From the Tawe to the Mersey

From the Tawe to the Mersey
August 18, 2012 Chris Rowland

By Swansea City supporter Matthew Harrison.

18th May 2012: Relief. Swansea City manager Brendan Rodgers has rebuked an approach from Liverpool FC. Relief. Unlike his predecessor Roberto “they kicked me out as a player, they’ll have to kick me out as a manager” Martinez, Rodgers had always stated that he was highly ambitious and I felt that an approach by Liverpool would probably turn his head. Amazingly, he chose to stick with the Swans and we looked forward to the good times and the stylish football continuing. Just over a week later, much of the local press had confirmed that Swansea had all but secured the permanent services of their highly talented loanee Gylfi Sigurdsson, subject to the usual medical, agreeing personal terms etc. on the Monday following. All was rosy in SA1.

30th May 2012: Rodgers is gone and a revolution at Liverpool Football Club is on the horizon. Swansea fans mourn the loss of the Ulsterman and the Sigurdsson deal falls through. 12 days: a lot can happen in the perpetually changing world of football.

Over the past few seasons, as the unfashionable Swansea City morphed into ‘Swanselona’, the Jack Army have got used to losing their best players to vultures high above them in the league, but the most unsettling aspect of the Swans’ success has been the repeated poaching of their managers: Martinez to Wigan; Sousa to Leicester (thank god!) and now Rodgers to Liverpool. Swansea fans are used to it. Once again, there was little panic from Swansea fans as the fans know that in Huw Jenkins we have the most reliable of chairman. Jenkins has clearly enjoyed the brand of football that has become Swansea’s calling card and has always appointed managers that he felt could carry on and further the Swansea ethos. In stepped Michael Laudrup of 1990s Barcelona‘Dream Team’ fame to replace Brendan Rodgers.

Rodgers v Martinez: Did Liverpool choose correctly?

Rodgers introduced the Swansea philosophy to a global audience after his amazing feat of getting the Swans to the promised land of the Premier League; however, the club’s footballing philosophy was forged years before by an ex-club captain and legend: a rookie manager named Roberto Martinez.

Martinez took over the reins at Swansea in the closing months of the 2006/07 season after Kenny Jackett, the manager who released a distraught Martinez from Swansea as a player, was sacked with Swansea languishing mid-table in League One. Martinez immediately made Jackett’s players, many of them former team mates of his, into a tidy, passing team thanks largely to a more ball-based training regime. Amazingly, Swansea’s new style seemed to be paying dividends quickly, as the club came agonisingly close to claiming a highly unlikely League One play-off berth. In his first full season in charge, after a number of shrewd, bargain purchases including Jason Scotland, Ferrie Bodde and Angel Rangel, Swansea romped to the 2007/08 League One title in style with pundits repeatedly praising the newly-established ‘Swansea way’. Swansea were simply stunning at times that season. After further impressive performances in the Championship, Martinez departed for Wigan, taking much of Swansea’s backroom resources with him, something many fans have and never will forgive him for.

Whatever grudges some areas of the Jack Army still hold, Martinez gave birth to the Swansea philosophy you see gracing today’s football’s modern amphitheatres such as Old Trafford, The Etihad and The Emirates [and Anfield! – Ed] and we should at least thank him for that.

I noticed when Martinez became the frontrunner for Liverpool’s vacant managerial chair, some areas of the Liverpool support claimed they would prefer the Spaniard to Rodgers, as Rodgers had only achieved success with a system and squad he had inherited from the man dubbed ‘El Gaffer’ by the Jack Army. Rubbish. Although Martinez introduced the more ‘continental’ approach to our football, I believe that Swansea would never have achieved promotion to the Premier League under Martinez. We owe Martinez gratitude, but Brendan was the true architect behind the building of Swansea’s promotion to the Premier League and he evolved the playing style of the years previous.

