By Marco Lopes
Football In Deep Thought
“Our idea is to pass teams to a standstill so they can no longer come after you. Eventually you wear them down.”
It’s difficult to dispute that football’s DNA has been significantly affected in recent years by the Spanish passing armada of Barcelona and the Spanish national team. It’s ludicrous that so many players of such rich technical ability exist in one team, let alone that they execute a passing and possession masterclass to such a rich extent. It’s a paradigm shift that has divided the footballing public… Some call them boring, others magnificent. Some consider it predictable, others appreciate its true, practical difficulty and marvel at its execution.
Whatever your opinion, some key truths abide. Total football, or “tiki-taka” as it is also known, has at its core, passing, and possession. And intelligent execution of positioning and movement.
And somehow, Brendan Rodgers, a self-confessed student of this footballing style is planning to introduce it (or something close to it) into the Anfield grounds this season.
It’s been an intriguing summer. The Anfield gates still seem to hold painful memories for some Liverpool fans of a coronation cut short disrespectfully for King Kenny. Others still seem unconvinced by the choice of manager, having expected Liverpool, a club held by the strings of its history, to attract the likes of Pep Guardiola and the like to resurrect its fortunes.
No matter what you may think of Fenway Sports Group at this point, understandably there are mixed feelings for what we can expect of the season ahead. And while their choice of manager is both bold and intriguing, I think if we’re realistic, we need to take stock of the fact that Liverpool don’t (arguably) necessarily tend to recruit a definitive proven manager (as in, already having a decent managerial track record before appointment) with the exception of Houllier and Benitez. And those two had mixed success – whether you believe they received the support they wanted or not.
In 1959, I’m sure that most Liverpool fans wouldn’t have expected the incredible effect Shankly would have on the club over the following 15 years (not that comparisons between Rodgers and Shankly are necessarily fair). That decision was made, albeit under the atmosphere of lower expectations. Consider what the likes of Wenger, Mourinho and Guardiola have achieved – could anyone really assess what they would achieve at the start of their careers? What evidence did Arsenal, Chelsea and Barcelona really have to suggest they would be successful? Some will point to the fact that those 3 sides had great players in their squads – yet I don’t think Liverpool squads at various points in the past 20 years have been lacking in talent all that much.
Not that I immediately expect Rodgers to be in that class of manager. To be honest, like many fans, I’m cautiously optimistic, and curious about the nature of football he’ll bring. But there is something about him – his demeanour with the press, and his quotes about the football which speak to an ideology of how the game should be played. The manner in which his players have responded to him. The fact that he’s a constant student of the game.
Sure, we need to be careful not to be taken in by the romance. I remember falling into that trap and suddenly having my emotions exposed as Sebastian Larsson scored the opener against Liverpool in their first game of last season. Many Liverpool fans felt robbed of the positive energy they had accumulated for that first match – but that comes with inappropriate expectations.
So, no, I don’t expect a magic turn around – because Liverpool is a club that, in the last few years, has been completely wrecked by mismanagement at various levels. That’s why I’m one of those (few, it seems) that believe FSG are doing the right things to rebuild the club. They’ll make mistakes (and have done so already) – but they’re a far cry from any leadership Liverpool have had for a while.
Rodgers, meanwhile, may still yet encounter his pitfall. It could be the first three tricky home games against the top three from last season, or the inevitable mind-games from Fergie, or even media backlashes against the quality of his signings (or lack thereof, if it pans out that way). It could be the point of the season where fans and media commence pre-emptive reflection that Liverpool’s rebuilding process is not occurring fast enough. It could be the pressure from dealing with so many levels of control at the club (compounded, incidentally, by Pep Segura’s recent departure). It could be all those and more. When those moments arrive – Rodgers’ character will need to hold true.
What we can expect from this season
What I do expect, though, is for Rodgers to focus on the football when those situations arise. He appears stubborn to defend his philosophy, but that I feel is a positive quality and it’s one of the best character traits that one sees in most successful managers around. And when the goals aren’t there, I hope he’ll talk about Liverpool working harder to create better chances in front of goal, rather than bemoan the woodwork.
