Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers has talked at great length during his pre-season preparations about the need for his players to buy into both his footballing ethos and his coaching methods. The results, we are told, have been promising, but doesn’t it all point towards the side becoming somewhat one-dimensional?
It is often said that Rodgers greatest quality is his confidence in his own ability. The way that he prattles on you’d be forgiven for thinking that he loves the sound of his own voice. He has often talked about his ‘philosophy’, although part of me dies inside every single time I hear that word attached to football.
Nevertheless, the way he wants this Liverpool side to play is clear from this statement made while still at Swansea: “I like teams to control and dominate the ball, so the players are hungry for the ball. A lot of our work is around the transition and getting the ball back very quickly. Because I believe if you give a bad player time, he can play. If you give a good player time, he can kill you. So our emphasis is based around our positioning both with and without the ball. And for us, when we press well, we pass well.”
I’m by no means a huge fan of Harry Redknapp and his famed lack of tactics, but when managers start to delve too deeply into talk about philosophies and values, I get very uneasy – it’s a game at the end of the day, let’s not try and over-think it in an attempt to seem more intelligent than everyone else, it just comes across as being self-important. There is no ‘right’ way to win or play the game and aesthetics matter little unless they are backed up by results or silverware, just look at Arsenal under Arsene Wenger.
The talk about Andy Carroll leaving the club on loan has dominated the newspapers over the past week or so, mainly due to a throwaway line by Rodgers at a press conference. Due to the nature of his fee, it was immediately seized upon by the media as a sign that the big Geordie striker was set for the exit door, although the 39 year-old boss has since rubbished these rumours and the club even had to reject a loan offer from former club Newcastle. It’s a welcome step as Carroll really is the current squad’s only plan B – an expensive plan B on huge wages at that – but an alternative method of achieving results nonetheless.
The concern with possession-based football, though, is that not one club has ever been successful in Britain using that solely as a means of an attacking threat. Arsenal’s seven-year trophy-drought coincided with a deliberate attempt to change the club’s style of play to something similar to the much-vaunted tiki-taka, an they lost the blend of power and finesse that made them so feared in the first place.
Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City have all been hugely successful in that period since then with what can best be described as a fluid set of principles, which they adapt considering their circumstances, personnel and resources. You wouldn’t protest that those three sides haven’t been capable of playing beautiful passing football at times, but they were capable of mixing it up and playing a bit of the uglier stuff too should the occasion call for it – you need that balance.
If you get too entrenched in one style of play, you limit yourself hugely, there’s no alternative plan when things aren’t going well. The amount of ‘well it works for Barcelona and Spain’ responses that I’ll get for this will surely be loads, but that’s completely missing the point. You don’t judge a style of play by its best exponents, rather the average ones. The greatest international side in history and the best club side for a generation are hardly a fair sample of what your average team can do, are they? Also, I’m sure it helps a bit if you’ve got Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta too.
Instead, we should look to Roma’s underperformance last term in Serie A under former Barcelona player and later B-team coach, Luis Enrique, as an example of when that style of play is applied to mere mortals. They were sometimes brilliant, others not so and they limped to disappointing seventh-place finish, Enrique was sacked and the experiment was over. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but trying to attempt to copy a style of play without the necessary players to carry it off is just foolish. There’s nothing noble in that.
There were times last season when Swansea were brilliant, most notably against Arsenal, Manchester City and Fulham, but they let in four against Blackburn, three against QPR and a further four against Wolves. The success of the system is hugely dependent on key players down the spine of your side playing well and being in good form, otherwise you can seriously flounder, be ineffective and lack penetration with the ball and look depserate without it.
The training methods behind it and style of play can also be both mentally and physically draining – just look at Barcelona last year, several key players such as Iniesta, Pique and Xavi were far from their best. There’s also the fact that Swansea last term only scored 44 goals in the league, eight fewer than fellow promoted side Norwich and less than relegated duo Blackburn and Bolton.
There is nothing wrong with having a set of ideals about the way in which you want your side to play; having the first idea about what you want to do with a club is more than some Premier League managers do before they take a gig (cough Steve Bruce cough) but it’s when it becomes ingrained to such an extent that you’re unable to adapt that you have to worry.
Rodgers has rather understandably stated that a player worth £35m should be able to adapt to any system of play, and it’s promising that he’s willing to give Carroll a chance, as opposed to ditching him because he believes it compromises his footballing principles. A manager’s job is to make tough choices and work with what you’ve got sometimes, not cut and running at the first sign of trouble. He adds an extra dimension to the side’s play, and without it, I fear what Liverpool may become.