We had many good times under Martinez. His style of football was centred around a much faster-paced passing game than the ‘tiki taka’ of Rodgers; I probably preferred watching the style of football under Martinez to the slower-paced ball hogging football of Rodgers’ Premier League Swansea. Ultimately though, Martinez displayed tactical naivety at times, especially defensively. Martinez also had a habit of leaving substitutions too late when things were not going the team’s way. Many winning positions were squandered under Martinez and a series of ‘should have been wins’ were downgraded to draws. Thank you Roberto, but Rodgers, following a Paulo Sousa interlude, made Swansea a far more efficient unit and still maintained the pass, pass, pass philosophy that had become Swansea’s trademark underMartinez.

Anyway, enough of Swansea City, now Liverpool have gone for Rodgers overMartinez, what can Liverpool expect from Rodgers? Well let’s start with the things Liverpool fans should look forward to….

Rodgers’ strengths

If God had meant football to be played in the air he would have put grass in the sky.” – Brian Clough

Who doesn’t like seeing a team play football the way it is supposed to be played? Well, judging from the reaction during the recent European Championship, not everyone, but I am sure well-educated football fans like Liverpool’s will appreciate the eye-pleasing style that is soon to grace (or at least be attempted to grace) Anfield’s hallowed turf. Watching Swansea over the past two years has been a joy. The only team I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed watching more in past couple of years is the mighty Barcelona (oh, and ‘boring’Spain of course). Ball retention was the key to Rodgers’ Swansea philosophy, with a reliance on waiting for opportunities to arise rather than force the issue. Swansea’s possession attributes are incredible for a team built for a pittance by Premier League standards. The team’s average possession was the same as champions-elect Manchester City on 57% and Swansea were also second only to City in making the most passes in open play (OPP) with an impressive total of 20791; Swansea’s OPP completion was the highest in the league on 86% (once again the same as Manchester City’s OPP completion figure).

Similar to the alumni of Barca’s La Masia, Swansea are not blessed with height with two of the shortest players in the league last season, Joe Allen (5”6) and Leon Britton (5”5). Fortunately for Swansea, size isn’t everything, and the Allen/Britton carousel proved to be the heartbeat of Swansea’s ‘tiki taka’ style. Britton had the highest pass completion rate in Europe (93.5%), even completing a 100% pass completion in a game against Bolton in a 3-1 win in October 2011. Allen followed his partner in crime’s example and had a pass completion rate of (91.2%), perhaps more impressive considering the broader and more adventurous range of passing that the little Welshman demonstrated.

Allen is a perfect example of another one of Rodgers’ trump cards: developing and improving footballers. Allen had always been a good player since his introduction as a 17-year old under Martinez, but he could sometimes be overwhelmed in games and go missing. Sousa’s ultra-defensive tactics and a series of niggling injuries hindered Allen’s progress, but Rodgers’ moulded Allen into a defensive midfield general and arguably one of the most promising midfielders in the league. Allen could play a pinpoint pass, but he was no longer daunted by opponents and he became a highly determined tackler with the third highest amount of tackles in the league last season (110). Even the fairly average Mark Gower, once a winger, was converted by Rodgers into a formidable centre midfielder and was one of Swansea’s best players in the first half of their promotion-winning season. Two and half months into the Premier League season, Gower was statistically the most creative player in Europe! Good players become great players under Rodgers.

Another integral ingredient of Swansea’s success under Rodgers would prove to be the fortress created back in South West Wales. One thing Rodgers was keen to do when he arrived in SA1, was to make the Liberty Stadium a stronghold to base the Swans’ success from. Rodgers’ determination to make Swansea’s home form formidable proved crucial to his success and even helped raise the volume and improve the Liberty Stadium atmosphere; the Jack Army had never truly found their voice at the Liberty until the Rodgers era, with the backbone of its success underpinned by impressive home form. In Swansea’s 2010/11 Championship season, they only lost three games at the Liberty out of 23, and after an early February home defeat to their fierce rivals Cardiff, Swansea went undefeated for the final seven home games (winning six) to help secure their highly impressive 3rd place finish. Swansea’s maiden Premier League voyage would run in a similar vein at home; Swansea only lost four times at home, with their first home loss not coming until mid-November when the then Premier League champions, Manchester United, visited the Liberty Stadium and narrowly defeated the Swans 1-0.

