The following article was first published on EPLindex, later on Liverpool Football Club’s official website, published in This Is Anfield‘s ebook ‘Welcome to Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers’ and on The Path is Made By Walking. The article is considered to be a landmark article written by Jed C.Davies and received over one million views on the web. The article explores Rodgers’ approach on a brief level and offers insight into player tasks within a system.
Brendan Rodgers is a man who has an appreciation of footballing perception and culture, regardless of its roots, a man who strives for perfection in the evolution of the game. The strategies of ‘Tiki-Taka’ and ‘totaal-voetbal’ form the basis of Brendan Rodgers’ modus operandi.
For Rodgers the season of 2011/12 will be regarded as the touchstone for 2012/13, this time however, he’ll be upgrading the apparatus of which he conducts his orchestra. In contrast, the season of 2011/12 for Liverpool Football Club was one to forget – a season of ‘comme ci, comme ça’. While Rodgers was masterminding world class performances from a hamper of championship (or adequate premier league) players, Liverpool were staging average performances week in, week out with players of a different calibre. This article aims to reveal the ‘magic’ ingredients that Brendan Rodgers prepared his Swansea class of 2011/12 with.
Rodgers, like Mourinho, is a footballing scholar and to further the similarity also employs strict strategy in his approach to the game. However, that’s where the similarities come to an end (well…and that they were both born on the 26th of January!); each represents alternative ends of the spectrum in footballing theory:
“I like to control games. I like to be responsible for our own destiny. If you are better than your opponent with the ball you have a 79 per cent chance of winning the game…for me it is quite logical. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are, if you don’t have the ball you can’t score.” (Rodgers 2012)
Maintaining possession, working the ball through various channels and quality of goal scoring opportunities (rather than quantity) are apropos of the Tiki-Taka school of football. To achieve the success found implementing Tiki-Taka football, not only are a particular set of players required but a template to enable the ever-flowing movement advocated by Spain, Barça and Swansea:
“My template for everything is organisation. With the ball you have to know the movement patterns, the rotation, the fluidity and positioning of the team. Then there’s our defensive organisation…so if it is not going well we have a default mechanism which makes us hard to beat and we can pass our way into the game again. Rest with the ball. Then we’ll build again.” (Rodgers 2012)
For Liverpool, a new set of fundamentals will need to be put into place; a move away from the over-reliance on direct football that maximises the quantity of goal scoring opportunities rather than quality – a degree of trust will need to be installed in the individual’s know-how and when to shoot or make the decision that the opportunity is only a half chance rather than a sure thing. The approach works on the principles that ‘the whole is greater that then sum of its parts’:
“The strength of us is the team. Leo Messi has made it very difficult for players who think they are good players. He’s a real team player. He is ultimately the best player in the world and may go on to become the best ever. But he’s also a team player…If you have someone like Messi doing it then I’m sure my friend Nathan Dyer can do it. It is an easy sell.” (Rodgers 2012)
THE RODGERS STRATEGY
Brendan Rodgers, in early 2012, sketched out his strategy and explained his approach to the game for journalist Duncan White. First, he divided the pitch into eight zones and then plotted his formation. The division of zones is suggestive that each player when in possession should play a particular role, including the goal keeper and two centre backs:
“When we have the football everybody’s a player. The difference with us is that when we have the ball we play with 11 men, other teams play with 10 and a goalkeeper.” (Rodgers 2012)
The formation moves away from the given 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-5-1 etc way of thinking and towards a concept of zones within the playing field.
‘the sweeper goalkeeper’ – This specialised zone is expected to take charge of a much larger zone in Tiki-Taka football compared to the more direct approach. The emphasis is on the goalkeeper to play with the ball at his feet and play far more short threaded passes than usual. Characteristics in this role include: good stature, efficiency with balls in the air, bravery, agility and willingness to play on the deck without fear – the keeper is expected to act as a pressure relief for under pressure team mates. Given that Liverpool’s Reina received his education at Barcelona’s La Masia it will come as a natural for Reina to play the required role in zone 1.
the ‘líbero’ – The players in zone 2 are (like the goalkeeper) expected to play a much larger role in ‘keep-ball’. They are too expected to act as pressure relief to a compact midfield as a way-out option. The two centre backs are expected to compliment one another: one technically brilliant and one with a powerful physical presence (see: Puyol-Pique). The more technical of the two is to act as a playmaker for changing the pace of the game – Ashley Williams made more long ball attempts than any other outfield player during 2011/12, mostly fast yet grounded balls played forward to feet. As a ‘líbero’ you have the whole picture in front of you – you are in a position to say pim let’s go this way, pim let’s go that way.
