Ferguson’s obsession with control and mean-spirited will for domination. Rodgers’ emphasis has been on equipping his talented young team with the tools to fulfil their potential without seemingly relying on the negative energy, intense dislike for the opposition or the “hairdryer treatment” of getting right up in a player’s face and letting him have it.
This season Liverpool have topped the fair play league, calculated on the basis of a team’s red and yellow cards, positive play, respect towards opponents and behaviour towards officials. Rodgers’ approach in this area is in some part also reflected in the transformation of the volatile Suárez. Diffusing the parts of Suárez’s game most prone to controversy has coincided with his best goal return for the club. Much of the credit for this goes to Rodgers’ decision to hire renowned sports psychologist Dr Steve Peters as the club psychologist. Players formerly burdened by the weight of Anfield expectancy – like Henderson – seem to have greatly improved through mental coaching.
There are other factors behind Rodgers’ success, such as the signing of the prolific Sturridge, who might just be the coolest footballer alive, the Kanye West of the English Northwest. Although the owners haven’t yet backed Rodgers with significant funds in the transfer market, they have provided him with a platform to implement his ideas without interference.
Ultimately, we should look to the fact that Rodgers has exceeded expectations by exploiting the positives afforded to him as manager. This has been a result of a football ideology beyond its time in many respects – certainly within the English context at least. My prediction is that it won’t be long before his methods drive football forward in a way that resigns all remnants of Moyesian philosophy to the scrap heap. More than that, if he wins the league with Liverpool this season, he would have done it showing that it is possible to do so in a classy manner, having rebutted the approach of serial winners like Ferguson, who bitterly remarked at the beginning of this season that Liverpool were eight players short of a title challenge.