Coupled with the fine form at the Liberty Stadium, Rodgers formed a fantastic relationship with the Swansea City support – the Jack Army. From day one, Rodgers could not laud the Jack Army enough and he dedicated many of the team’s most famous results to the fans and the city of Swansea itself. The fans were very much central to Rodgers, with nearly every one of his press conferences featuring a tribute to the Jack Army. Even after he had departed the club, Rodgers praised the Swansea fans in an open letter published in the local press; Rodgers signed off from the Swansea faithful with “Brendan – Forever a Jack”.

Rodgers’ Weaknesses

Rodgers was brilliant at Swansea and despite some of the bitterness that resides from certain areas of the Jack Army, he deserves to go down as one of Swansea’s great managers – who knows, if he had stayed he could have gone down as the greatest. But the man is mortal, as his spell at Reading showed and at times during his tenure in South Wales.

I noted one of the best aspects of Rodgers is the style of football he deployed at Swansea, but Swansea’s elegance also proved to be his downfall at times. Ultimately, Rodgers will very rarely stride away from the 4-2-3-1 set-up even when things are not going to plan. There was one question that was repeatedly raised throughout last season by press and fans: what is Swansea’s Plan B? Simple answer: there wasn’t one. The lack of Plan B was almost a source of pride for Swansea City fans, who enjoyed the fact that Swansea were so ruthless in sticking to their principles, in a similar fashion to the stubbornness of Spain and Barcelona. Unfortunately, Swansea do not have the same talent at their disposal as Barcelona or Spain. In the harsh lands of Premier League football, Swansea’s inflexibility led to dropped points, especially against sides such as Stoke, Everton and Norwich who had come up with plans to counter ‘Swanselona’. At Liverpool, Rodgers has a ready made Plan B in Andy Carroll – whether he uses him is another story. Rodgers willl certainly need to learn how to become more streetwise to managers countering his tactics, especially now he’s at a club of Liverpool’s stature with teams gunning for their scalps. Also will Liverpool’s fans be as patient as Swansea’s in regard to the team potentially passing backwards and sideways for long periods?

Some might even tell you that Swansea, like their doppelgangers Spain, play boring football (“Boring, boring Swansea” went the chants at Loftus Road). Some areas of football cited Swansea as a team that could only pass backwards and sideways; the Swans had the lowest percentage of forward passes in the league with only 40.49% of their passes going forward.

There are some other stats that maybe vindicate the idea of “Boring, boring Swansea” with perhaps Swansea’s goalscoring stats being the most blatant show of this. Swansea striker Danny Graham was the only player to reach double figures and only Nathan Dyer, Scott Sinclair and loanee Sigurdsson, who joined in January, scored more than five. Until the arrival of Gylfi Sigurdsson in January, the Swans only scored 20 goals in 20 games compared to the 24 they scored in 18 after his arrival; half of Swansea’s goals in the second half of the season came through Sigurdsson’s seven goals and five assists, showing how dependent Swansea became on the Icelandic midfielder in the second half of their campaign. Gylfi would prove to be Swansea’s only escape from ‘tiki taka’ with his ability to play a killer pass and shoot (and score) from distance.

