Brendan Rodgers rose to prominence as a manager at Swansea thanks to the stylish, continental way his side played that led to them being dubbed “Swansalona”. But at Liverpool his record this season owes more to old-fashioned defensive solidity.
Three games, three wins, three clean sheets – a perfect way to begin any campaign and if that was not impressive enough, Rodgers added two centre-backs on transfer deadline day when Tiago Llori, 20, and Mamadou Sakho, 23, arrived for a combined fee of £23m.
They will compete with Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel and Kolo Touré for the two – or three – spots at the heart of the Liverpool defence. “It’s a nice problem to have,” said Rodgers, before his return to his former club tonight. “I’d rather this than have a lack of talent to choose from. It just keeps everyone on their toes.
“I want to protect the present and the future of the club. Centre-halves are so hard to find now. You look at some teams, they’ve still got ageing centre-halves because it’s very difficult to get a really good one.
“This summer, we were fortunate enough that two became available, one that we’ve been tracking for nearly a year in Tiago Llori. He can be a big talent. He’s 6ft 3in, so quick, got power and can jump. He needs to adapt to the physicality of the league. He’s one that can be a big talent.
“Sakho’s 23. He’s an experienced player. He has full international caps and looks an absolute monster in training. He’s one who’s ready for now. That’s what we want. We had the chance to do that and protect the club for maybe the next 10 years.”
Rodgers’ successor at Swansea, Michael Laudrup, believes Liverpool are already strong enough to reclaim their place in the Champions League after an absence of four years.
“We will still have to see how things will turn out as it is early in the season, but they are very close to Arsenal and Tottenham,” said the Dane.
“They are definitely a better side than last year. The players that came in last year have more experience, and they have added some quality in Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge, who have played a lot of games and settled in. They are a lot closer to Arsenal and Tottenham than they have been for a couple of years and they will be battling for the top four.”
Rodgers is winning over hearts and minds on Merseyside with the battling nature his side have displayed this year, but he acknowledges that style is just as important at Liverpool as it was at Swansea – and probably more so.
“I think that’s a part of the growth of the team,” he said. “You look at the win over Stoke [on the opening day of the season]. We were outstanding in our football but we had to dig in. It’s never easy at 1-0, no matter how dominant you are. These are characteristics we’re working on day in, day out, with exercises, on the pitch and off the pitch to improve that mentality.
“It doesn’t just happen. Sometimes when you come in as a coach with a philosophy and a certain way you want to play, people always think it’s just about the ball. And it’s not that.
“You’ve got to have the courage to play, to pass, but then you’ve got to have the steel, the will and the desire to win games. Over the period of time, that message has got through and over six or seven months or so, that’s proven on the field.
“Each of the three games have been different [this season]. Against Aston Villa we were outstanding in the first half. In the second half, tactically, we dropped deeper because we knew Villa’s strength was counter-attacking and running. We denied them space.
“Tactically, our players were brilliant and, when our keeper had to make a save at the end, he did that.
“Manchester United was about the result, about winning. We could have played well and been really dominant but then lost the game.
“But winning 1-0, pressing high in the first half and having to dig in in the second half, that told me we’re on the right path.
“Hopefully, we’ll continue to show all those fighting qualities and there’ll be times when we’re better. I said last year I thought the second half of the season would be better and I think we’ll see that again.”