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How Brendan Rodgers has turned Liverpool’s league fortunes around

Depending on your point of view, Liverpool may or may not be title contenders. What isn’t in doubt though is that they are one of the Barclays Premier League’s most improved teams as evidenced by them being 14 points better off this season than they were at the same stage of the previous one. Another eye-catching statistic is that they have scored more goals at this stage of the season than they have in any other in their illustrious history.

Here, Tony Barrett examines the methods that have allowed Brendan Rodgers to turn Liverpool into a team that could yet challenge for the Barclays Premier League title even if the manager himself continues to play down their chances.

Relaxing his commitment to ‘death by football’

That may seem strange after Liverpool’s recent demolition jobs on Arsenal and Everton, but when Rodgers talked of inflicting “death by football” his vision was for it to be caused by “relentless possession.” Everton and Arsenal were both on the receiving end of heavy defeats but they also had more of the ball. They were not passed into submission, they were brutally ripped apart by counter attacking football built on the pace, movement and ruthlessness of Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge, an attacking trident that Rodgers believes is at least the equal of any other in the Premier League.

Three of the nine goals Liverpool have scored in their last two home fixtures have come from the ball being won and released early. Defence is being turned into attack in the blink of an eye; there is no passing for the sake of it. Rodgers has recognised the strengths of the players and has developed a strategy to make them as effective as they possibly can be. His development as a manager is mirrored by the progress that has been made by his team. Liverpool can play possession football but they are better suited to allowing opponents to have the ball, pressing them remorselessly and then blitzing them.

The change in emphasis from “death by football” to conquest by counter was reflected in the aftermath of the Merseyside derby when Rodgers evoked memories of a vintage piece of John Motson commentary about Liverpool being “at their most dangerous when they don’t have the ball.”

Rodgers said: “I remember watching Bayern Munich against Barcelona last year and it was 9-0 on aggregate over the two legs. Barcelona dominated possession as you’d expect but everyone could see over the course of the two games the team with the most dangerous possession was Bayern.

“When you look at the stats of the modern game I’m big on controlling domination of the ball, but against Everton we were able to dominate without the ball. Tactically, where we are compared to when I arrived 18 months ago, it is very, very pleasing.”

Acknowledging and learning from his own mistakes

Increasingly, one of Rodgers’ greatest strengths is the ability to hold his hands up and admit that he has got it wrong. “I was too aggressive in my tactics,” he admitted after an over-ambitious approach against Aston Villa led to one of Liverpool’s poorest performances of the season and a home draw that cost them two points. Taking responsibility has improved his already solid standing within the dressing room with Liverpool’s players appreciative of their managers’ willingness to take the pressure off them and his refusal to try and shift the blame.

It isn’t just about dressing room mechanics, though. Even more significant is Rodgers’ growing knack of finding solutions to problems he has caused. The formation that let him down against Villa allowed Liverpool to be over-run in midfield with Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson out-numbered and out-manoeuvred. There were no shortage of critics who warned that their partnership would not work, that there was no balance or blend and that there was too much emphasis on attack and not enough on defence.

So what did Rodgers do? He added another attacker to the mix in the form of Philippe Coutinho. It was defiant and it was also a risk. Had the lightweight Brazilian got lost in the midfield maelstrom, as many had expected, and the team’s form suffered as a result the Liverpool manager would have been lambasted. The opposite has happened, though, with Coutinho’s transformation from brilliant but inconsistent wide attacker to becoming the creative heartbeat of Liverpool’s midfield is one of the great tactical innovations of this season.

The wondrous through balls that created goals for Sturridge against Arsenal and Everton have been the most eye-catching evidence of Coutinho’s metamorphosis but equally crucial to the way Rodgers sets his team up has been the 21-year-old’s ceaseless pressing of opponents. The ball player is now also a ball winner, often high up the pitch, and that alone has allowed Rodgers to restore equilibrium to his midfield but it wouldn’t have been possible without his own willingness to admit mistakes and determination to correct them.

Turning into Tony Pulis

This is in no way a criticism. It is anything but. For decades, Liverpool have ranged from being at worst useless and at best functional when it comes to making the most of set pieces. In their 1980s heyday they made so little use of them that it became a standing joke that even led to a fanzine being named Another Wasted Corner. Under Rodgers, those days have become a thing of the past and Liverpool are now the most ruthless set piece team in the Premier League.