the ‘volante de salida’ – This player must be particularly good at playing his way out of trouble and yet still excellent at winning the ball back. Typical characteristics are the ability to read the game, act as an outlet for under-pressure team mates consistently and continually pass the ball within pressure:
“I get the ball, I pass, I get the ball, I pass, I get the ball, I pass.” (Xavier Hernandez 2011)
Xavi’s hypnotic approach to the game summarises the mindset for the player in this particular zone and like Leon Britton should boast a remarkably high pass completion rate – a 93.3% pass rate was widely acknowledged in January 2012.
the wing backs – the players in this zone will need to be prepared to work particularly hard up and down the wing; both defensively and in more advanced positions. It is important to note that crosses will now be made from the by-line rather than from deep – within zone G (8). Liverpool currently boasts a number of players who can fulfil this role – Johnson, Kelly, Enrique.
the box to box creative midfielders – flair, the ability to change the pace of the game within a second, the decision of when to do so and an all round technical ability are required to fulfil the roles in zone 5. Zone 5 players are expected to continually find space amongst the ‘traffic’ and complete the triangles in possession. The players should not constantly look to create the spectacular but are expected to simply knit the possession and keep the ball more often than not. Steven Gerrard is one player who may have to adapt to fit within this role and play keep ball rather than looking to create often – however will no doubt still act as a catalyst to change the game.
the inside forwards – Messi, Alexis Sanchez, Sinclair, Dyer et al. all represent the highly creative, technically gifted and unpredictable player expected to fulfil the requirements of this zone. Luis Suarez is one player who could walk into the Barcelona model and will no doubt provide Liverpool with much of the answers in this zone.
the linking target man – This player is expected to be technically gifted when assessing his first touch, link up play and off ball movement. Carroll may well represent a target man, whether or not he adapts to act as a target man in this model is a question yet to be asked of him. While Carroll possesses world class arial ability, questions may be asked of his ability on the deck as well as his off ball movement. However, towards the end of the 2011/2012 season Carroll showed glimpses of being an extremely hardworking forward and may well find much success in this role. Anyone lucky enough to watch Fabio Borini will know that he was a huge loss to Swansea this past year, despite the success of Danny Graham.
the goal scoring opportunity and assist zone – this zone is vastly important zone to understand. The quality of chances cannot be stressed enough. Liverpool has, over the past five years, been noted for creating chance after chance without scoring. The players who break into this zone should be extremely good at making the decision as to whether a goal scoring opportunity is available or to turn back and play the ball back into the organism of Tiki-Taka. Barcelona however, highlighted the danger in over relying on this concept as their play became slower and more predictable as the game went on against Chelsea in the Champions League 2011/12. For situations like this, just maybe Steven Gerrard will recreate the brilliance he showed against Olympiakos (2004) and West Ham (2006). However, a balance between the Tiki-Taka patience and Gerrard’s direct play will be reworked under Rodgers without a doubt. As a general rule, one goal should be scored to every nine shots.
Behind the scenes the coaching team work extremely hard on not just educating the players, but analysing the strategy’s success. Chris Davies, a match analyst will be following Rodgers across the border and in this youtube video demonstrates just how much depth the strategy seeks to achieve.
The formation laid out sets about moving forward as a team and defending as a unit too. The team are expected, rather poetically, to move and press back and forth much like turquoise waves crashing onto shore:
“You win the ball back when there are thirty metres to their goal not eighty” (Guardiola 2009)
Whether or not Rodgers’ methodology is a success at Liverpool is the question. However, the success may come down to the amount of control Rodgers is offered over the whole club structure: from the academy to the first team. Liverpool have kept no secrets in their approach to managers and directors this summer but all roads point to one single conceptual view of football – that of Barcelona and La Masia; the hope of becoming a successful club in perpetuity.
The variable of ‘time’ presents Liverpool with the biggest challenge. Tiki-Taka football simply does not transpire from one single season of transitionary change – just ask A.S. Roma and Luis Enrique of 2011/12. Swansea were already a technically gifted side and good in possession long before Brendan Rodgers, both Paulo Sousa and Roberto Martinez provided the club with the foundations. The core of the Swansea side has been with the club for many years; Tiki-Taka has become the club’s tradition.
However, Liverpool needs change – the club needs to move away from the over reliance on two or three individuals and a move away from the many, many wasted chances over the years. Progress and longevity are the goals of Liverpool & Brendan Rodgers and it is this collaboration of ideologies that may well lead Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool back to the glory years of yesteryear, a glimpse of futuristic realistic success.
Liverpool needs to restructure from the ground up and no man is better suited to become Liverpool’s very own Pep Guardiola than Brendan Rodgers. Liverpool fans should expect the unexpected. But then again, what’s new here? Liverpool were 3 nil down at the Atatürk Stadium when half time came in 2005:
“…and Milan now, playing football out of this world…”
Clive Tyldsley’s voice echoed. The rest…
…tú sabes (you already know)