Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers deserves our praise
A year of achievement has changed the Northern Irishman's image from grandiose, David Brent figure of mockery to a man of principle and substance.
Rewind a year and Brendan Rodgers endured some belittling for his “new age” management, his aphorisms seeing him depicted as the David Brent of the dugout. Not now. People now see the substance to Rodgers’ style, his subtle and successful man management of Luis Suárez, his expert coaching of Jordan Henderson, his belief in youth seen in Jon Flanagan’s prominence and the exhilarating nature of Liverpool’s football. It is time to reappraise Rodgers and praise him.
Sayings that most annoyed listeners elicit a different reaction now that Rodgers’ managerial principles manifest themselves fully in players pushing for significant honours. When Rodgers remarked that he “started coaching for one reason and that was to make a difference for people, not just as footballers but as human beings’’ there were a few gasps.
It sounded rather grandiose from a coach whose main achievement had been only a promotion with Swansea City. Now it makes sense, capturing Rodgers’ ability to mould characters as well as players. He has turned Suárez from a toxic asset into a valued commodity respected even by rival fans.
Liverpool’s No 7 may transgress again but all around have noted the Uruguayan’s maturing, his desire to channel that edgy hunger properly. Through explanation and encouragement, Rodgers assists that change.
Quietly, Rodgers also challenges Suárez to become part of English footballing history for the right reasons, for breaking goalscoring records, not codes of conduct.
When Rodgers observed that “we play with 11 men while other teams play with 10 men and a goalkeeper” it sounded arrogant. Now those words encapsulate his footballing philosophy, a way of playing in keeping with Liverpool’s pass-and-move tradition, and bringing the best out of Suárez.
It is not all Suárez by the way. During Suárez’s suspension, Daniel Sturridge was voted Premier League Player of the Month for August while Rodgers scooped the managerial award. Liverpool currently deliver without the injured Sturridge and Steven Gerrard. Rodgers simply tweaks his team or brings in well-prepared understudies to maintain the momentum. They know what he wants. “Brendan has a brand; he’ll pass,’’ says Burnley’s Sean Dyche, who worked with Rodgers at Watford and admires his strength of footballing beliefs.
A careful plan is being put into operation at Anfield. Rodgers buys those such as Philippe Coutinho who suit his obsession with possession, inflicting on opponents “death by football”. There were doubts whether the slight Brazilian would cope with the physicality of the Premier League. Coutinho certainly looks at home now. Rodgers chose well. Joe Allen begins to justify the £15 million outlay.
Liverpool’s manager has made mistakes, and concerns remain over Fabio Borini and Iago Aspas while Nuri Sahin’s loan did not work out. Rodgers is fortunate to have good owners in John W Henry and Tom Werner.
As well as the flowing football, Rodgers’ players perform with a strong work ethic, the type instilled in him by his late father, who had him painting and decorating at a young age. “My father would work from dawn to dusk to ensure his young family had everything and I think you can see his philosophies in my team,’’ Rodgers said during his time at Swansea.
He sees the club as a family with everyone standing together. The team spirit engendered by Rodgers was demonstrated when Suárez squared the ball for Raheem Sterling to score against Cardiff City and the youngster immediately running to thank him.
Still those early maxims of Rodgers need revisiting. Bemusement followed his pronouncement that “the problem with being a manager is it’s like trying to build an aircraft while it’s flying’’. Now that Rodgers’ ideas are becoming reality on the pitch such statements will soon be staples in coach-education departments.
Rodgers is different. He is no Big Sam. He quotes Latin proverbs to his players. Addressing the media, Rodger is one of the most tactile managers I have met. He has always been quotable but now people appreciate the content properly. Discussing how he likes to train players, Rodgers once said: “You train dogs. I like to educate players.” Cue some hilarity. But he does educate players. Ask Henderson.
When Rodgers arrived at Melwood last year, the new manager sat down with the struggling midfielder. “We had conversations on what I needed to do to improve my game,’’ recalls Henderson. They also talked about whether the player should try a new start at Fulham. “I don’t want to go,’’ Henderson told Rodgers. “I want to fight for my place.’’ Impressed, Rodgers replied that if Henderson listened, learnt and improved, he would give him a chance. “He helped me to do better, always talking to me,’’ adds Henderson, now an integral part of the team.
Rodgers has put behind him that unfortunate documentary Being: Liverpool. He came over slightly oddly in the programme, leading to the Brent comparison. It is hard now to imagine Rodgers writing names in three envelopes of the players he felt “will let us down this year”.
Management is not a game show. Still only 40, Rodgers has acquired some gravitas. Now that his team are the talk of the town, Rodgers sounds increasingly like a spokesman for a managerial generation, addressing major issues. His words carry increasing weight. He berates the negative coaching that can inhibit English talent, questioning the point of St George’s Park if the philosophy isn’t right, demanding the removal of “fear” in nurturing youngsters.
Rodgers spoke powerfully in support of Malky Mackay, a former colleague at Watford. He spoke for all in football when calling to account Cardiff’s owner, Vincent Tan, as “a business guy who knows absolutely nothing about football”. Football Association and Premier League leaders would earn respect if they echoed Rodgers’ principled stance. He was embraced by an emotional, grateful Mackay after Saturday’s game at Anfield. Mackay will not forget that backing.
Rodgers is rising up to become a heavyweight of the managerial game. Harry Redknapp so respects him that he was going to ask Rodgers to help with the coaching at Euro 2012 if Redknapp got the England job. Jose Mourinho lauds his protégé. Rodgers himself is generous with advice, helping Dyche out last month.
Watford fans may disagree, following his sudden departure from Vicarage Road, but Rodgers is a man of principle. When Swansea defeated his old Reading side in the Championship play-off at Wembley in 2011, Rodgers was quick to console Brian McDermott and Sir John Madejski. Rodgers’ handling of this year’s Hillsborough developments and tributes further showed his substance as a man. Liverpool are in very good hands.