Swansea scored 44 goals all season, fewer than relegated Blackburn and Bolton and only better than four other teams in the league (Stoke 36; Aston Villa 37; Wolves 40; QPR 43). Discovering goalscoring strikers has always been a problem for Rodgers at Swansea. On arriving at the club he deployed Stephen Dobbie, more of a number 10, in the lone striker role; when Dobbie didn’t work out there was a succession of failed attempts at finding a first choice striker: Shefki Kuqi, Craig Beattie, Frank Nouble, Jermaine Easter, Luke Moore, Tamas Priskin – all failed the audition. Swansea’s goalscoring prayers were answered by a young Italian striker called Fabio Borini just in time to lead Swanseato a play-off place. Borini left for Italy and once again Rodgers’ struggled to find a goalscorer, as Swansea took five games to score their first Premiership goal. Although Swansea record signing Danny Graham would find the net regularly (eventually), Swansea’s other strikers, Leroy Lita and Moore offered little competition to Graham with both backup strikers only scoring two Premier League goals all season.

Winning away from home also proved a tough thing for Rodgers to master during his time at Swansea. The determination to create ‘Fortress Liberty’ and his obsession with ‘tiki taka’ could have been the two main factors to Swansea’s poor away form last season; in fact Swansea’s away form under Rodgers was dire for most of his tenure. Swansea lost 11 of their away games last season and they would not record a win on the road until January 2nd atVilla Park. Swansea would win four away all season, largely thanks to man of the match performances by Gylfi Sigurdsson at West Brom, Fulham and Wigan. Rodgers could have really done with bringing Sigurdsson to Merseyside when looking at his importance to Swansea last season.

A lot of Swansea talk there, but from the evidence above, I feel that even despite some glaring weaknesses in the Rodgers arsenal, Rodgers will prove successful on Merseyside – if given time.

Rodgers’ signings: The Swans that flew away

“Joe is a player whose profile will fit perfectly with the ideas of this group. His ability to control and dominate the ball is an important ingredient in our attempt to gain success on the field.” Brendan Rodgers

Rodgers has stepped away from the Moneyball –orientated transfer policy of Damian Comolli (now relieved of his duties at Liverpool) and stuck to what, and who, he knows by signing two players that have served him well in his past two years at Swansea.

The signing of Joe Allen could prove to be inspirational. The Allen and Britton combo was essential to Swansea’s success last season and Allen will be a tough act to follow for his replacement at Swansea. Despite claiming in a previous piece that I felt Liverpool could live without Allen (which can be read here), after watching the 2nd leg of their Europa League qualifier against Gomel, I could make out a very clear Allen-shaped hole in their midfield. He will slot in perfectly next to Lucas. Ostensibly, Lucas and Allen will act as midfield destroyers, freeing Gerrard up to return to his attacking role of old, although both players are far more than that. In the Gerrard/Lucas/Allen triumvirate, Liverpool have the makings of one of the most all-rounded midfields in the Premier League.

The lack of fanfare that has surrounded Fabio Borini’s capture has surprised me. Bluntly, Borini is lethal in front of goal, probably more so than Kop-favourite Suarez. Last year in Serie A for Roma, Borini scored a goal every 187 minutes – the best rate in the league. Borini was a crucial factor in leading Swansea to play-off glory during his three-month loan spell in South Wales. Six goals, two on his debut, in nine appearances helped secure 3rd place in the league. Aside from his goalscoring exploits, Borini is an absolute dynamo who never stands still. At Swansea, Rodgers also relied on Borini to press opposition defences and to get the ball back high up the field. Liverpool fans need not worry about that ‘adapting British football’ tag that so often is placed on foreign exports, after Borini cut his teeth in the unforgiving second tier. Early signs are that Rodgers will deploy Borini out on the left of an attacking trio with him constantly switching roles from the left to centre with the equally mobile Suarez. From the brief glimpse I had of their partnership in Liverpool’s game versus Gomel, I feel the Suarez and Borini partnership could be lethal. Expect goals from Fabio.

