For Liverpool’s manager, the beauty of the game depends on constant tweaking
In the late 19th century, Paris had a major problem with its sewage system. London, brimming with civil engineers and town planners—the product of the Industrial Revolution—teemed as Paris did but had designed and installed an incredibly effective sewage system. So Paris sought help, and a British civil engineer was sent over. A few weeks later, he presented his plans to a committee of French bureaucrats. “It’s a little bit rough and ready,” he said. “but it’ll work in practice.”
At which the senior French bureaucrat stood up, drew himself to his full height, and said, “I don’t care if it works in practice. Does it work in theory?”
The French have always loved intellectualism and the pursuit of the abstract, trusting theory beyond all else. The British are a pragmatic people, more concerned with whether something works. Isaiah Berlin even suggested that the reason Britain has never had a dictatorship is that the scorn for theory meant that no -ism could ever persuade British people to accept the absurdities, restrictions, and sacrifices that totalitarianism entails. That’s the positive side of the trait; the negative side is the anti-intellectualism, the sense that anybody who wants to discuss ideas is pretentious.
That’s particularly so of English football, a world in which former players are paid as much as £40,000 per game to mutter, “He’ll be disappointed with that,” as a center forward lumps a drive over an open goal from six yards. And that’s why Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, is so refreshing. He has a clear philosophy of play and isn’t afraid to talk about it. “All players want to attack—and our way of defending is to have the ball,” he told Philippe Auclair in a recent interview in The Blizzard. “Of course, you want the players to believe, and you get to this by working on it every day on the training ground, with the ball at their feet.”
Rodgers speaks so slowly you’re never quite sure whether he assumes his listeners are idiots or he’s simply being meticulous, measuring each syllable before allowing it to drop from his mouth. There is a charm about him, as numerous players who opted for Swansea, when bigger clubs were available, will attest. Yet there is also something unnerving about the way he seems to have absorbed every management guidebook on the market, relentlessly referring to journalists by name. On first meeting one of the main journalists on the Merseyside beat, a reporter noted for his left-wing beliefs and his work with trade unions, Rodgers addressed him as “Comrade.”
There are moments in the Being Liverpool documentary, filmed in the buildup to his first season at Liverpool, that are cringe-inducing, notably the episode in which Rodgers brandished three envelopes at surprised players and told them each contained the name of a player he thought would fail that season. “Don’t be in the envelope,” he said, shutting the envelopes in his desk. If such incidents suggest he’s a bluffer, other moments speak of a profound belief in his chosen style. The way he told Andy Carroll that he didn’t fit Rodgers’s philosophy may have been brutal, but it also forced the club to take a £25 million loss on a player who’d been a flagship signing. Few now would argue that was not the correct decision.
Brendan Rodgers was born in Carnlough in Northern Ireland in January 1973. He played Gaelic football and hurling but was interested in the more mainstream version of football, growing up a fan of Celtic. “I was just your typical Northern Irish kid, but I never played a game of football until I was 13. My village was so small, there was no team,” he said. “It was only when I went to school in the nearest town—St. Patrick’s, Ballymena, where Liam Neeson went—that a friend introduced me to his team.”
His grandfather had revered the great Brazil sides of the late ’50s and ’60s, a passion inherited by Rodgers’s father, Malachy, who had an unusually wide-ranging interest in football, soaking up information about the continental game as well as that across the Irish Sea in England. “I grew up loving the technical game,” Rodgers said. When he started to play, he found the style anything but technical. “I spent more time without the ball than with it,” he said. “I always wanted to change that.”
Whatever his frustrations, he was good enough to be signed by the local league side, Ballymena United, at 16. Two years later, he made the leap to England. “I was spotted quickly,” he said. “I was a left-sided midfielder and I tried out for a lot of clubs, but the first was Manchester United. Eventually, though, I settled on Reading. It had a big Irish community and I was impressed by the manager, Ian Branfoot. I never made the first team, although I traveled on the bus once.”
Knee problems checked his progress, and at 20, Rodgers decided he was never going to make it professionally. He moved to the Isle of Wight to play nonleague football while he considered his options. He decided that football was the thing he knew best and that to make a career in the game, he had to go into coaching.
