“I was used to standing at the back of his press conferences for a few years and learning how he dealt with the media,” Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said of Jose Mourinho, the man to whom he insists he owes everything in football. “Obviously he was a lot better than me…”
The smiles that broke out across Rodgers’ audience as he related this story revealed that the Northern Irishman learned a thing or two from one of the greatest charmers of them all, with whom he worked for three years as Chelsea’s head youth coach from September 2004. Rodgers’ immaculate preparations for occasions such as this include the command of small detail, possession of the anecdote or sound bite – the Mourinho style incarnate– and even the parade of a modesty which the Portuguese is not always so tutored in.
“I was a 30-year-old nobody who worked in youth development when I was assigned to come in to work with him,” Rodgers related, ahead of his first encounter with Mourinho tomorrow. “We hit it off straight away. I think at the time I was preparing that one day I would be a manager. I was clever enough to learn from top operators. From that moment in time, he gave me the confidence and self-esteem that has prepared me for the role I am in today.”
The parallels run into their man-management styles. Rodgers learned from Mourinho the value of understanding and tapping into the small details of his players’ lives, to help engender huge loyalty from them. He also displayed a Mourinho-esque knowledge of how to challenge officialdom when questioning the decision to allow a Greater Manchester referee, Lee Mason, to handle Thursday night’s defeat to an east Manchester team at the Etihad Stadium.
Rodgers, who said yesterday that this was not intended as an attack on Mason’s integrity, has received communication from the Football Association, asking him to explain his comments by Thursday. A fine is the most extreme punishment he will receive, though even that seems unlikely.
But the Rodgers/Mourinho parallels end there. It was when the Liverpool manager’s praise for Mourinho – “the emotion when I speak about Jose is one of friendship” – had stopped flowing that he put his finger on the critical difference between his squad and the one commanded by the man 10 years his senior. Mourinho, like Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini, could change all 11 players in his squad and do well, while injuries and the ineligibility of Chelsea loanee Victor Moses leave Rodgers with a mere 16 players to pick from tomorrow at Stamford Bridge.
Mourinho may be struggling to get Chelsea playing his way with quite the same rapidity that we saw in that autumn of 2004. Pellegrini’s City may be showing the defensive flaws which could make the first five months of 2014 challenging, with many of the big clubs to be played away from the Etihad. But Liverpool are the club with a midfield and defence which look most limited in resources.
Defeat to City revealed them to be a side capable of staring anyone in the eye, but the suspicion remains that they will yo-yo a little in the weeks through to May. “We are fluctuating,” Rodgers admitted. “That’s the way it will be until the end of the season. One day you’re first; one day you’re fourth.”
Thursday at the Etihad also left us none the wiser as to whether Liverpool are capable of holding out to win against the teams they are fighting for a top-four place with. The picture created by the wins over Manchester United and Tottenham – both struggling when defeated – is scrambled by the 2-0 defeat at Arsenal, which is why a victory tomorrow would carry huge psychological significance. The triumph at Tottenham left Liverpool’s players walking tall in training. The effect of a win at Stamford Bridge would be even greater.
Liverpool possess “an aggression, charisma and greater confidence and belief in the way we are working,” Rodgers said, with an articulate description reminiscent of Mourinho. We are about to find if he has watched his Svengali assiduously enough to deliver on a fraction of his budget.