How and why Rodgers will succeed at Liverpool

Kopites will love Brendan. The idolisation of Shankly and King Kenny just shows how much the Liverpool fanbase adores someone that engages with them. Obviously, Rodgers has a long, long way to go until he has anything like the rapport with the fans that the two previously mentioned Kop legends had, but his letter to fans thanking them for travelling and supporting the club out in Gomel for their recent Europa League qualifier is a good place to start. Rodgers was adored by the Jack Army and winning over the Kopites could prove crucial after the dethroning of the King – just look what happened to Hodgson who never really get the fans onside.

Similar to his arrival at Swansea, Rodgers will look to make Anfield the intimidating arena it once was. Rodgers, like he did at Swansea, will look to rally the fans, but also get them to be patient like the Swansea fanbase who never displayed frustration with their ball-hogging ways. It took Swansea fans time to get to their high level of patience and Liverpool fans will have to be the same if they want the Rodgers way to work. Remedying Liverpool’s stuttering home form could prove the difference between European qualification (Champions League? Perhaps too soon for now) and a mid-table finish. Liverpool only managed six wins at their once imperious ground last season and drew nine times, mainly to supposed ‘smaller’ teams; one of these ‘smaller’ clubs drawing at Anfield was Rodgers’ Swansea, who were even clapped off the pitch by the Liverpool faithful for their ballsy display of football that earned them a 0-0 draw.

John Henry and FSG obviously have a lot more money than Huw Jenkins at Swansea and the quality available to Liverpool is far beyond Swansea. Rodgers, with the right purchases, could adapt his ball passing philosophy and make it more expansive and move away from the safer game that he deployed at Swansea. Also with players such as Suarez, Gerrard and Downing, he has attacking players ready made to sharpen the point of the Rodgers philosophy.

Rodgers loves to use a ‘sweeper keeper’ and at Swansea he had excellent distribution from the back with Dorus De Vries and then Dutch upgrade Michel Vorm; Rodgers has a ready made ‘sweeper keeper’ in the excellent Pepe Reina. In Johnson and Enrique he also has upgrades on the attacking full backs he had as part of his system at Swansea. I believe, the personnel at Liverpool are ready-made for Rodgers philosophy and system.

Under Dalglish, many Liverpool fans criticised the team’s tendency to grant opposition teams space to play in – this will not happen under Rodgers. Rodgers, very much a disciple of Barcelona’s philosophy, will look to implement Pep Guardiola’s ‘four second rule’, involving forward players trying to press high to retrieve the ball back four seconds after losing it – an exercise he would introduce into his training sessions. Rodgers would regular state his frustration at the media’s failure to acknowledge how well Swansea pressed the ball when they were out of possession. When Stuart James of the Guardian visited a Swansea training session, Rodgers told him beforehand:

“You’ll see in some of our exercises this morning, a lot of our work is around the transition and getting the ball back very quickly. Because I believe if you give a bad player time, he can play. If you give a good player time, he can kill you. So our emphasis is based around our positioning both with and without the ball. And for us, when we press well, we pass well.”

With talent such as Shelvey, Henderson, Sterling and young full backs such as Flanagan, Wilson and Kelly, Rodgers has a whole plethora of talent to nurture and develop and I am sure he’ll thrive on it. The largely unknown Adam Morgan has even demonstrated in pre-season the injection of confidence Rodgers can give a young player.

I do not think that the Rodgers’ plan will come to fruition quickly and I think it’ll take a season, at least, for Liverpool fans to see the best of Rodgers’ team. He stepped into Swansea with the players already used to a similar system to his; although I think he has the players to pull it off, they may take time to adjust. Liverpool have a tough opening to the season and I hope for Rodgers sake that if things don’t go to plan early on, that the press, the board or the fans don’t get on his or the team’s back. Patience is the key to success under Rodgers, off and on the field.

For more of Matthew’s work, read his Welsh football blog Lost Boyos, which focuses on Welsh footballers who are or have played abroad. He also writes about more general football matters for A Great Advert for the Game. You can follow him on Twitter at @mophead_88 or follow @LostBoyos.