Rodgers’ tactics proving masterful during various points in Liverpool’s season
LONDON — Context is everything. Once upon a time Liverpool, backed by the US futures-based wealth of John W Henry, would have been seen as a menace, buying success and driving out local concerns who generate their income organically. These days, with soccer essentially functioning as the entertainment wing of the petro-chemical industry, Liverpool seems like a plucky underdog taking on the unimaginable resources of Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour.
The numbers, for what they’re worth, show Liverpool spent a net £21.5million on transfers this season; Chelsea a net £49.4m and Manchester City a net £43.2m. Quibbling over net spends has been a feature of Liverpool (and Arsenal) for a decade or so and a quick scan of fan sites will find plenty of pages that seek to prove that in terms of points per net pound spent, Liverpool and Arsenal have dominated the Premier League for years. But there is a more serious issue in this era of superclubs, which is the value of coaching.
The likes of Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid show it is possible to compete without enormous resources, that with a clear strategy and an inspired coach it is possible, at least in the short term, for more ordinary clubs to compete with the staggeringly rich, that success in football is about more than just who has the deepest pockets.
In fact, there’s even a sense that Liverpool is thriving despite its signings. Of the eight players who have arrived over the past year, only Simon Mignolet can really be judged a success so far. Kolo Toure has been prone to spectacular gaffes, while Mamadou Sakho, Tiago Ilori, Iago Aspas, Luis Alberto and the two loan signings, Victor Moses and Aly Cissokho, rarely play.
The examples of Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson, though, signed last season and widely written off only to enjoy renaissances this season, mean nobody will be too critical just yet. That was once the Liverpool way: sign a young player, keep him in the reserves for a few months while he learned what the club expected of him and then unleash him. Liverpool, perhaps, is re-teaching football the value of patience. Henderson, so derided last season, has emerged as one of the players of the season and will almost certainly be in England’s World Cup squad. That, of course, is the value of coaching: Rodgers makes players better.
It helps, of course, that Liverpool has a strike pairing of the quality of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, backed up by a hugely promising young player in a streak of such form and confidence as Raheem Sterling. They have pace, skill and imagination and, at the moment, are as close to unplayable as football can be. A record of 88 goals in 32 games means that, at the moment, Liverpool has scored more goals per game than any other English top-flight side in post-War history. It hasn’t failed to score in a league game since Arsenal shut it out at the beginning of November.
Yet even there, Rodgers must take credit, and not just for giving Sterling, who only turned 19 in December, his head so young. It’s one of the cliches of punditry that the best teams simply play their own game and don’t worry too much about the opposition (a theory that ignores the intense micromanagement of managers so ostensibly different as Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho), but Rodgers keeps making subtle tweaks.
In Sunday’s 4-0 win over Tottenham, for instance, he played a 4-1-3-2, using Sterling, Henderson and Philippe Coutinho behind Suarez and Sturridge. That was a risk, leaving the back four protected by only Steven Gerrard, but it allowed Liverpool to press with five men high up the pitch, unsettling a jittery Tottenham backline. In the 2-1 win over Sunderland and the 6-3 win against Cardiff, Sterling was rested, and Coutinho used at the peak of a diamond behind Suarez and Sturridge: control the midfield through weight of numbers, deny weaker opposition enough of the ball to create a threat wide and let the front three do their work. In the 3-0 win over Manchester United, it was Sterling used at the top of the midfield, using his pace to tear through United’s sluggish deep midfield. Against Fulham and Swansea, Sterling was used wide with Suarez almost as an inside forward on the other side of Sturridge, stretching the play, looking to play around sides likely to sit deep against it.
There is flexibility and variety. It’s difficult for teams to predict exactly how Liverpool will set up and given that all of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling are quick, technically gifted and can play anywhere across the front line, with the elegance of Coutinho to knit them together, the possible combinations are almost limitless, and can constantly be adjusted to take advantage of the opposition’s weaknesses.
But the Liverpool story is bigger than specifics. This is about a sport being about more than accounting, about proving that gifted players, properly managed, can still — perhaps — win the biggest prizes. Liverpool may be a David that would have been a Goliath in any other age, but it is leading the fight for the non-superclubs.