An interest in passing football wasn’t the only thing Rodgers took from his father. “I used to help Dad paint and decorate to earn pocket money,” he said. “He installed in me the value of a hard day’s work. He believes that leads to success in whatever you do. He’s right. He’d work from dawn to dusk to ensure his young family had everything. I think you can see his philosophies in my team.”
Rodgers set about a course of self-improvement. “I was confident in my technique and I could communicate well,” he said. “I had to work before I could go full-time, though. I worked in the John Lewis warehouse near Reading while I studied. At 6 a.m. I was there, shifting stuff, doing paperwork. Then I’d coach in the evenings. It was a hard route and I had a young family, but I couldn’t have had a better apprenticeship.”
When he qualified, Rodgers gave up the warehouse job and went full-time at Reading, where he combined coaching the under-11 side with being a welfare officer. Intent on educating himself, he went to the Netherlands and Spain to learn how the game was played there and, more specifically, how young players were developed. Given the passion for the game in Britain, he wondered, why did Britain so rarely seem to produce the sort of technically gifted player common elsewhere? “The experience of traveling, getting familiar with other languages, other cultures, definitely helps,” he told The Blizzard. “It makes you a better person. You respect more, you understand more what a foreign player is going through, you experience new ideas. There’s no doubt that my spending time in Spain made me a better person. I worked very hard to learn Spanish. Everyday, I studied with a teacher who came from Madrid … but my Spanish is not perfect. I went to Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla—clubs which had that tradition of playing and youth formation. I wanted to see the connection between the first team and … the child. I wanted to see from close how the club worked on developing the under-9s, how they put that ethos of technical continuity into practice.
“I didn’t just turn up at the gate of those clubs, of course. I made contact through coaches who’d been there. At Valencia, for example, there was a former player called Juan Sol, who also played for Real Madrid, who was a good friend of mine, and with whom I stayed when I went there … There was also José Luis Albiol—the uncle of Raúl Albiol, the Real Madrid central defender. Alex Garcia, who was youth coach at Barcelona … I had loads of contacts. I wanted to see for myself how this model worked.”
He didn’t go to Real Madrid, though; he was more interested in canteras and the process of development than the Madrid method of buying success. He had always believed in the efficacy of the principles of Total Football. “I’ve been a follower of their model for many, many years,” Rodgers said. “I was so enthused by it. [Louis] Van Gaal … I just loved their way of playing. It goes back to my life as a young man. My ideology then was, ‘OK, I’m not going to have an influence on the game as a player, technically or tactically. Can I do it as a coach?’ My objective was to show that British players could play football. That was the challenge.”
Rodgers’s breakthrough came in September 2004 when his Reading youth side, playing the 4-3-3 that he has always favored, beat Chelsea’s youth team. José Mourinho, assembling his backroom staff at Stamford Bridge after his move from Porto, was impressed and offered Rodgers the job of youth development at Chelsea. “He’s a different man from the one portrayed in the press and the media,” Rodgers said. “He is a good man. He was a fantastic educator. What he gave me was responsibility and opportunity. I was very young then.”
So what exactly did he take from Mourinho? “José prepares hard and in great detail—but loads of coaches do,” he told The Blizzard. “I’d say that one of his biggest attributes is his ability to respect. He respects every player, whether they’re playing or not.”
After four years at Chelsea, in which he rose to become reserve team coach, Rodgers was appointed manager at Watford in November 2008, replacing Malky Mackay, who had had four games in caretaker control after the departure of Aidy Boothroyd. At the time they were fourth bottom of the table, just two points above the relegation zone, and played a direct style totally at odds with Rodgers’s approach. By the end of the season, though, they were 13th, had comfortably avoided relegation, and enjoyed a Cup run that ended only with defeat to Chelsea (of all clubs) in the fifth round.
Rodgers, his reputation enhanced by glowing words from Mourinho, was suddenly in demand. When Steve Coppell resigned as manager of Reading, Rodgers moved there. Watford fans, understandably, were angered, but Reading was the club of Rodgers’s heart. His time there, though, went atrociously. He won just two of his first 14 league matches and was sacked the week before Christmas with Reading fourth from bottom.
