There is more than one path to unexpected success. Brendan Rodgers and Paul Lambert have this season set about similar tasks in different ways and no Premier League managers, with the possible exception of Alan Pardew, can claim to have routed what was predicted in quite the same way.
Newly-promoted, Rodgers' futuristic and refined Swansea City and Lambert's brave and tireless Norwich City were expected to battle to stay up. Both clubs have been in the third tier recently enough to bear its mark. But this season they have excelled.
The teams meet today at the Liberty Stadium, separated by just two points in mid-table. Norwich are ninth, Swansea are 10th and the surface of the relegation zone is a good 10 points beneath them. But the managers owe their impressive records to different approaches.
Swansea's passing has thrilled those who are used to promoted sides playing dour percentage football, desperately hoping second balls and hustled throw-ins will keep them afloat. Playing 4-3-3, valuing possession more than almost any other side and trusting their techniques and their plans, Swansea have shown up a lack of ambition in better-resourced rivals.
Rodgers is proud of the recognition his team have won. "Look at the shift in mentality during our time in the league," he said this week. "In the first couple of months I was asked in every press conference and media interview, 'Can we play this style of football and be effective?' Now there is a sudden change and it's worth noting. Now in every press conference it is asked, 'Why doesn't everyone else play like Swansea?' It's been a pleasure to watch."
Of course, success is important. Attractive relegation football is still relegation football: ask Tony Mowbray, Ian Holloway or, possibly, Roberto Martinez.
"The game is about winning," said Rodgers' friend and rival, Lambert. "[Swansea] are getting lots of plaudits, rightly so, but if they were playing the way they have been playing and hadn't picked up one single point, I think [Rodgers] would be pretty sure to change his philosophy to pick up points as quickly as he can."
Lambert's approach is certainly different. While only Arsenal have had more possession than Swansea this year, only Stoke have had less than Norwich. That is not to say that Norwich are not exciting, but that their successes are built on Lambert's remarkable ability to motivate his players, and on his instinctive pragmatism. The winning of the game, rather than any theory, is Lambert's guide, and he is rather good at it.
"We have had to come from the lower reaches of League One," Lambert said. "The only thing that was keeping Norwich off the bottom was Southampton's deduction. That is the way the club was. We had to come up from the third tier and go again." To secure a team in the top flight after consecutive promotions would be quite something. "If Norwich stay in this league that will surpass anything," Lambert said. "It will beat winning League One, it will beat promotion."
Lambert is keen to buy hungry players. Last summer he signed Elliott Bennett and Anthony Pilkington from League One and Bradley Johnson and Steve Morison from the Championship. In a 2-0 win over Bolton last Saturday, Bennett, a winger, played most of the game at right-back and the right-back Kyle Naughton played in the middle.
"[Their style] has still been effective in terms of winning games," Rodgers said. "Paul won't care as long as they are winning games and that is the nuts and bolts of it."
Beyond the differing approaches is a genuine personal warmth, an acknowledgement of shared goals and obstacles and a shared intensity of focus. "I'm delighted for Norwich that they are also doing well," Rodgers said. "Paul is a good man and I enjoy his company."
The sentiment is repaid. "I have a lot of time for Brendan Rodgers, I really have," Lambert said. "I think he is a terrific guy, and the way he has done it. He is a really humble guy but he has had a lot of success."
He has, certainly, but no more than Lambert.Reuse content