Comment: Brendan Rodgers has no more excuses now - succeed or face Liverpool axe
The surest way to make an assistant manager appear the most important figure at your club is to sack him.
A number two never seems more vital than on the day he leaves, a fact Liverpool have discovered since it was announced earlier this summer Colin Pascoe was exiting Anfield.
Pascoe is a genuine, decent guy, who for five seasons was a loyal lieutenant of Brendan Rodgers. He arrived with the Liverpool manager from Swansea City where he evidently helped the Northern Irishman assimilate into the Welsh club (and the city) with some success.
Whenever a manager is appointed, they tend to bring with them someone they trust implicitly – the eyes and ears around an unfamiliar training ground – so Pascoe followed Rodgers to Anfield. His role was always one of deference to his boss, a low key assistant who was uncomfortable on those occasions he was thrust into the public eye, which tended to be when press conference duties were required in the early stages of the League Cup.
That is not to demean Pascoe’s contribution, but on the day both he and first team coach Mike Marsh left Liverpool their status was elevated to a level they were never afforded while still in the job. That can only be attributed to the timing of their departure, coming as it did after a season review which determined the best way to get the best out of the manager and players was to improve the standard of the support staff.
“Thrown under a bus,” has been the recurring phrase to assess the dismissals, Pascoe and Marsh cast in the role of convenient scapegoats for a dreadful campaign.
It does not fit the conspiratorial argument that a change in the coaching staff had been under consideration long before the season review. It’s a cute notion that during the course of May’s two hour meeting with Fenway Sports Group president Mike Gordon and chairman Tom Werner, Rodgers unveiled a masterplan to ditch his pal Pascoe and not renew Marsh’s contract.
The reality is somewhat less opportunistic. Indeed, the first tentative discussion regarding the addition of a more experienced coach was 12 months ago – after Liverpool finished second - when former Manchester United number two Rene Meulensteen was a genuine contender. Rodgers was not keen then. He did not feel it necessary on the back of such an excellent campaign. Few argued with his rationale at the time, and Rodgers was clearly empowered on the back of his new contract. Meulensteen would later wreck his chances of a fresh approach by publicly criticising Rodgers’s lack of an experienced number two.
As Liverpool’s troubles intensified last season the issue was revived, with increasing demands for more coaching expertise to be added. Calls for a ‘defensive coach’ proved especially irksome to the manager but after such a terrible run, something had to change.
Rodgers and chief executive Ian Ayre decided last January personnel issues would be addressed, even though those meetings coincided with an upturn in form. Rodgers was eager to hear fresh voices and ideas as he tried to come up with new strategies and formations to get the best from his squad. He was starting to feel the burden of having all the responsibility. The backroom question has now been dealt with as Sean O’Driscoll and the Liverpool Academy’s highly thought of Under 16 coach Pepijn Lijnders create a new dynamic.
The arrival of O’Driscoll and Lijnders does not signal a change in philosophy at Melwood, but there will certainly be a shift in methodology.
O’Driscoll’s addition is significant because – like Rodgers – he is first and foremost a coach who has dedicated his career to ending the culture of ‘kick-and-rush’ overly physical football in the English game. That has been an especially tough gig in the lower leagues. Rodgers has identified and headhunted O’Driscoll from the Football Association. You don’t recruit someone such as O’Driscoll to ‘put out the cones’ or answer questions about which teenagers will play in the third round of the Capital One Cup. He has been brought to Liverpool to coach and will take sessions of his own.
Equally, Lijnders - the 'first team development coach' - will be trusted with individual coaching sessions with players.
Rodgers has always been a hands-on, tracksuit manager so it is a departure for him to have such a highly qualified and experienced assistant. During his three years at Liverpool he has never felt any compulsion to delegate responsibility - it is his vision he is seeking to impose and the idea of him standing on the sidelines while Pascoe or Marsh took training sessions was not on the agenda.
Pascoe and Marsh may argue they felt inhibited – maybe Rodgers never fully trusted them enough – but after agreeing to the changes it was essential the Liverpool manager surrounded himself with those he believed could not only carry out his instructions but regularly offer ideas of their own, particularly during more testing periods.
Many Liverpool supporters wanted a higher profile, more authoritative number two – dare one say a number one in waiting. That would have been divisive and potentially destructive, carrying echoes of when Roy Evans was introduced to Gerard Houllier in the summer of 1998. You can’t impose a coach on a manager and expect anything other than volatility.
There are examples of managers who are quite happy to take a backseat during the week to allow others oversee coaching – under Kenny Dalglish it was very much the Steve Clarke show on a day-to-day basis at Melwood, while Alex Ferguson let his assistants get on with it in his latter years at Old Trafford - but that is not how it has worked at Anfield under Rodgers.
His approach was fine when Liverpool were competing with Manchester City for the title because there is a simple rule in football. When everything is going well, all those training ground habits are evidence of the small details we like to pounce upon to prove how good a manager is. When Liverpool were winning and playing scintillating football, how refreshing it was to have a coach whose meticulous training ground preparations kept him at Melwood from 8am until 6pm every day, who had all his staff under his charismatic spell.
Fast forward a year and the same characteristics become a whip with which to beat him. The ‘meticulous planner’ is transformed into a despot who only wants ‘yes men’ and refuses to delegate coaching responsibility. If the latest changes work, stay tuned for the episode in which Rodgers is praised for his move towards pragmatism.
What Rodgers now has at his disposal is a skilled former manager and up-and-coming future manager capable of overseeing training sessions on those days a fresh voice needs to be heard. An ex-player to remind the current crop of what it means to be a Liverpool footballer will eventually complete the new look backroom team.
The Liverpool manager, who relishes getting his boots dirty, will not be transformed into a master delegator, surveying the Melwood turf from his lofty office while O’Driscoll and Lijnders put his charges through their paces. But for the players who may seek a different point of view there will now be at least three, possibly four, office doors to knock on rather than one. Will it work? They’ll need to hit the ground running.
The real conclusion of Liverpool’s post-season review was it was not a change of manager that was required, but a change from the manager. Today’s confirmation of a new backroom team is further proof that when a club appoints a 39-year-old boss – as Liverpool did in 2012 – you can not expect the finished product. Once you’ve taken that decision you have to be prepared to let him evolve in the job rather than panic and rip up the long-term plan when there is whiff of trouble.
That said, Rodgers needs his new look bootroom to yield instant results. He has been granted the kind of second chance his predecessors (and his outgoing backroom team) were denied after a poor season. And he knows if there is not a vast improvement immediately, next time the buck will not stop at the door of the assistant manager.