Time has changed, but not philosophy for Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers
March 16 has become a date of significance for Liverpool over the last two seasons.
In 2013, it marked the date that the club was officially eliminated from Premier League title contention -- the third fastest time it had been knocked out of the race since its last title -- after a miserable 3-1 loss to Southampton at St. Mary's left the club 29 points behind first-place Manchester United with only 24 points left up for grabs.
March 16 this year was different. Again a team was comfortably outplayed, and languished so far behind in the title tilt that doing the math simply seemed a cruel punchline. This time though, it wasn't the Reds. David Moyes and his deficient United were humiliated by Steven Gerrard's two penalties and a late Luis Suarez strike at Old Trafford, where Liverpool had failed to formulate a victory since 2009. The sums that now mattered were that Brendan Rodgers' side was second, four points behind league-leading Chelsea with a game in hand, while United sat in the depths of seventh place.
While Liverpool's fortunes have changed with time -- the club sits a mere three games away from the title, a prize that has been on a pedestal for 24 years -- the transformation has been procured through the same ideals Rodgers preached upon taking the reins at Anfield. Much has been made of his supposed alteration in approach and emphasis, but the Manager of the Year favorite dismissed such as fiction with a vital game against severely wounded title challenger Chelsea in the offing on Sunday.
"I've seen lots of stuff written about how I've changed, which is totally not true," Rodgers said. "What has changed has been the speed of the game, the understanding of our game, the understanding of the philosophy amongst the players and their intelligence around has improved and that's what has helped us to where we are.
"I've seen stuff saying I'm more pragmatic, but nothing has changed, except with time and the constant exposure to the ideas, the players have adapted.
"When I first came in about 20 months ago, we had some fantastic performances, but didn't always get the results. But as time went on and players started to understand the methods and the exercises and looked to bring that into the games, we started to see the rewards from that work. We had an introduction of players [Daniel Sturridge and Coutinho in particular] who were important for the philosophy."
Part of the suggestion is that Rodgers has parked off his "death by possession" penchant to push the counterattack as the club's premier modus operandi. With Liverpool managing less than 10 of its 96 goals on the break, Rodgers highlights the flaw in this analysis.
"Nothing that's been asked is different from the first day I've come in here. Players have just interpreted what we wanted them to do," Rodgers said. "Our first focus is always our pressing; can we get the ball back very quickly? Can we make it very difficult for the opponent? Can we suffocate them? And then when we have the ball, let the opponent run and chase it. The other moments we've become better in, is transition moments.
"When we've won the ball back, we look to exploit the spaces. People will say 'Rodgers has changed from possession football to counterattack.' We've only scored nine goals out of 96 on the counter."
Another observation this season has been Rodgers' willingness to throw away his "template" and be more flexible in his tactical approach. He argues that his ability to tweak formations and personnel has always been present, but simply escaped the spotlight.
"You look, for example, at our game against Wigan [at Anfield in November 2012], I made a change after 20 minutes," Rodgers noted. "We were playing 4-2-3-1, we weren't pressing the ball the same, and we didn't have control of the game. I took young Suso off, put on Jordan Henderson and we flipped to 4-3-3.
"That gave us control and dominance again. If I do that move now, it's different. It will be talked about, because we now have success, people will notice and pay attention to the differences in tactical adjustments. Our style has remained the same. When I was Swansea manager, I played 4-3-3, we couldn't play a diamond because we didn't have two strikers, our strengths was on the sides. So your beliefs, style and demand stays the same, just the system alters."
Rewinding back to last March, Rodgers never felt tempted to deviate from his plan for Liverpool. Not then, or ever. While this is largely a credit to his "unswerving belief," it is also a product of the constant introspection he undertook during the seven torturous months he spent isolated from the game, following his departure from Reading in 2009.
"That was part of my reflection when I left Reading, that I did veer from my philosophy under pressure for results, I wasn't being true to myself," Rodgers said. "I can adapt and be pragmatic of course, but I had success all my life as a coach working with players and developing them in my way - which is not just the right or wrong way, but how I operate, what I've devoted my life to, what I've rehearsed a million times on the training field.
"What I needed to do here is ensure that the players were building their confidence, that they knew if it is 0-0 and we're struggling to break a team down, it will come. And that's the trick, when the players are confident and have belief, when it all does click they are rewarded for it and achieve through it. Then comes the acclaim for their dynamics, the style, the beauty of the football. But you have to go through all the barriers and hurdles first before you can get there."
What has changed though, is how Rodgers carries out his commands.
"The longer I've been here, I've been able to bring out my personality. My leadership has changed," he admitted. "When I first came in, I was very autocratic, very hard-line; 'This is my philosophy, this is how I work.' I then became more democratic in my second phase here, more educational.
"I had the players I want and they started understanding, so it was about furthering that. I want to be here for a long time, and you can't be autocratic and expect to last a long time. I'm now at a stage where I'm multi-functional, multi-dimensional; managing, coaching, facilitating, developing, enhancing, improving."
Rodgers, after weathering the storm of a seventh-place finish in 2012-13, has adapted over time, and so too has his Liverpool, which is closing in on ending a 24-year league drought.
Melissa Reddy can be followed on Twitter @1stLadyOfFooty.