Ian Herbert: New man sweeps into Anfield like a warm breeze off the Mersey
Rodgers is humble but not overwhelmed, realistic but not defeatist
The past is always on your shoulder at Liverpool. Witness the framed image at Brendan Rodgers' eye-line in the Anfield press room yesterday of a supporter raising a scarf bearing the words "Kenny Dalglish – Legend". The new manager's achievement, in a debut performance of lucidity and modernity surpassing any new arrival here in years, was to take the heritage along with him.
His casual reference to becoming the club's second Northern Irish manager – as if the name of John McKenna, Liverpool's first, should be assumed knowledge – was as deft as the way he drew a common identity around this city and his "roots back home" in Carnlough, on the Antrim coast. He referenced Dalglish, recalled formative Sundays in the 1970s and early 1980s, sitting and watching the side with his Liverpool-supporting father and grandfather. He traced an indelible link between his own footballing principles – pressing to win the ball high up the field and, with a distinctly Barcelona inflection, retaining it so relentlessly that the opposition feel it's "the longest 90 minutes of their life" – and the club's rich past.
It won't be a case of ripping things up and starting again, Rodgers said, because "this is a club that is historic for the identity, style and DNA of its football. They are an educated group of supporters at this club and, OK, there might be watered down versions of the style of play, but you can't come to Liverpool Football Club and play a direct game of football, lumping-it-style. This is an educated group of supporters."
Even those Liverpool fans who have set their faces most severely against the recruitment of a manager without a title or cup behind him cannot fail to be attracted to this wedding of his football with theirs, yet the most sophisticated aspect of Rodgers' delivery yesterday came in the way that he embedded them in his call for realism. "The reality is that this is a club where I need to align the playing group with the supporters," he said. "There is an imbalance at the minute. You've got some of the world's best supporters here and the playing group is not quite at that level yet. You've got some wonderful players here, some wonderful talent, but the work over the next number of years is to see if we can get that aligned with where it has been for many years. The reality is that, right now, it's not. I'm not going to sit here and bluff and say anything other than what I believe to be the truth. What excites me is the motivation to get that level back up again and that is why I came here. That's what brought me here."
Motivating and yet not breathless, humble but not overwhelmed, realistic but not defeatist – it's easy to see why Rodgers accelerated to the top of Fenway Sports Group's candidates when he met them. He exuded the air of a man for whom this kind of position was a natural elevation and after months of attritional encounters with Kenny Dalglish, couching a question with diplomatic caveats and then flinching as you waited to see if the reply would be returned with sarcasm, it felt like a warm breeze, drifting in off the Mersey.
His search for the soul of the fans is wise, considering how fatefully Roy Hodgson failed in that respect, though the tougher and really significant challenge, of course, is whether Rodgers can take the players with him. Hodgson lost a number of them in his regime of team-shape drills at Melwood. Rodgers' two all-important telephone calls went in on Thursday to Steven Gerrard, with England at The Grove Hotel in Hertfordshire, and Jamie Carragher, in Dubai. He sensed Gerrard had already done his homework with England's Chelsea contingent, who know him as that club's youth and reserve team manager from 2004. Carragher got back to him yesterday morning. At the age of 39, he will be imposing a revolution on Liverpool's players. His principles decree that individuals will be subjugated to roles in a disciplined tactical system, at the expense of their instincts. There will be casualties, though some will fit especially well, including Pepe Reina, coached to play as part of the team in the Barcelona academy.
The defenders earned Rodgers' name checks yesterday and the all-important midfielders did not, Gerrard and Craig Bellamy apart. Perhaps that was attributable to the scarcity of time, rather than an observation on Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam, Jay Spearing or Lucas Leiva. A specialist "controller", of the kind Leon Britton was for Rodgers at Swansea, may be a requirement.
"There are some big talented players here but there is no doubt that to get the team to play how I want to play I'll need to bring in other players," Rodgers said. "No question. To play the offensive, attacking football we did at Swansea we had to make changes in terms of recruitment. In terms of the core group here there is some brilliant talent. What we will need to do is make a number of adjustments and bring in players for key positions that will allow us to play that way. You are looking at certain individual players and the principle of your game is based on your players. [But] I don't think it is a total rebuild.
"I really like Pepe Reina, he's came through at Barcelona so he will know straight away the identity of this way I would like to bring in and the principles of the game. Defensively... you've got Glen Johnson who can be the world's best right back, he can bomb, he can run... I know Glen from my time before [at Chelsea]."
Of Andy Carroll, the manager observed that "when you come to a club like this one the shirt weighs much heavier than any other shirt. My job next year is to try and lift some of that weight off the shirt. I'll take the pressure." He doesn't know if the stars of Liverpool will be as acquiescent as those of Swansea to the system and to the work ethic required to press so relentlessly. "I think every player will tell you they would love to play that way," he said. "The question is: does every player want to work that hard to play that way? It is hard work. For me, a lot of our game is based on pressing. Our game at Swansea was ... lauded. What people didn't recognise is that to have the ball for 65-70 per cent of the game you have to get it back very, very quickly."
Rodgers remembered the atmosphere he encountered when, as Chelsea youth team coach, he attended the club's losing 2005 Champions League semi-final at Anfield. "The [Chelsea] players said they had never experienced support like that. That was ultimately what won the game and that is what I want to do here," he recalled. This was a convincing, winning vision, though it will require time. Those supporters whom he was so careful to invoke must allow him that.
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