Brendan Rodgers: Nice Guys Finish Last?


As this is my first proper opinion piece on this site, I’m gonna clear a few things up about the articles I’m going to publish here.

First, when it comes to the Premier League I have no dog in the fight. I’m a Scot and a Celtic fan, but I love football and I write about it passionately and honestly.

I hope over the course you’ll like what I put out there, but I’m saying this now to avoid allegations of bias.

I don’t favour one team over another; I simply write about what I see.

I thought long and hard about the subject of this piece before I started to write it.

I want to say right now that I like Brendan Rodgers, as a manager and as a man.

Today Liverpool secured a win against Aston Villa, and he bought himself a little breathing space.

As a neutral I am glad about that.

He comes across well when he speaks, and he loves the sport and I think he’s got a special place in his heart for Liverpool FC, which is a club that tugs on a lot of heart strings because of its history.

One of my club’s own idols, King Kenny Dalglish, is, of course, an icon at Anfield, and I’ve been down there for a few pre-season friendlies over the years and I enjoy the place and the fans, partly because they’re a lot like Glaswegians.

Because of that, there’s a part of me that was rooting for them all the way when they took the league title to the final series of games in 2013-14.

I was transfixed as his side scythed through the competition, winning eleven games on the bounce, before that night against Chelsea, where Mourinho masterminded one of the most negative football displays I’ve ever seen … but also one of the most effective.

It was brutal, and it was, in its own way, undeniably brilliant.

It was also solidly unsentimental; whilst every neutral was getting carried away by the romance of Liverpool going for an EPL title he simply wanted to win a game, and this ruthless winning mentality is what separates the best managers from the also rans. This and an ability to out-think rival bosses, even with inferior teams, is why Mourinho has Champions League titles at several clubs, and why Rodgers has never won a trophy in his career.

I read a piece in The Guardian on Thursday which offered an alibi to Rodgers and Liverpool because they compete at a “lesser financial level” to Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea, and I had to laugh.

Being a Celtic fan I know what a lesser financial level looks like, and the top half of the EPL and spending nine figure sums ain’t it.

In the last five years the club has spent nearly £350 million on transfers … a sum so astonishing it numbs the mind.

They are the sixth biggest spenders in European football over that timeframe.

They were the seventh biggest spending club in world football this season, ahead of Chelsea, Inter, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and a transfer ban encumbered Barcelona.

Yes, three of the four clubs who finished ahead of them over the five year period are Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City, but it’s not all about money.

Arsenal have consistently finished ahead of Liverpool despite spending less, and get into the Champions League almost every year and United chose the wrong manager last time around (I think they have the wrong guy this time around too, but that’s another article entirely) and paid the price for it in terms of their league finish.

There are other fundamentals, and Liverpool has always had those right.

Take their youth setup, for one. It is still capable of producing wonderfully talented footballers, some of whom have broken into the first team squad, like Jordon Ibe.

So few clubs in the EPL trust their young players enough; Liverpool always had a tradition of that, and the spending of hundreds of millions on mostly foreign players seems incongruous with the ideals of the club that produced Owen, Gerrard, Fowler, Sterling and others.

The responsibility of moulding a team at a club like Liverpool brings with it tremendous pressure, and at times Rodgers has looked like a man capable of rising to that. Luis Suarez spoke glowingly about him in his recent book, and clearly believes that the Irishman had a tremendous influence on his career.

It’s hard to dispute.

The Uruguayan arrived at the club a hugely talented footballer, but one yet to reach his peak. At Anfield, he was moulded into the deadly striker who attracted the attention of the world’s biggest club, and Rodgers has to be credited with helping that process along.

And yet, ironically, that is one of the things that counts most heavily against Rodgers at the moment, with all the pressure swirling around him.

Because the talent of Suarez was so prodigious that it elevated Rodgers’ Liverpool side above what it otherwise might have been. He was a transformative footballer, one who shone even in that cash-rich league, and so many have speculated on whether he made Liverpool, and thus Rodgers, look better than they were.

And there was another factor, of course, one that escapes few people who watched the Anfield club that season, and it was the performances of Steven Gerrard, who knew he was approaching the end of his time at the club and seemed to find an extra gear.

