Not so jolly Rodgers reveals strong streak of pragmatism at resurgent Liverpool
Liverpool manager savvy enough to let striking duo do his talking
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers in contemplative mood as he watches his side during their match against Crystal Palace at Anfield on Saturday. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters
Most of those associated with Liverpool FC will have gone to bed last night pleased to be joint top of the league, but Brendan Rodgers will have endured a couple of nights of sleepless torment since their 3-1 win over Crystal Palace, judging by his remarks to the media before that match.
Rodgers told journalists that one of the darkest hours of his career came after his Watford side beat Swansea 2-0. “It got voted performance of the week and everybody was elated, but it was probably the worst I have felt after a game.”
The reason was that Watford, their victory notwithstanding, had fallen short of the Platonic ideal of football that Rodgers carries around in his head. “We played counter-attack football, which was okay, but I worry because I like my teams to control the game and the ball and be aggressive with it,” said Rodgers.
For a football man as uncompromising as the Liverpool manager, winning alone is not enough. “We have to keep wanting to progress otherwise you just become content with winning games. I am not the type of coach that is happy just to win games.”
Given that outlook, Rodgers must have suffered after Liverpool’s second-half performance against Palace. Three up at half-time after two brilliant individual goals from Sturridge and Suarez and a penalty converted by Steven Gerrard, Liverpool found themselves outplayed by markedly inferior opponents after the break and struggled to close out a game in which they should have added at least two more goals. It was the seventh Premier League match out of seven in which they have faded out of the game with half an hour still to play.
When Rodgers talks about not being happy merely to win games, he is presumably trying to set an example of obsessive devotion to improvement. It’s same kind of thing Gerard Houllier meant when he told Liverpool’s players “aim for the moon and you might land among the stars”, or what Mussolini was trying to do when he ordered that the light in his office was to be left on all night.
While Rodgers’ commitment to a higher plane of football is laudable, to talk about not being satisfied merely winning games, to claim that his worst moment as a manager came after a 2-0 win in which his team didn’t play the right kind of football, is to flirt with self-parody. Could he really have felt worse after beating Swansea 2-0 than he did when, for instance, he lost 3-0 to West Brom in his first competitive game as Liverpool manager?
Winning games is difficult enough without worrying too much about the manner of your victories. The most successful coaches – Ferguson, Mourinho, Trapattoni – have always been prepared to win by any means necessary, then put a positive spin on the way it was done.
Some years Manchester United won the title by outscoring their opponents. And some years they kept a record sequence of clean sheets. We haven’t heard Sir Alex Ferguson bemoaning the fact that his champions of 2009 scored nine fewer goals that year than second-placed Liverpool, or that few of their matches that season were classics. Instead he will talk about the courage and determination that saw them home in first place.
As long as Rodgers’ Liverpool keep winning, their supporters won’t care how it’s done. They are an astonishing 10 points up on where they were after seven games in his first campaign, but perhaps a more realistic way of measuring their progress would be to note that they are four points better off than they were from the corresponding fixtures last season.
That might not sound like much, but when you look more closely at the other team at the top of the table, Arsenal, you find that they are actually five points down on the corresponding fixtures from last season. If Liverpool look to have made steady improvement, Arsenal’s lofty league position may have more to do with a relatively soft fixture list.
It is to Liverpool’s credit that this strong start has been achieved in the absence of certain key players. Suarez missed the first five games through suspension, while Glen Johnson and Aly Cissokho suffered injuries that limited the defensive options.
Rodgers’ first response was an abortive experiment with four central defenders, but he has come up with the more creative solution of a 3-4-1-2 formation, which these days is rarely seen outside Serie A.
For all Rodgers’ high-concept talk of “nine and a halves in the little half-positions” and how he could envisage Luis Suarez playing “tucked in around the corner”, he has ultimately gone with a system that gets his two best players on the field in their best positions, which shows a promising streak of pragmatism. When you have a pair of strikers who play as well together as Suarez and Sturridge, the best thing the manager can do is get out of the way.
For several years Liverpool have been slipping inexorably from the English game’s elite, cast adrift by financial doping and their own desperate ineptitude in the matter of stadium building. They should not be competing for the Champions League places against better-resourced rivals, but thanks to Suarez and Sturridge, they are.
The outcomes in football are increasingly dictated by money, but talent can still take you a long way.