FOR a man who is big on psychology, it was a revealing Freudian slip. Asked about his team’s championship run-in, Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, said that he would continue to do what he has been doing all season, which is look no further than the next game.
“And the next game is Manchester City,” he said before realising his mistake. “No it’s not,” he added with a smile. “The next game is West Ham.”
A fortnight later, with an awkward trip to Upton Park successfully negotiated, Manchester City at Anfield really is Liverpool’s next game, and boy are they concentrating on it. Despite Rodgers’ best attempts to pretend otherwise, it is their biggest match of the season, perhaps even their biggest domestic one in nearly a quarter of a century. Not since they beat Queens Park Rangers on 28 April, 1990 have they lifted the league trophy that once took up permanent residence at the Merseyside club.
On a day when the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster will be commemorated, a fevered mixture of excitement and emotion is sure to engulf Anfield. Liverpool, four points ahead of City – who have two games in hand – find themselves with the chance to move seven clear with four matches left, an unthinkable scenario at the start of this season, when their objective was merely to secure a Champions League place.
In the space of 12 remarkable months – the second year of Rodgers’ three-year plan – his team have gone from finishing seventh, 28 points behind the champions, to top of the table. They have won nine consecutive league matches with a free-scoring, crowd-pleasing combination of passing, pressing, and rapier counter-attacks, at the apex of which are the irrepressible Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.
In England’s most refreshing title race for years, Liverpool’s progress has been thrilling. Rodgers, too, has enhanced his image, and not just by losing a few pounds, having his teeth done and being photographed backstage with Tinie Tempah. The 41-year-old former Swansea City manager has proved that there is substance behind the philosophy and the principles and the catalogue of aphorisms that once prompted comparisons with David Brent (“My biggest mentor is myself because I’ve had to study ... so that’s been my biggest influence”).
It is easy to forget the reservations Liverpool fans had about Rodgers as recently as last season. He, after all, had replaced Kenny Dalglish, a club icon, in June 2012. The criticism was that he talked too much. That he had only one Premier League season on his CV. That he was too idealistic, too obsessed with passes, most of which went sideways. There was no Plan B. Guiding Swansea to 11th in the top flight was all very well, but it would take more than total football to bring the glory days back to Anfield.
Now, those shortcomings are viewed in a different light. Now, he is a manager with the courage of his convictions, a man who, unlike Dalglish, has the personality to get the media and the supporters on side. More than anything, the Northern Irishman who dedicated himself to coaching after injury ended his playing career at the age of 20 has replaced a functional, long-ball philosophy with an expansive, fluid style that allows his best players to flourish.
Results have lent credibility to his modern take on football manage-ment. Rodgers opened himself to ridicule in November 2012 by taking on board Steve Peters – author of The Chimp Paradox, and erstwhile psychiatrist for Great Britain’s Olympic cycling team – but 17 months later, as Liverpool go from strength to mental strength, it is being seen as a masterstroke.
As Rodgers has morphed from joke figure to genius, so have his team taken everyone by surprise. The rate of their progress has contributed to it. By arriving so suddenly into the title race, they are burdened by none of the expectation that weighs down their big-spending rivals. And their challenge has not been complicated by Champions League commitments.
Rodgers’ strategy has been to devise not just one system, but several. Depending on the opposition, or the occasion, his team have flitted from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2, 3-4-1-2 and, more recently, a midfield diamond, but in each case the recurring theme is a repertoire of game-changing passes, mostly from Steven Gerrard, and an explosive, top-scoring strike force that makes up for any weaknesses in defence. It has brought about a marked improvement in a long list of players from Raheem Sterling and Jon Flanagan to Martin Skrtel and Jordan Henderson. Even Suarez, who was on the brink of leaving last summer, has reached another level since being persuaded to stay.
Rodgers has won over the Liverpool support, but he also has the neutral on his side. For one thing, he is a British manager, precious few of whom are given the chance to prove themselves in the upper reaches of the Premier League. He has also bounced back from “failure” at both Watford and Reading, a rare achievement in the current climate. The man who started out as a development coach with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea gives youth a chance, and he has not depended on money to assemble a title-contending side.
The Great British public are also pulling for Gerrard, the 33-year-old captain whose best days were supposed to be behind him. He has enjoyed a new lease of life since being withdrawn to a deep-lying, midfield position that allows him to spray passes with the range and accuracy of an NFL quarterback. If anyone deserves a championship medal, it is the England international who has devoted his entire career to Liverpool.
Rodgers’ other great feat has been to modernise Liverpool without sacrificing their identity. Just as he has been brave with his principles and his young players, so has he chosen to embrace the club’s potentially burdensome past. He asked for the distinctive red nets, last seen at Anfield in the mid-1990s, to be used again. And he demanded that the original “This is Anfield” sign be taken from the museum and restored to the tunnel. He also sanctioned the return of Dalglish as an ambassador last October.
By meeting with former players, fans’ groups and local newspapers, he has welcomed into his corner those who shape opinion on Merseyside. Of course, there is a Machiavellian dimension to his manoeuvres, but if he is achieving results, who cares? For as long as they are winning, they will say that he “gets” Liverpool. That he understands the Kop. That he is the man, more than any other, to roll back the years. If he can preside over a win at Anfield today, when a long-awaited title will be on their minds, and Hillsborough in their hearts, they might just be right.