He was simply phenomenal for much of the season, and between him and Suarez they did lift the team above and beyond its limitations … and above those of the manager too.

Last season, with so much expectation surrounding the club, so much belief that they could go the extra mile, they made big signings – including that of Mario Balotelli.

The reasons for that one are obvious even from a distance; Brendan Rodgers was looking for someone with the same edgy genius as Suarez, a wildcard, someone with that spark of imagination and who might take gallus risks to win games for the club.

But Balotelli, for all the talent he possesses, and the madness with it, has never had the Suarez work ethic, and the Uruguayan has many more tricks in his repertoire than the Italian. This was a signing that made only a surface kind of sense; it was an enormous, and expensive, risk without any real obvious upside, and it has proved as big a failure as many of us thought.

That’s part of the problem with the Rodgers era at Liverpool; there have been too many signings of that sort, too many that don’t really make a lot of sense, like that of Firmino or that of Rickie Lambert, who barely even featured in the side.

It seems that for every Coutinho there were two of these guys, expensive flops who contributed little and sucked off the wage bill.

For the level of their spending, it’s impossible to argue against the notion that Liverpool have grossly underachieved.

That has to fall on the manager, because although Brendan Rodgers is a good guy he’s made dreadful mistakes.

He is innovative, but that’s not always a good thing.

This thing he has of constantly tampering with the tactics … it can leave opponents baffled, but it also tends to have the same effect on your own players, leaving them disoriented and unsure about how to react in a given situation.

Tactical consistency can become rigid and stale, and look like lack of imagination, but players grow into a system and learn what their roles are.

Enough chopping and changing and what you get isn’t a team game at all, but a squad of headless chickens out on the pitch, each man trying to find his own space, no cohesion and a manager on the side-lines looking increasingly isolated.

They won today, but Rodgers can sense a critical moment coming; it’s in the wind, and the only consolation, perhaps, is that there are others more likely to be fired than he is; Advocaat at Sunderland is a dead man walking, as anyone who’s watched their performances will be aware.

At their rivals, Newcastle, things hardly look better with the Toon Army on the edge of open revolt following a disastrous run of form that has Steve McClaren staring down the barrel of a gun. They dropped points at home to Chelsea today, despite being 2-0 up late in the game. Yes, that owed much to that ruthless streak Mourinho has and which he’s installed in his team … but a club shouldn’t drop points at home from such a position.

Yet that sense is most definitely there of a club being swept along in the tide of fate. Rodgers had almost scaled the heights, had almost restored this club to its rightful place as one of the top sides in the country, title contenders year in year out. How much of it was dependent on a couple of players is still up for debate; but those players are gone now, and he hasn’t replaced them, and he looks bereft of ideas in the wake of their departure.

When you hear him getting interviewed, when you see him on TV, Brendan Rodgers comes across as a Good Guy.

But the graveyards of footballing ambition are filled with those guys – idealistic, eager to please, decent men in a tough business – because all of them seem to lack those certain somethings that a full-on son of a bitch like Mourinho doesn’t; a ruthless streak, a cold pragmatism that puts winning above everything else … and in a results driven business, with supporters hungry for a kind of success they haven’t known in years, that’s all that matters.

That “nice guy” persona, and his desire to win games the right way, are the only reasons he’s not already drawing unemployment benefit or making the rounds of the studios as a part-time pundit as he waits for the next, inevitable, job opening. But today no-one down Merseyside way talks about him in the reverential tones they once did.

If he were a player still, he’d be on a yellow, deep into the second half, his team a couple down, in a must-win game where every fifty-fifty ball has to be keenly contested.

He can possibly afford one more major error … but beyond that lies disaster. The margin for error has been shrunk by far too many; it will only take a serious reversal in a game they ought to have won to bring it all crashing down.

If – when – it happens, I will be sorry to see him depart that stage, because for a while there he was a breath of fresh air, with a team capable of magic, helmed by a footballer of astonishing ability even if a questionable temperament. One is gone, the other seems destined to follow, and Anfield will be a different place on the day it happens … but a better one for it.

This once seemed like a marriage made in heaven.

But some marriages are just not meant to be.