Liverpool’s harrowing form at the start of the season lead pundits and fans alike to the same hypothesis – that the free-scoring, runner-up Reds of the 2013/14 campaign were a bit of a fluke, inspired by the combination of Luis Suarez’ world-class services and a squad playing without fear, growing in confidence as the season went on.
At the heart of that theory was Brendan Rodgers and the insignificance of his role as manager. After all, essentially the same Liverpool side finished in seventh under his leadership the season prior, and it seemed that rather than quality or inspired actions from the dugout, the weight of history – Steven Gerrard’s last shot at a Premier League title coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster -was the biggest factor working in their favour.
Despite winning last season’s LMA Manager of the Year award, there was a common feeling that he’d simply been in the right place with the right players at the right time. The Ulsterman’s philosophy, tactics and transfers all came under scrutiny as the Anfield outfit plummeted to 12th place in late November, a dismal run that validated those pejorative opinions.
Liverpool’s miraculous turnaround since however, losing just once in the 16 games following their 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace on November 23rd and now just two points away from the Premier League’s top four, proves that last season was no miraculous occurrence.
And in stark contrast to the tirade of criticism thrown Rodgers’ way, there’s no debate over his influence on a run of twelve wins from 16 that’s included the introduction of a quirky 3-4-3 formation, the dissolution of Steven Gerrard’s role as talismanic captain and the integration of £110million worth of predominantly foreign talent purchased during the summer.
No easy task by any means, especially when combined with the burdening expectations set by last season and the enormous pressures of managing one of England’s most historically successful clubs. So does Rodgers deserve the lions’ share of credit for the Reds’ upturn in results and form? Are we looking at a future managerial great in the making?
What’s impressed me most about Brendan Rodgers is his philosophical flexibility, despite being often considered a staunch representative of more aesthetic football. When he first arrived at Anfield he was a possession-based manager, but last season he allowed Liverpool’s style to naturally develop towards counter-attacking and this year he’s accepted the need for a more balanced, sturdy approach.
One can question whether it took too long for the Liverpool gaffer to come to a logical conclusion regarding style of play. After all, if the Reds do miss out on Champions League qualification this year, it will be due to those six defeats in their first twelve Premier League outings, when Rodgers appeared adamant that the flowing football of last season would inevitably re-emerge. Had he reverted back to basics in October rather than November, perhaps Liverpool would be in a position to defend their runner-up status, rather than simply hoping Manchester United or Arsenal slip up between now and May.
Yet, compared to Arsene Wenger, a manager determined to live or die by his philosophical sword, Rodgers’ ability to compromise his own beliefs is incredibly refreshing. And the end result of Liverpool’s more dogged displays, against the likes of Leicester City, Burnley, Sunderland and West Ham, is eventually enough confidence and momentum to return back to that highly energetic, highly technical, whimsical brand of play that defined them last season.
At the same time, few Premier League managers would have even considered switching to an untested 3-4-3 formation for a visit to Old Trafford, let alone sticking with it after losing 3-0 to Liverpool’s biggest rivals. Could you imagine the ensuing furore if the exotic system hadn’t improved the Reds’ results so quickly? Rodgers probably wouldn’t be in the job right now.
Of course, there are still areas of Rodgers’ reign that throw up question marks. Has he spent wisely enough over the last four transfer windows? Has he parted with Steven Gerrard too quickly? Was signing Mario Balotelli anything more than a personal vanity project? Do Liverpool need a manager with more experience in Europe?
Yet, this is now the second Liverpool side, despite the loss of it’s two world-class players – Gerrard and Suarez – and a wholesale change in formation, that he’s got playing amongst the most efficient and exciting football in the Premier League. One can only ponder the damage Rodgers would cause with a squad as holistic as Manchester City’s, or a budget as monolithic as Manchester United’s.
There’s still a lengthy road ahead and as we all know too well, it can take just a single slip-up to end a management career at the top end of the Premier League. Currently however, Rodgers is only heading upwards and bringing Liverpool with him; something their recent form and results pay specific homage to.