Ability to adapt has Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool thinking EPL title
Sometimes Brendan Rodgers just can't help himself. One of the knocks of his first year in charge of Liverpool was his management-speak habit, so much so that The Guardian published an online quiz where readers had to guess whether the quote was from the Liverpool coach or David Brent, the hapless paper merchant middle-manager from the British comedy The Office.
Sample lines included: "I will leave no stone unturned in my quest - and that quest will be relentless," and, "I've always said that you can live without water for many days, but you can't live for a second without hope." (Rodgers said both, by the way).
This week, in the build-up to Liverpool's title-defining game at home to Manchester City, Rodgers was at it again. He was talking to the British press about the impact of psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters, who has been helping improve the Liverpool players' mindset and, he added, his own. "
He's great for me to bounce ideas off, because command can be lonely," Rodgers said.
It was a moment of pomposity that has been, in the main, conspicuous by its absence this season. The Northern Irishman has played down expectations impressively, perhaps because he began the campaign with not so many himself. As the season has developed, though, Rodgers has changed formations more than any other Premier League coach; the 4-3-3 system that Liverpool is likely to start against Manchester City with is Liverpool's sixth different starting formation, according to Bloomberg Sports.
After a summer dominated by the Luis Suarez contract saga - Rodgers was ready to accept an offer for him, but owners Fenway Sports Group would not countenance his departure - Rodgers began the season searching for his best XI and formation. With Suarez suspended for the first five games, Liverpool played a 4-2-3-1 with Daniel Sturridge as the lone forward; then experimented with three at the back for the next five.
Often a back three includes a left back, center back and right back, but Rodgers's trio was three center backs - Daniel Agger, Kolo Toure and Martin Skrtel - and when Arsenal won 2-0 at the Emirates in November, he ditched it.
Rodgers was searching for how to get the best out of a Suarez-Sturridge partnership while keeping his preferred midfield three, and he found it two games later, playing a 4-3-3 in the pulsating 3-3 draw at Everton. Sturridge was injured in that game, so Rodgers went back to 4-2-3-1 with Suarez up top (interestingly, Suarez's goal record is better this season when Sturridge has not been alongside him) until Sturridge returned for the game against Stoke on January 12.
Back to 4-3-3 went Rodgers, and while the defense - which has conceded more goals than the likes of Crystal Palace this season - went AWOL, Liverpool won out 5-3. January was also the month when Rodgers was able to field Suarez, Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho together. At this point, his attacking jigsaw came together, with Liverpool beating Everton 4-0 and Arsenal 5-1 in quick succession.
While newly-promoted Spurs coach Tim Sherwood was comparing himself to a plumber trying to fix a washing machine with someone else's tool bag, Rodgers had taken a team with only three players he had signed - and eight he inherited - into the top four, then two (after the win at United) and, going into Sunday's game, top of the league.
That ability to improve on what he has already got - even though it has taken him a while to find the formula - is one of the most impressive elements of his Liverpool this season. Is Rodgers' success proof that British coaches can succeed at big clubs?
Sherwood, facing the ax at Spurs, might suggest it is, but Rodgers has not taken the easy route. In his 20s, he traveled to Spain and watched training at the Barcelona, Valencia and Sevilla youth academies.
"Spending time in Spain made me a better person," Rodgers told France Football last year. "I went to clubs which had a tradition of playing and training youngsters. I wanted to see the connection between the first team and the child, to see how closely the club develops these kids who are under nine, how these teams put into practice their ethics in the continuity of technique, and how to operate this model."
Rodgers is right to see himself as a pioneer when it comes to his 'journey,' a cringey term that he has of course used in the past. It is one that has also taken in failure as well, during a six-month spell at Reading when it dropped to 17th place in the Championship. In Italy, there is a belief that failure on a coach's resume is a part of the learning process; in England, one failure can lead to the premature end of your coaching career.
Regardless of what happens against Manchester City, this season has already been successful for Rodgers and Liverpool. You could even say it's been the best year of his career, not that he would.
"My life's work has been trying to show that British players can play," Rodgers told the press back in February.
Such comments don't sound so good when the team finishes seventh, as it did last year. But when Liverpool plays as it has been in recent months - it has won its last nine league games - Rodgers can be forgiven for the odd spot of verbosity.