Brendan Rodgers, the underrated disciple of possession football who came five years too late

“When you look at the stats of the modern game, I am big on controlling domination of the ball. But against Everton we were able to dominate without the ball.” – Brendan Rodgers.

Igor Akinfeev parried the ball to his side and without breaking stride, he jetted off in euphoric celebration. Hosts Russia had defeated the great Spain in the Luzhniki Stadium, and Akinfeev became the first man to have the whole of a country singing his name since the great Black Spider Lev Yashin. Up in the press box at the extraordinary coliseum formerly named after Vladimir Lenin, match reports were being filed, the postmortem already underway. All around the world, journalists not lucky enough to be in Russia were busy writing headlines and getting them ready for the press deadline: THE DEATH OF TIKI-TAKA. The headline had a nice ring to it, but it was a mass over-exaggeration and ignorance of the facts: tiki-taka was long deceased.

Brendan Rodgers, the all-conquering Celtic boss, brought a possession-based style to the Premier League in the age of the counter attack. Tiki-taka – which I must state, as per my fascination with Pep Guardiola, is boring passing for the sake of it – had died when multiple attacking sides were embarrassed in the Champions League to stubborn defensive outlets. Brendan Rodgers, though, had an exciting philosophy that made Swansea everyones second team in the Premier League.

Sadly for Rodgers, his Premier League legacy is nearly winning the league with Liverpool. As he embarks on potentially joining Leicester City, I’d argue: don’t remember Rodgers for what he did (wrong) at Anfield, remember him for his trailblazing style at Swansea, his desire to play possession based attractive football, and his comeback in Glasgow, where he has more than set himself up for a healthy return to English football.

It will take time for Rodgers to implement his philosophy to a dressing room that is struggling for morale and confidence, but the Leicester board will give him time.

In an interview on Match of the Day 3 in 2012, Rodgers said: “We kicked the ball long [chasing a game] and it would come straight back again into our box. We ended up drawing the game two each. The next week in training I said to the players that we have to retain our composure and relaxation with the ball. Low and behold if it came again, we could manage the game with the ball. The following week, we were playing Bolton at home, and they get a goal to bring it to 2-1. To be fair the players then, for ten minutes, Bolton never got a kick of the ball. We eventually got the third and won the game 3-1.”

In a microcosm, that interview outlined Rodgers’ philosophy: keep the ball. In a way, he is up there with the likes of Guardiola in the way he has redefined ‘seeing out a game’ in the Premier League. He is no innovator, but the typical English way of seeing out a tender lead is to drop a few yards and limit the spaces for the opposition. Rodgers is the opposite, and will defend with the ball.

On the whole, English football pundits and fans seem blind to tactics, judge players and managers too quickly, and change their minds without a second of thought. A good example of this is Eden Hazard: one weekend, he is heralded as the best in the league, whereas the next he could be labelled a ‘fraud’. It was a similar story with Rodgers in England, who was heralded as a tactical genius for leading Liverpool to the cusp of the Premier League title, but then criticised as a flop in the months after, when the whole squad was bereft of confidence.

His time at Liverpool was strange, as despite the heavy metal football that Liverpool played with the likes of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling, Rodgers’ style failed. His possession based game was not the way Liverpool got so far, it was a more direct style that meant that his side could not control games in the way he wanted. That was demonstrated with that fateful night at Selhurst Park, where Liverpool threw away a three goal lead against Crystal Palace that virtually cost them the league title.

It is not the stint at Liverpool he should be solely assessed on, though.

Rodgers is clearly a tactician, but aside from that, he is a man motivator. If you look at the list of players he has improved in his career, you will quickly sit up and take notice of this mans talents. I won’t name them, because there are so many.

He turned Swansea into an established Premier League club, playing a progressive, vertical style in an era of counter-attacking football that lasted until the likes of Guardiola and Klopp arrived on English shores. He slightly adjusted Roberto Martinez’s system and laid the foundations for ex-Barcelona man Michael Laudrup to restore it. He built the team around Joe Allen and got the best out of multiple young players, which could be crucial for The Foxes, who have a plethora of young midfielders who could thrive, such as James Maddison, Youri Tielemans and Hamza Choudhury.

The general argument at the end of his stint at Liverpool was that Rodgers was too reliant on Luis Suarez, which is probably a fair assumption. He was, but that is because he built the system around him and allowed the Uruguayan to thrive. There will always be an asterix over his time in Merseyside, but part of the blame has to be attributed with the scouting department and ownership. All in all, though, he got the best out of many, including Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge. His signings were well off, and his last half-season a disaster, but he deserves more respect than what some give him for his time at the club.

The Rodgers revival came at Celtic, which yes, is an easy job. Just like Bayern’s decline when Guardiola left the so-called easy job, I wouldn’t be too surprised if Rodgers’ ex-captain, Steven Gerrard, seizes the moment to close the gap on Celtic without Rodgers at the helm.

With a young and talented squad, and a few months to get used to them with the pressure off, Brendan Rodgers has a chance of really making his name again in English football. He has a positive style that could thrive at the King Power Stadium, and while he won’t repeat the successes of Claudio Ranieri, Rodgers could really bring the good times back to Leicester City Football Club.

Let’s leave on a quote from Rodgers himself: “If you are better than your opponent with the ball, you have a 79% chance of winning the game.

 

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