Brendan Rodgers: Just like Mourinho... only different

Obsessive, ambitious, eager to learn and with no playing career; can the Northern Irishman be Liverpool's Special One?

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Before the start of last season, his first as a Premier League manager, Brendan Rodgers attended the annual pre-campaign get-together of the men in charge. "Surreal" was his description of sitting down among the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger.

There cannot have been too many in the room who would have expected to see Rodgers back again – Swansea were favourites among just about everybody outside the bottom corner of west Wales to be one-season wonders. But come August the 39-year-old Northern Irishman will be back, and this time a few heads might turn on his arrival.

It has been something of a surreal rise for a coach who has, in the stark reality of the numbers game so favoured by Liverpool's US owners, won only six more games than he has lost as a manager, has overseen a total of 12 Premier League victories and was ushered out the door at Reading less than three years ago.

There are other numbers, though; his Swansea had a better home record than Liverpool last season, and – here's where stat-obsessed American ears prick up – his Swansea dispatched some 2,000 more passes than Liverpool over the course of last season.

In his broom cupboard of an office under the stairs in the Glamorgan Health and Racquets Club, which Swansea use as their training base, Rodgers had a plaque on display that reads "Dream it. Believe it. Achieve it". It was not fixed to anything, so will no doubt be popped into a cardboard box when the office is cleared and reappear in the more roomy surroundings of Melwood, Liverpool's training ground. On the face of it, it's one of those cloying catch-alls, beloved of modern management gurus and David Brent types; unless you do exactly what it says on the plaque.

Rodgers' playing career at Reading was abruptly ended before he managed a senior outing – a fact that will be held against him in some quarters – because of a knee injury. Coaching became the dream, albeit a meticulously planned one. First came the gathering of knowledge. Rodgers spent chunks of his early 20s in the Netherlands and Spain; that he was a dutiful observer at Ajax and Barcelona will come as little to surprise to those who have watched his Swansea side play over the last two seasons.

He learned Spanish to aid his learning of his sport – when he later joined the Chelsea coaching staff, he would badger the squad's Spanish players to practise his language skills.

He is an obsessive, in particular a football obsessive. When once asked what he does to switch off, he ummed and ahhhed and suggested golf – before adding that he had abandoned his last round after nine holes to rush back to the office when an idea occurred to him. "I'm quite boring," he said.

On Sundays it is all he can do to prise himself away from watching games on TV. "Football is 24 hours a day, I can't stop," is how Rodgers put it. "When you get to two in the morning and you're watching German football, then you do think, hang on..."

His coaching career began at Reading, where he combined overseeing the academy with being the club's welfare officer (he well understood the crushing disappointment of failing to achieve that playing dream). That, intertwined with the knowledge he gathered abroad, remains at the core of his approach.

"I've always seen my job as to look after the welfare of the group that I'm working with and the club," he told The Independent last season, sitting in that broom cupboard of an office. "[I had] a duty of care for people and it's not rocket science. If you show me you care, and I show you I care, then we can work together. I'll hopefully help people in every aspect of their life. I want to help them be the best player they possibly can but I also want to help them be the best person they possibly can."

There is an obvious difference between applying that at upwardly mobile Swansea, with a collection of players to whom he has offered second, and perhaps, final chances, and Liverpool. It is also an approach that needs to be allowed time to come to fruition. He liked to describe Swansea as a project, and one that extended not only through the first team and what they did on the pitch but filtered throughout the club.

Rodgers lasted only 23 games when he returned to manage Reading, after three-quarters of a season at Watford. There were only six wins before there was a parting of ways, one which Rodgers accepted was coming. Seven months later he arrived in Swansea and the potential that had been adroitly spotted by Jose Mourinho began to be realised.

"I like everything in him," Mourinho once said of Rodgers. "He is ambitious and does not see football very differently from myself. He is open, likes to learn and likes to communicate."

Rodgers was a member of Mourinho's staff at Stamford Bridge. The two men share a birthday but are separated by a decade, and a significantly different style of play. They have remained in occasional touch since Rodgers left west London to pursue his own career.

Since he set out on his own Rodgers has become friendly with Paul Lambert, two young managers who have built their reputations in the Premier League's western and eastern outposts. Both these men of ambition now face their biggest tests. For Rodgers, the surreal has become real.

Anfield in-tray: Five issues Rodgers must address

1. Convince the players he is the man

Brendan Rodgers clearly commands the devotion of his Swansea players: he has taken them up to the Premier League. But gaining the respect of millionaire superstars is rather different. They might wonder what Rodgers has done to earn this role, especially with no playing career behind him. Andre Villas-Boas, another bright young coach who never played, could not win over the Chelsea players. Rodgers must avoid the same fate at Liverpool.

2. Teach his style of possession football

It is not always easy to mould players to your style of play. At Reading, Rodgers struggled to adapt a hard-running squad inherited from Steve Coppell, and was soon dismissed. At Swansea, Roberto Martinez and Paulo Sousa had already put the system in place. Liverpool have not played good football since Rafael Benitez left. Rodgers must undo the failings and teach his own game.

3. Win the Liverpool supporters over

Roy Hodgson was never popular at Anfield, after a series of public mis-steps and poor displays. Rodgers must avoid both, and convince the fans he is the man to bring back the successes of the Benitez era. But if he is unpopular, the board might be as swift as they were with Hodgson.

4. Deal with last year's recruits

Had Kenny Dalglish bought better, he would still be in the job. Rodgers must either include Jose Enrique, Andy Carroll, Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson or find willing buyers. Henderson might fit into his new system but will the rest?

5. Decide how to use Steven Gerrard

Rodgers needs his midfielders to keep the ball: at Swansea he used the precise talents of Joe Allen and Leon Britton. Gerrard is a huge figure at Liverpool but after three poor years Rodgers must wonder how well-equipped he is for that sort of work now.

Jack Pitt-Brooke