New manager makes a good impression as he lays out his template to take Liverpool to the top of the Premier League
Four words on a whiteboard in the manager’s office at Swansea City encapsulated the club’s revival under Brendan Rodgers. Per Ardua Ad Astra: “Through adversity to the stars.” The board may be wiped clean this summer but the motto will resonate. It has been the story of Rodgers’s rise from Reading youth-team coach to Liverpool manager in under a decade and will be the instruction his new players cannot ignore if, as John W Henry wrote in his welcoming address, they wish to follow a course that “will lead to Premier League championships”.
In fairness to Liverpool’s principal owner, who has clearly learned from last season’s admission that failing to qualify for the Champions League would be “a major disappointment”, there was a heavy and welcome dose of realism to Rodgers’s unveiling at Anfield on Friday morning. Henry’s full quote read: “We do not expect miracles overnight, nor should anyone else. But we firmly believe that the direction the club is heading in will lead to Premier League championships. We will embrace the unconventional, build the right way and together set a bold, exciting course for this historic club.”
On day one, and more than two months before his first competitive game as the Liverpool manager, the 39-year-old from Carnlough appeared a smart, inspiring choice for Henry’s template. Open, honest, captivating even, Rodgers resembled a man who believed Anfield represented his natural calling, not one struck by his historic surroundings after one season as a Premier League manager. That approach evidently impressed Fenway Sports Group enough to compromise on the dynamics and personalities, if not the structure, of the new management system they want for Liverpool. Rodgers cut through the business speak of Ian Ayre, Liverpool’s managing director, to reveal that he had scuppered the idea of a director of football, sporting director, call it what you will.
We have been here before, of course. Two years ago Roy Hodgson made a positive first impression after the internecine politics of Rafael Benítez’s final months in charge. But Rodgers promises to be different, and not merely because of their respective ages and outlooks. One comment showed why.
“This is a club that is historic for the identity, style and DNA of its football,” he said. “They are an educated group of supporters at this club and, OK, there might be watered down versions of the style of play, but you can’t come to Liverpool Football Club and play a direct game of football, lumping-it style. It is going to take a bit of time. That’s the reality of it. It is going to take a lot of hard work to play that way. It took a lot of hard work to get that at Swansea, to get the tactical structure of the team and the possession and the position. It took a lot of hard work on the training field. That is why I am here.”
Rodgers spoke repeatedly of feeling “blessed” to be Liverpool manager. He called Steven Gerrard on Thursday night, left a message for Jamie Carragher on holiday in Dubai and revealed he had received texts of encouragement to take the job from his old Chelsea mentor, José Mourinho. Now he is his own man at a top club and from Gerrard to the emerging Raheem Sterling, through to youngsters in the academy, all must embrace Rodgers’s philosophy as they did at Swansea, or it will be goodbye.
“I think every player will tell you they would love to play the way we did at Swansea,” he said. “The question is, does every player want to work that hard to play that way? It is hard work. For me, a lot of our game is based on pressing. Our game at Swansea was talked about a lot and lauded in relation to the football. What people didn’t recognise is that to have the ball for 65%-70% of the game you have to get it back very, very quickly. So our transition in the game and positioning on the field to get the ball back became very good and that allowed us to beat Manchester City, to beat Arsenal, should have beaten Chelsea and to beat Liverpool. Big players want to play football. It’s the other side of the game that will be the important factor.”
He added: “My idea is to win the ball higher up the field so you are pressing higher and you are in better positions. You win the ball higher up the pitch so you are closer to goal, and when you do that you need people with good skills. If you win it and you can’t attack, you recycle the ball and you then go and play. I don’t think it’s a case of the players here working any harder because this is a demand anyway, it’s an obligation. For me it’s not a choice. Do you come in every day and do you work hard or not? No, that’s the obligation. It’s the tactic that the manager gives to that which determines how hard you work, how hard you press and what your identity is as a team.”
Swansea were applauded off the pitch after a goalless draw at Anfield last season but it is the memory of Chelsea’s 2005 Champions League semi-final defeat, when as youth-team manager he watched Liverpool advance on Istanbul through a wall of noise, that enthuses Rodgers about the mammoth task ahead.
“The Chelsea players said they had never experienced support like that night,” the Liverpool manager reflected. “That was ultimately what won the game and that is what I want to do here. I want to use the incredible support to make coming to Anfield the longest 90 minutes of an opponent’s life. That’s the idea. I want to see this great attacking football with creativity and imagination, with relentless pressing of the ball. I know what it’s like because I had a team like that at Swansea. When people came to Swansea it was probably the longest 90 minutes of their life. So after 10 minutes when they hadn’t had a touch of the ball they are looking at the clock and seeing only 10 minutes had gone. It’s a long afternoon.”