How Will Brendan Rodgers Shape Liverpool?

Watching Liverpool play last season was a frustrating experience for all concerned. Clearly a team with talent, they were over-reliant on Luis Suarez for creativity while those around the Uruguayan often didn’t take enough responsibility. In fact, it could be argued that Liverpool was no closer to finding out their best eleven at the end of the season than in August.

Kenny Dalglish’s constant tactical rotation was by no means completely a bad thing. Against certain opponents oftentimes a side has to play a certain way for the best chance at victory. His ideas often worked. In the 2010-11 season, using a three-man backline against Stoke City turned out to be genius.  However when tactical switching becomes the norm rather than the exception, players can become confused about their roles. A directionless player is one that will rarely perform to the best of his ability.

The new Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, in stark contrast to managers like Norwich’s Paul Lambert and Kenny Dalglish, experimented very few times during the season. Preferring to focus on what his side did well rather than adapting to the opponent, Rodgers’ Swansea played in a general 4-3-3 formation week-in week-out. One would assume that he would like to carry these methods to Liverpool, and it seems he might have the squad to pull it off.

Rodgers’ midfield at the Welsh side contained the traditional creator-destroyer-runner trio that should be relatively simple to transfer to Anfield. In Lucas Leiva, Liverpool has the best holding midfielder in the Premiership, as well as a player comfortable with the ball at his feet. Playing incisive Hollywood balls is basically Charlie Adam’s only strength, and playing two other midfielders alongside him would help mitigate his awful defensive skills. Jordan Henderson also looked much better in the center of midfield than out on the right where he struggled to influence games. Playing centrally, Henderson was reliable in keeping possession and running with the ball. Then of course there is Steven Gerrard. And, if he stays, Alberto Aquilani. Both players would flourish in games where Liverpool control midfield and have several players in advanced positions to spray the ball to.

The front three in Rodger’s system operate quite differently than in his mentor Jose Mourinho’s 4-3-3 at Chelsea. At Chelsea, both Arjen Robben and Damien Duff stayed wide to stretch the play but at Swansea the system is much more lopsided. Nathan Dyer usually stayed wide while on the other flank Scott Sinclair cut inside into shooting positions. The third player was usually a strong center forward in Danny Graham. Stewart Downing on the left flank would be an ideal fit for the system as a disciplined wide player capable of delivering a good cross (no, seriously). The tricks and skill would come from Luis Suarez on the right. The fear many Liverpool fans may have is that this may marginalize Suarez. That doesn’t have to be so, although Suarez sometimes played as a poacher in his Ajax days, he often spends time moving laterally around the pitch, creating most of his scoring chances himself after feinting and deceiving his defender. Porto and Swansea have both shown the value of moving a star player out wide, utilizing Scott Sinclair and Hulk in those areas. And their sides have looked better for it.

On the defensive side of things, something Rodgers stressed with his sides was playing with 11 men, not 10 and a goalkeeper. Using Pepe Reina as a sweeper behind the defense is a very Barcelona-esque tactic and one that the Liverpool goalie is certainly good enough to pull off. In fact, his more active role coupled with the likelihood that the defense in front of him will play higher up the field may even inspire Reina after an indifferent season.

Liverpool’s defense will need to play high because of Rodgers’ preference for a pressing game. Without a high line there will be huge gaps between segments of the team and Liverpool will be unable to play the short passing football that’s the other part of Rodgers’ philosophy. As Arrigo Sacchi said, “A system of play that has to include everyone in both the attacking and the defensive phase. And in this context, it is clear that whoever is closest will have the most solutions. And by close I mean a compact team.”

On paper, Liverpool’s current defenders would appear to be more comfortable in a higher line as they’re technically gifted and want to play aesthetic football. Daniel Agger said as much when Roy Hodgson was in charge. It’s not like Liverpool were playing on the edge of their penalty box under Dalglish either which should prevent the culture shock Andre Villas-Boas found at Chelsea. However some things may need to be tweaked for the style to be successful. For one thing, Jamie Carragher is going to have to see a lot less game time. The great man needs to become a fourth choice center back behind Sebastian Coates and the first-choice pairing of Agger and Skrtel. Carragher does not have the pace on the turn or the stamina to play a high line anymore and he can’t be allowed to disrupt the fluidity of the team.