Some of his ideas make me genuinely excited, because even though Liverpool dominated many a game last season, they seemed ironically easy to defend against, and fairly predictable against the bigger clubs. Their attacking play down the middle was mostly ineffectual, and the most penetrative passes tended to arrive from the flanks or creative mischief from Suarez and Gerrard, or the late runs / Hollywood passes from Adam (oddly one of the best assisters of last season). They didn’t put “weaker” sides away consistently enough either.
Many an article has been written talking of Rodgers’ pressing philosophy, again modeled on Barcelona’s blueprint. “You win the ball back when there are thirty metres to their goal, not eighty,” as Pep Guardiola pointed out once. The high pressing principle does much to change the dynamic of Liverpool’s attacking and transitional play. It speaks to creating different kinds of opportunities in the opponent’s half, and a completely new level of dominating play.
Then there’s the concept of resting with the ball, and exhausting opponents by passing them into submission. It sounds so simplistic – but it’s incredibly difficult to execute well, and it will force many of the players to expand the quality and speed of their positioning, movement, and decision making. When attacking, it’s a system that isn’t reliant on pure pace, or that very kick and rush direct style – it’s reliant on technique and vision, awareness and speed of thought. And as the pre-season illustrated, it takes discipline. Many of our players still resorted to long aimless passes simply because the old style made it relevant.
Make no mistake, the system will separate the men from the boys, so to speak, but I firmly believe, if it works, the world class qualities of the some of the players will have their opportunity to shine. Even those players who have been maligned (here I want to pick on Downing in particular) could have the chance to show more promise based on what the system forces them to do.
So what can we expect to see?
There will be shades and flashes of intrigue… and concern. If the performance against Gomel at Anfield is anything to go by, the system could reproduce some of Gerrard’s best football again, in his effective attacking midfield role, only this time with more players of greater technical ability like Suarez. Hopefully Allen, Borini, Assaidi illustrate this too. So expect more out of Gerrard.
I also expect the system to highlight the depth of the squad… or lack thereof. The transfer window isn’t closed, but even if Liverpool do sign a couple more players, I suspect some key issues in the depth of the squad will raise their heads (I mentioned as such in a previous blog). I still feel cover is needed for Enrique at left back, and the team still lacks a proven goalscorer – unless Borini surprises us, but even then – he’s one player. City and United both have at least four recognized strikers! One suspects another reserve keeper will be needed too. I also think the sheer number of games will prove telling, and if Rodgers starts to feel the heat early, there may be pressure to use a strong run in the League Cup, FA Cup or Europa League to alleviate concerns. The other argument for depth is that if this team expects to qualify, and remain in Europe, they need to get used to the fitness and competitive requirements of matches in midweek as well on the weekend. So a Europa League run has certain appeal to it from the perspective of getting the players used to a certain schedule.
Of course, there will probably arise a time when the results don’t seem to be coming in. That inevitable slump, or bad patch(es), moments where the confidence will ebb and flow. It’s at this point that Rodgers will need to illustrate significant moments of character – possibly even against an Anfield crowd that may have mixed feelings of his progress at that point.
What I hope will happen is a gradual shift into less reliance on specific players as opposed to a system. After all, even with the abundance of talent in the Barcelona / Spain squads, a weaker side can still produce victories because the system is so effective. Despite a very strong squad and excellent first team players during the Benitez era, on many an occasion, Liverpool were claimed to be over-reliant on Gerrard and Torres. I believe that, should Rodgers implement his system to its full potential, ideally the reliance on players even as talented as Suarez will diminish. Liverpool will find the ability to generate results based on a successful application of the system. What is interesting is that the system is probably quite sensitive to quality on the extremes. So those players who lack the abilities to adapt to it are likely to be shipped out sooner than later. And those players with significant talent will probably make the system look like the most effective football Liverpool have played in years.
So the blueprint of Brendan Rodgers encompasses it all – passing, patience, poise, positioning, possession, penetration… what we can hope is that Liverpool adapt quickly and successfully. Because if they do, the performances will be relentless in fighting for the points. And if the performances are inspired, the last ingredient is the famous Liverpool support to make Rodgers’ words come true:
“I want to use the incredible support to make coming to Anfield the longest 90 minutes of an opponent’s life.”
A bold statement. An audacious goal. And one I (and many others) hope to enjoy.
Brendan Rodgers – good luck. YNWA.