His work at Chelsea meant that Rodgers still had credit in the bank. He discussed joining Robert Mancini’s coaching staff at Manchester City but ended up replacing Paulo Sousa at Swansea City, a club that played in his style. Sousa had replaced Roberto Martínez when he had moved to Wigan and, in his one season in Wales, had taken the club to seventh in the Championship, their highest league placing in 27 years. Rodgers took them a stage further, into the playoffs and then to a 4-2 victory over—who else?—Reading in the final at Wembley.
What followed was even more extraordinary. Swansea played their precise passing football, racking up possession stats to compare with those of Barcelona or Bayern Munich. They defied expectations, not merely surviving but thriving. Suddenly, at 39, Rodgers found himself hailed as one of Europe’s brightest young managers.
Some wondered whether he was over-praised because the style his Swansea team played was in vogue and because he’d taken over a team whose excellent foundations had already been laid. The task he faced at Liverpool was of a different magnitude, not least because the man he replaced, Kenny Dalglish, remains probably the greatest legend of the club—as a player at least. In his second stint as manager, Dalglish had led Liverpool to the League Cup and to the FA Cup final. Although his final season had been deemed a disappointment, there was still plenty for Rodgers to live up to.
Rodgers was also taking over a side that had been built to live on crosses, with Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, and Charlie Adam supposedly providing the ammunition for Andy Carroll, a style of football at odds with the philosophy Rodgers had always espoused. Rodgers opted for the sale of Carroll, Adam, and Downing, all at losses, a dramatic departure from the previous regime. Henderson would have gone, too, had he not rejected a move to Fulham and chosen to stay and fight for his place in the side. It’s in his transformation, from anxious sideways passer into energetic England regular, that perhaps best symbolizes the strength of Rodgers as a coach. He takes young players and makes them better.
That first season proved difficult. Liverpool finished seventh, went out of both domestic cups early, and were beaten by Zenit St. Petersburg in the last 32 of the Europa League. Rodgers hadn’t done badly enough for anybody to suggest he be dismissed, but he hadn’t done particularly well either. Last season came as a major surprise.
In the end, Liverpool may have won nothing, and there was a sense that they were naïve, both in the 2-0 home defeat to Chelsea and in the 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace, when they squandered a 3-0 lead chasing goals to improve their goal differential. (The chasing was less the problem than the inability to stem the tide once Palace got one back.) Still, Rodgers ended the season with a huge amount of credit. He had Liverpool fans dreaming again, and he had the team playing an attacking style that entranced neutrals. Perhaps even more impressive, though, was the way Rodgers tweaked his principles. Last season, Liverpool did not play the possession-based game he had demanded at Swansea. Rather, they played direct, raid football, using the pace of Luis Suárez, Daniel Sturridge, and Raheem Sterling, which showed Rodgers’s capacity to adapt.
The real test comes this season—and not just because of the loss of Suárez. Teams know now that the way to combat Liverpool is to pack men behind the ball. They know that Liverpool favor a furious start and can fade in the second half. And Liverpool will have to cope with the rigors of the Champions League, not having had to deal with the burden of any European football last season. Rodgers will have to rotate his squad—in a sense, the cash injection from the Suárez sale was probably necessary to give Liverpool a chance of developing the sort of squad necessary to compete on two fronts (although Tottenham’s woes following the sale of Gareth Bale show how difficult expanding the playing staff can be). And Rodgers will probably have to temper the all-out attacking of last season for something that affords the defense more protection. This season, in fact, may see Liverpool play a style closer to the typical Rodgers template, looking to hold the ball more effectively. Certainly something needs to be done to prevent the defense from being left exposed. Superb as the Suárez-Sturridge partnership was, it did commit Liverpool to an attacking style with a front two (though Suárez was versatile enough to operate wide at times).
Suárez, in a sense, was a safety net. Whatever else was going on, there was always a chance he would do something brilliant to pull Liverpool through. Now others must take responsibility. This, really, is the test of Rodgers. There are still those who wonder whether he is a little glib, whether he benefited at Liverpool from inheriting the Uruguayan as he benefited at Swansea from inheriting the structure. In two years he has made Liverpool a team capable of stunning performances; the test now is whether he can make them a squad capable of regularly challenging for honors.
Rodgers is an unusual man in English football, a thinker and a theorist. He is also rare in being a British manager in the Champions League. He has earned the right to have that opportunity. The next step is to make the most of it—and to prove that there is such a thing as a British theoretician.