Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team of 2008 to 2012 is rightly regarded as one of the greatest soccer sides of all time. Not only did Barca win multiple trophies in that period – most notably three La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues – they also helped to move the game forward with their style of play. At their best Barcelona were intoxicating to watch, with a focus on short passing, high pressing, and technique over physicality. The same methods helped Spain win Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, and Euro 2012.
As has been the case throughout soccer history, the dominance of a team with a clear tactical and stylistic identity provoked a reaction throughout the whole sport. Some managers and teams, like Jose Mourinho at Inter and Real Madrid, tried to create an approach that could counter Barcelona’s tiki-taka. Other coaches sought to emulate the Blaugrana’s style.
Brendan Rodgers had worked as part of Mourinho’s coaching staff at Chelsea, but he belonged firmly in the latter camp. The Northern Irishman set about promotion Barcelona-lite soccer at Swansea City, the club he took charge of in 2010. The project was successful, and the Swans won promotion to the Premier League for the first time in his debut campaign at the helm.
Swansea arrived in the top flight with a clear philosophy from which they had no intention of deviating. On the first weekend, they dominated possession in the opening stages of their meeting with Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. They ultimately lost the match 4-0 but won admirers for their bold, proactive style of play.
That was a theme throughout the entire campaign. Swansea survived comfortably, achieving their pre-season objective and then some. Interestingly, they ended 2011/12 third in the possession table, with only Arsenal and Manchester City averaging a higher share of the ball over 38 games.
On its own, guiding Swansea – or ‘Swansalona’ as they were nicknamed – to an 11th-place finish might not have been enough to earn Rodgers the Liverpool job. But that placing, combined with the style of play he employed at the Liberty Stadium, led to one of English soccer’s biggest clubs handing him the reins in the summer of 2012.
Rodgers initially continued to promote his possession-heavy style of play, with mixed results. Liverpool finished seventh in 2012/13, an improvement on the previous year’s eighth-place finish but hardly a huge upturn. They were also knocked out of the two domestic cups in the fourth round, having reached both FA Cup and League Cup finals under Kenny Dalglish in 2011/12.
Liverpool was expected to kick on in Rodgers’ second season in charge – and that is exactly what they did. Despite sitting fifth in the table at the midway point of the campaign, an extraordinary surge in the second half of the season saw Liverpool finish second, just two points behind Manchester City. Had it not been for a 2-0 home defeat by Chelsea in late April, the Reds would surely have won the title.
Over the course of 2013/14, Rodgers became a more pragmatic manager. Liverpool was at their most dangerous in attacking transition, with Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling, and Daniel Sturridge regularly running riot. Long spells of possession were out and rapid breaks were in. Rodgers embraced the qualities that his individual players offered him, and Liverpool scored 101 goals – more than any other runner-up in Premier League history.
Unfortunately for Rodgers, that would be as good as it got at Anfield. Suarez departed that summer, and the Reds slumped to sixth the following campaign. In October 2015 he was sacked and replaced by Jurgen Klopp, who won the club’s elusive 19th league title last term.
Rodgers, meanwhile, restored his reputation at Celtic, winning two Scottish Premiership titles, two Scottish Cups and three Scottish League Cups during his time north of the border. Now back in the Premier League with Leicester City, he has shown much greater pragmatism and flexibility at the start of this season than he did in his early days with Swansea and Liverpool.
Rodgers was once the Premier League’s foremost tactical fundamentalist. He declared that his Swansea team would never stray from their principles, even in the midst of a run of defeats. Rodgers had total faith in his possession-based style and saw no reason to ever deviate from it.
The Northern Irishman is a lot more flexible these days. His experience with Suarez, Sturridge, and Sterling at Liverpool taught him that managers should be willing to adapt to the players at their disposal. That does not necessitate complete abandonment of what you believe in as a coach, but it is a way of thinking that emphasizes the need for doses of pragmatism in among the idealism. Indeed, Leicester finished fifth in the Premier League last season but was fourth in the possession rankings; Rodgers, clearly, has not thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
Yet on occasion, the Leicester boss has only been too happy to sit deeper, play on the back foot, and unleash the pace of Jamie Vardy – the best counter-attacking striker in the Premier League – on the break. That was the formula used at the Etihad Stadium and the Emirates Stadium, bringing notable victories over Manchester City and Arsenal. It will also be the approach used against Leeds United on Monday, a game in which Leicester are +165 to win according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
Rodgers said after the 5-2 victory over City:
It was a brilliant performance and result. It has taken me 13 years to play that way – I’m very much about attacking and being aggressive. I always try to be positive but I need to think of other ways to get results in these games. We took out the press from the goal-kicks and went direct but overall the players had to work very hard.
Rodgers may prefer his team to dominate possession, but Leicester has used the contain-and-counter game plan to great effect at times this term. That is the sign of a mature manager.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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