So far, theoretically, it seems that Brendan Rodgers shouldn’t have much of a problem imposing his philosophy onto the current Liverpool squad. In fact it seems like they would relish it, especially some of their most important players like Reina and Agger. The one thing that could be cause for concern is the very thing that his predecessor excelled at, changing the tactical system.

One of the main weaknesses of coaches prematurely promoted to a ‘big’ club is that they sometimes lack the necessary tactical sophistication or experience to be comfortable instructing their sides in more than one system. Andre Villas-Boas, for example, had a method he was very comfortable with in Porto. A 4-3-3 with a high line and pressing, one wide forward generally keeping wide with the other playing more direct, (quite similar to Rodgers actually). When he tried to transition this system to Chelsea, however, he found that this approach didn’t work with the players he had at his disposal. John Terry, Ivanovic et al are much better penalty box defenders, (strong, good in the air), then they are higher up. Drogba too was not the best fit for the system and the other striker, Fernando Torres, was woefully out of form. Villas-Boas simply couldn’t adjust. He never learnt to have a backup plan, a system to fall back on or to play from the start in games that could be potentially tricky with a side still learning his new style. Thus Chelsea was well beaten in games like the 3-5 against Arsenal.

Something similar happened to Rodgers in Swansea’s match against Norwich at Liberty Stadium. Swansea played well in the first half and took the lead playing their preferred 4-3-3 because Gylfi Sigurdsson roamed free between the lines. However, Paul Lambert shifted from a 4-4-2 to more of a diamond in midfield in order to man-mark Sigurdsson while having a midfielder of his own left free by Swansea. The Welsh side eventually lost that encounter and it was mainly because Rodgers never adjusted to Lambert’s switch. It was as simple as stopping Swansea playing from the back and countering their highest midfielder. Dalglish was excellent at shifting shape smoothly, sometimes even during the game. That doesn’t mean the changes guaranteed a good result, (far from it considering Liverpool’s season), but at least he was reacting to the game situation.

Rodgers’ personal philosophy seems to be very much the total football ethos employed by Spain and Holland, a belief that your primary system is good enough to beat all challengers. The point remains that sometimes, over the course of a 38+ game season your hand is going to be forced to change things, and as the manager of a side that hopes to qualify for Europe’s most prestigious competition, you better know what to change them to.

To be fair to Rodgers, from everything that’s been written about him it appears that he is a keen student of the game, and towards the end of the season he did show the bravery to try different systems with Swansea. In a game versus Wolverhampton at Liberty Stadium there was a brief experimentation with a 3-4-3. Of course this was a game that yielded initial success with four early goals, yet ended up as a draw. At half-time, winning 4-2, Rodgers didn’t have enough confidence in the formation to stick with it and reverted to type for the rest of the game.

Fenway Sports Group has obviously been looking at Rodgers appointment as a long-term solution. They probably don’t expect him to be the finished article yet, but they have repeatedly stated that their aim is to get into the Champions League and win the title as quickly as possible. There isn’t a lot of time for Rodgers to get used to playing in Europe and dealing with the increased pressures and expectations of a big club. When three points are paramount most weeks to keep pace at the top quarter of the table you need to show some flair and imagination with your tactics. History is littered with managers who have jumped to the top without having the skillset for it, Liverpool have had their fingers burnt by one recently. Of course, Rodgers is no stranger to management in football; he’s worked at various levels of the game for 20 years.

The incoming gaffer is one that plays a likeable and attractive style of football, someone who wants to create a proactive team, and most impressions from the wider footballing community suggest that everyone wants him to succeed. The only question is can he do it quickly, because there’s never as much time as you need.

21 thoughts on “How Will Brendan Rodgers Shape Liverpool?”

  1. I’ve never been on this website before, and this is the first article I’ve read. Very well written and very knowledgable. I really can’t wait to see how Liverpool perform under Rodgers in the premier league, and this piece has made me even more excited. You should write for Skysports.

  2. Excellent piece. Not just the usual top-of-mind statements of obvious that you find on most blogs and in newspapers

  3. Well written article…but still haven’t addressed fully, Dalglish’s main problem last season – the lack goals upfront, via a midfield that was allergic to any sort of consistent link play.

    Even if Andy Carroll had a 20 goal season last term, I would argue that Liverpool should bring in two strikers next season.

