Brendan Rodgers' powers of motivation face their moment of truth
Liverpool manager will concentrate on his players' 'mental fitness' and not just their ability in hunt for Champions League place
For Liverpool, the evidence that American owners can actually be good for you is clearly emerging. While Manchester City are using their own entirely new Major League Soccer franchise to help attract sponsors for both sides of the Atlantic, Anfield is cashing in on companies who have already signed up with baseball's Boston Red Sox, another Fenway Sports Group franchise, with Dunkin' Donuts the latest.
But it will take more than helping shift cakes to get the club back into the Champions League next season, a target upon which we have to assume Luis Suarez's future at the club is contingent. The squads of Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal are deeper and stronger than their own and when the pips really start squeaking, Brendan Rodgers won't have many players who know how the territory feels at the top.
The psychological component of Rodgers' management work is about to come to the fore like never before. In his press conference on Thursday ahead of the home match against Aston Villa – which last season was emblematic of Liverpool's poor spirit – he spoke several times of "mental fitness", arguing with typical Rodgers fluency: "We are not just going to win games on ability in football."
Last Sunday's 5-3 win at Stoke demonstrated that self-belief – which the manager thinks December's 5-0 win at Tottenham helped to build exponentially – is more abundant than last season. Rodgers was remembering the desultory Boxing Night defeat in the Potteries last season. There were family guests in the house when he got home to Formby that night but he just could not face the pleasantries, he related: "I went straight upstairs to the room and didn't come out."
The pressure of securing the fourth spot on which so much is contingent will require stronger mental faculties, too, because it may be very tight. Dr Steve Peters, the sports psychiatrist Rodgers has engaged at the Melwood training ground, has cautioned that a top-four place should never be more than an aspiration because achieving it is outside Liverpool's control. Rodgers agrees.
He is also ready to bring his experiences of his 2010-11 Championship promotion season at Swansea City to bear – when in a sense he faced just as much pressure. He recalled the nerve-wracking run of two wins from eight games in March and April 2011 which threatened to wreck that promotion. "We couldn't win away from home and I took the team away," Rodgers said.
The Western Mail described the plans Rodgers laid, taking the club for three days to the luxurious Pennyhill Park Hotel in Surrey – the five-star country house hotel used by England's rugby union squad. Rodgers' psychological emphasis seems to have been on how this pressure was something to embrace – not fear. The former manager Rafael Benitez articulated the same point about extinguishing fear in his Independent column this week. "It was a working break, to evaluate how well we have done throughout the season," Rodgers related. His Swansea team didn't lose again.
Rodgers said he envisaged his returning captain Steven Gerrard playing to the standard of Andrea Pirlo or Javier Zanetti in the deep-lying role he was given at Stoke. "Everything about his game fits with that controlling player; in that role where you need to move from side to side to block spaces, he has shown he has got that as well."
The manager's former Swansea players will tell you that he knew each one of them encyclopaedically, from their outside interests to their technical weaknesses. We are about to learn if knowledge and powers of motivation are enough to take Liverpool over the line.
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