So far this season, they have scored 23 goals from corners and free kicks (although it should be stressed that Luis Suarez’s shooting ability from dead ball situations has contributed to this remarkable figure). Prior to the Merseyside derby, Roberto Martinez had warned his players that there is no better team in the country at taking advantage of set pieces but to be forewarned was not to be forearmed in this case as Liverpool’s opening goal came when Gerrard headed home Suarez’s near post corner.

Similar happened at the weekend when Arsenal were twice struck by the same lightning bolt in the opening eight minutes of the game with Martin Skrtel taking maximum advantage of Gerrard’s expert set-piece delivery. Liverpool’s opponents are becoming increasingly aware that if they don’t beat them on the ground, they could very well beat them in the air. It’s a volatile mix and one that has given Liverpool an added attacking dimension. It isn’t rocket science either; it just comes down to work on the training ground and an increased urgency to attack the ball.

Helping Sterling reach his peak

On December 2, Raheem Sterling made his second league start of the season – it could not have gone much worse. Bereft of confidence, lacking in match practice and burdened by expectation, the then 18-year-old was hauled off after 66 minutes following a listless display as Liverpool slumped to a 4-1 defeat away to Hull City. Sterling’s performance prompted his career to be prematurely and unfairly written off in some quarters and there was even a suggestion (albeit a wholly inaccurate one) that the winger would be sent out on loan because Rodgers believed he was not ready to make a positive impact on his team.

Only two months on from that chastening experience at the KC Stadium, Sterling’s form is such that public opinion has now swung in favour of the teenager being included in England’s World Cup squad. The potential that always existed – which was recognised initially by Rafael Benitez and then developed by Kenny Dalglish – is now being unlocked by Rodgers and Sterling is suddenly seen as an indispensible part of Liverpool’s attack. Tactically flexible, surprisingly strong, direct, skilful and always willing, the Jamaican-born teenager is terrorising opposition defences on an increasingly regular basis as Arsenal discovered to their cost on Saturday.

The talent was always there. Sterling was and is a special player, one who is capable of becoming a genuine star for club and country, but there was a spell when he appeared to be losing his way. Fault for that lay at his own feet but also at his clubs’. Sterling was responsible for his own loss of focus but working under four managers at Liverpool in only three years was hardly conducive to the development of a precociously talented young player who needed direction and consistent coaching. Rodgers has given Sterling the stability that he needed and he also given him the tough love that could be the making of him.

“We are very focused on nurturing the young player,” Rodgers said in November. “Someone like Raheem had a great first six months, a mixed six months after that, which was natural, and now is coming back to showing a level. It was going to be very difficult to maintain the level that he set himself. For him now, football has to be very much at the forefront of his mind and if it is he is a talent. He showed over the first six months of last season that he has a future in the Premier League and at Liverpool.

“I always say to players and in particular to young players that at Liverpool we work on what we call the ‘core’. We get the ‘commitment’. Once we have do that we will ‘organise’ a plan for them to get into the first team. When that happens it is their ‘responsibility’ and hopefully after that we can deliver ‘excellence’ in their performance level that keeps them there. If they don’t they will fall by the wayside.”

Having been on the receiving end of that warning, Sterling has responded to it to such an extent that on Saturday Rodgers described him as “the best English winger in the league.” On current form, such praise is not misplaced.

An absence of stubbornness

Liverpool’s starting line-up against Arsenal was part accident, part design. There were players that Rodgers wants, ones that he could have done without and others that he had almost written off previously. At an earlier stage in his tenure, the Liverpool manager would have not have been averse to allowing Jordan Henderson, Martin Skrtel and Jonathan Flanagan to move on. When the idea of signing Daniel Sturridge was first raised he was unconvinced. Guilherme Siqueira of Granada was Rodgers’ favoured left back option when Liverpool signed Aly Cissokho on loan from Valencia last summer.

In the case of each individual, though, Rodgers has been prepared to back down in the face of either their own form, the advice of others at the club or just his own instinct. The effect has been the creation of a meritocracy in which players at Liverpool know that if they train and play well the chances are that they will be in the side. The manager has demonstrated that he will not cut off his nose to spite his face and also that he is willing to change his mind.

The recent emergence of Flanagan is the most obvious example with the full back now holding down a regular starting place having previously been deemed surplus to requirements earlier in the season. At that stage, Rodgers had been ready to allow Flanagan to go out on loan but a move failed to materialise. The Academy graduate buckled down in training, to such an extent that before the Goodison derby he stopped a session and told his players to give Flanagan an ovation, and he is now seen as one of the major success stories of Liverpool’s season. Credit for that goes to the player himself but it must also be shared with his manager who has created an environment in which improvement is possible as a result of his own lack of stubbornness.

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