    Henderson was frustrating to watch last season with his poor end play and lack of confidence but he’s a kid learning his trade. I don’t have the same patience for Downing, who couldn’t find a cross in a church, and at this stage in his career – not acceptable.

    If I were Rogers, I would give Downing until December to make good but still try to bring in another winger, or experiment with Johnson in midfield and Kelly at right back.

    You are right, Suarez needs more discipline on and off the pitch this season. On his day he can be the most dangerous player in the world but at times he sucked up to much space with his roaming. A more defined role on either side of the penalty area, as in his Ajax days, may work better.

    Lastly – I will love to see what Aquillani can do – he had an encouraging pre-season last term, and now that he’s fully fit and with Lucas as an anchor, he can focus on what Downing and Adams couldn’t – feeding the strikers. I’m not sure if he or Joe Cole fit into the new manger’s plans however.

    1. I’m still not sold on Henderson. I know, it’s only been one year, but I’d be hard pressed to identify one thing he is good at on the pitch. When he wasn’t anonymous he was pretty poor. With all the talk of Carroll and a potential loan, I think the same should be considered for Henderson, depending on how he does through the first few months of the season and whether Aquilani stays, Shelvy emerges as a regular, or somebody else comes in and is just better.

      Nice post, though, Sameer.

      1. Henderson is a tricky one, he’s young and he’s shown to be good at things that aren’t very flashy, so nobody really notices him. What he does is he basically retains possession, in the middle of midfield whenever I watch games he seems to be a very tidy player. At Sunderland he was also a good chance creator, obviously another reason why he was bought. He is definitely not as good as a Xavi or Xabi Alonso but who that won’t cost lots of money, is young, is homegrown, is these days. Another reason in my opinion that he had a mixed season was that he was played on the right a lot, there was simply no other option. Downing was the only truly experienced winger on the squad. Kuyt was a converted striker and Maxi is a jack of all trades. On the right Henderson doesn’t have the searing pace or the tricks to really make a difference and he gets sucked inside too often, even though he’s a willing runner and tracks back well. If Rodgers plays him in the center more he might get the best out of him. Thanks for the reply!

    1. Even as a Liverpool fan, I had the same thought. But then i started thinking about it, and I’m not sure who would qualify as the best holding mid in the league. Tiote, maybe?

    2. I’m not a Liverpool fan but I do think there’s validity to that claim. Look at this comparison of EPL holding mids:

      Good article. I think Coates could be a top defender and think he could do well under Rogers.

      Liverpool does seem to need a real playmaker who can fit to Roger’s style — Adams seems like a poorer version of Gerrard, and both seem too direct to be ideal for this system. Henderson could turn good, but I imagine that like Carroll he was given too high expectations too early. Aqualani?

      Rogers has definitely made the team more interesting.


      He is the best overall in his position, makes interceptions better than anyone, his positional sense is so good that he rarely has to make last ditch tackles and he isn’t a complete dolt with the ball at his feet, allowing him to actually start attacking moves. When fully fit a defensive line of Enrique-Agger-Skrtel-Johnson with Lucas in front of them is one of the best in the Premiership, and they were one of the meanest defenses in the Premiership for much of last season.

  4. Most footbal analysts in the UK had Lucas Leiva as one of the best holding midfielders in the EPL last season until his injury. It was not a coincidence that Liverpool began fading after Lucas’s injury. It will be interesting to see how he comes back from his first major injury. Will he be tentative or play like he did before his injury? With a healthy Lucas playing like he did at the start of last season will only strengthen Liverpool and that he can play the passing game like Rodgers wan them to is a huge plus. Time will tell though.

    My only concern is that the players linked to Liverpool that Rodgers is rumoured to be interested in are not of the quality that the other top EPL teams are buying, Dempsey and Joe Allen for example. These are good players but not ones that will make Liverpool a title contender.

    1. I had the exact same thoughts about the players Rodgers and Liverpool have been linked with. Are these players really going to get them back in the top 4 in the next couple seasons, I just don’t see it and that’s not because I’m a utd fan. It’s catch 22 though, no Cl football means less money to spend which in turn means cheaper players are brought in and then it repeats itself.

