Friday 20 July 2018

Rodgers puts grit before glamour as Barca obsession goes out of fashion

Brendan Rodgers is becoming more pragmatic in his approach to Liverpool's play
Brendan Rodgers is becoming more pragmatic in his approach to Liverpool's play

Paul Hayward

John Henry and his wife Linda were dressed for an evening at the theatre.

Mario Balotelli, also in the stands at Anfield, was togged up for a night of bohemia. But Brendan Rodgers can wear only the boiler suit of a hard-pressed hireling who has been forced to forget style in the interests of winning.

Rodgers, a romantic when he arrived, has been buffeted about a lot at Liverpool, where the manager has to satisfy deep supporter cravings without the financial might of the big Manchester or London clubs. Sounding like a young Arsene Wenger, or even Pep Guardiola, Rodgers pitched up on Merseyside with a dream of football just as glittering as the chandelier that hung from Balotelli's ear for the Bournemouth game.

Consider, though, what Rodgers said about Christian Benteke after the 1-0 win against the Premier League's smallest club: "His hold-up play was outstanding. There was one moment the ball came into the box and because of his strength and power he got a touch, it dropped, and Coutinho got away a shot.

"I've not had another who could do that up front in the three years that I've been here."

All fair enough. Benteke is not another Andy Carroll. While the temptation exists to pump balls up to him, Benteke's skills on the ground are sufficiently refined for him to qualify as an authentic modern striker.

But five years ago, when Barcelona were writing everyone's manifesto, no top manager would have dared praise a centre-forward for his "hold-up play".

That would have sounded so 1980s, dahling. And indeed congratulating an elite striker for being able to control an incoming ball and then keep defenders at bay was like slapping a teacher on the back for being able to spell. Was it not a basic requirement of the job? Certainly when Rodgers was running down the list of Luis Suarez's many virtues, the capacity to trap a ball fired by a centre-half would not have rated highly.

There is less idealism nowadays about how teams should play; less pressure to conform to a Spanish template of silky ball rotation. An acceptance that not all sides could function that way has combined with a reminder that football games are won in all sorts of ways. Coaches are steadily less slavish in their devotion to a "philosophy".

Under Garry Monk, Swansea City - the Welsh Arsenal where Rodgers made his name - have shifted away from passing for its own sake, adding muscularity and directness to a strong artistic base.

If Liverpool are evolving beyond Rodgers's original vision of orchestral passing then it marks a stage in his development as a top-flight boss. With his job potentially on the line early in this campaign, he had no choice but to seek a winning formula, even if it meant lower possession stats.

This is a manager, remember, who has seen Suarez leave for Barcelona, Raheem Sterling decamp to Manchester City and Daniel Sturridge take up long-term residence in a treatment centre in Boston; a manager who has had to work with, and answer to, an Anfield transfer committee.

Last season's prime indignity was watching Balotelli lark about on the training pitch and then wander about, in games, like someone with a head full of Proust.

Under Rodgers, Liverpool have finished seventh, second and sixth.

Throughout the Premier League years they have come with a rattle and then fallen away. Progress, regress. It has been the Liverpool way. All big clubs generate pressures that could be called "unique", but the business of satisfying fans, owners, tradition, and the Shankly-esque cult of personality around the manager is especially onerous for the tenant of the Anfield dugout.

Aside from Benteke's strength and stickability, Rodgers is drawing the best from Philippe Coutinho in the No 10 role, has made two shrewd signings at full-back in Nathaniel Clyne and Joe Gomez and strengthened the defensive screen by adding James Milner. Again, this indicates a manager hearing whispers about how little time he would be allowed. Defensive surety is always the obvious starting point for a coach who wants to stick around.

The odd anomaly remains. Roberto Firmino came on for the last 20 minutes against Bournemouth but was stuck out wide and not given the ball. Surely big-name marquee signings are sent on to influence and control, not spectate? Adam Lallana, another big grab in the transfer market, continues to be innocuous in too many matches.

But hallelujah if the compromises Rodgers has made with his own high ideals allow him to survive and guide Liverpool to better times. The game could do with people of his calibre not becoming victims of the big-club vortex that swirls so powerfully at Anfield. If the ball sticking to Benteke helps, then three cheers for hold-up play.

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