      I said on here a while back that this season is one of the most important in liverpools history. If they don’t qualify for Europe and sort out the stadium situation once and for all they will fall behind so far they will NEVER recover, especially with the FFP rules kicking in. In the next couple of seasons the full extent of the money king Kenny wasted and the hole he put them will be painful to watch for a lot of people. If only Rodgers had that money to spend things might be different .

    2. The reality is Liverpool do not have the financial resources, even with the massive global support, new shirt deal and other sponsors, to compete for the same players as the other top clubs. With a couple of tweaks, though, I think a CL spot is possible, but perhaps not likely in the year or two. I believe Liverpool’s biggest problem was a lack of depth in the squad. There were no proper fill-ins for Lucas or Gerrard, no decent options for the wings when Downing was underperforming, and no proper striker when Carroll struggled.

      On a separate note, maybe this is just a Yank defending a Yank, but what more does Dempsey have to do to win people over? The guy has been fantastic for the past two to three years. If he were English, he would already have had a shot at one of the top clubs. He certainly knows where the net is, offers creative flair, is great in the air, and is a hardnose competitor. He’s never had the chance to play with any great players. I would love to see the damage he could do teamed up with Suarez.

      1. “….when Downing was underperforming, and…….when Carroll struggled.”

        Wouldn’t that be just about all the time? 😉

        Your point on Dempsey is well put.

      2. Totally agreed Jonathan – our first team just needs a few tweaks and a bit of trust in our more talented kids (NOT Flanagan and Spearing ffs!).

        I disagree as to the needs in the team though – wingers should be the definite priority for me (with Downing, Adam Cole & Maxi hopefully making way to fund the signings of younger, more dynamic players). Another ballwinner in midfield is important also as we don’t know how long it’s going to take Lucas to return to form, and can’t continue to use out of position players in that role and expect the team to flourish.

        Gerrard, Pacheco & Shelvey are all capable of providing goals from attacking midfield positions, so I just don’t see any real need to spend money on that position atm while we have such glaring needs elsewhere.

  5. As a Liverpool fan I might be tinting my commentary a little but I feel like this team was not that far off last year. They were only a few points out of 4th going into the January game against Arsenal. They far outplayed Arsenal but lost because Arsenal had RVP and Liverpool had nobody to convert all those chances that they created. After that they fell apart and seemed to concentrate on the cup ties instead of league play. Suarez even admitted the Arsenal loss affected the team. This all begs the question, was Liverpool as bad as their second half or perhaps they were a better team who mentally were not strong enough? They controlled many games but could not score, thus it reckons if they scored 1 more goal a game they would have many more points. Think about all the games at home they drew, and the games in the second half they lost (QPR, Wigan, WBA), if they scored one more goal in those games, the draws might be wins, the losses might be draws. The amount of points would catapult them into the discussion for 4th. Granted they are not winning a title soon, but I think a few additions will make them a real contender for a Champions League place. A striker, a creative attacking midfielder, a central midfield shield player (to deputize Lucas) and perhaps a winger, and they should be real competitive. The additions do not need to be world class, they just need to fit the style and want to play. Borini would be a great poacher of goals, Dempsey has shown he can perform in this league and can play many different positions, keeping Aquilani and/or Cole can help. Henderson could/should improve in Rodgers system, and perhaps a young player like Sterling out wide will make this mark.
    This team outplayed many good teams last year, perhaps they are not as bad as everyone is making them out to be.

  6. This is a very good piece. I think (if true) the rumors of Carroll going out on loan are good news for Liverpool fans. It suggests the club is completely behind Rodgers vision for the team even if it means tacitly acknowledging a bad big-money move. He is probably the least compatible Liverpool player with what Rodgers did last season.

    As a neutral observer I hope he suceeds. He did “more with less” the past two seasons and did so playing an attractive, technical style. This should give him he credibility necessary to have the players buy in. Liverpool might not have the resources of Chelsea, Man City, etc but they have better raw material than Swansea.

    On a related note the Argentine press is reporting Maxi Rodriguez will move to Newell’s Old Boys

  7. Liverpool. Each year there are great expectations and the result is great failure. Rogers is not going to change that. Liverpool’s last champions were the Beatles.

  8. Borini has just signed for Liverpool and now Fulham are prepared to swap Dempsey + 9 million pounds for Carroll. Liverpool want to swap Adam for Dempsey. Anyway, it looks like Dempsey will be a Liverpool player before long.

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