Liverpool look set to win their first top-flight title since 1990, built by the hands-on approach of Brendan Rodgers on a vastly inferior budget
By Jay Jaffa
“Winning the league is about the best team, not just the best players.” So said Brendan Rodgers in an interview with the BBC in August 2013.
And so in a season where Manchester City (€110m) and Chelsea (€130m) spent around €240 million combined over two transfer windows, Liverpool sit at the summit of the Premier League, rising from a seventh-place finish in the space of 12 months.
|SPLASHING THE CASH
The Premier League is far from done and dusted of course, but we can begin looking back on one of the most unique seasons in the last couple of decades and draw from it a number of conclusions.
One of the common themes from the success stories of this campaign – Liverpool, Southampton, Crystal Palace and Everton – has been the prominence of managers achieving a lot on comparatively smaller budgets.
They have not sought acclaim for their methods but in the era of pop-up billionaire playthings, perhaps it is time to begin paying homage to the success of some good old-fashioned coaching.
Ever since moving to Anfield and appearing in the television documentary ‘Being: Liverpool’, Brendan Rodgers has been the torch-bearer for the merits of hands-on coaching.
Sure, he is not the first manager to be filmed on the training field issuing instructions, discussing ideas and delivering advice but there have been numerous anecdotes from his time as a young coach that suggest the Northern Irishman is more than just a manager by name only; the evolution of his side tells us that much.
His remarkable success this season has seen the Reds stick two fingers up at the megabucks on offer at City and Chelsea and prove that money does not always buy titles. When all is said and done Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho, two of the most respected managers in the game, could finish 2013-14 with one solitary Capital One Cup between them.
It is the case at Everton too, where Roberto Martinez replaced David Moyes and spent a meagre €21m. His use of the loan market has been widely commended but it is on the pitch that the Toffees’ accomplishments provide the best testimony to the Spaniard’s talent.
Everton sliced through Manchester United on Sunday, happy to forgo their usual possession-based style and sacrifice the ball for counterattacking opportunities. He has shown he is able to adapt and show flexibility on matchdays – the product of sound coaching on weekdays.
Many scoffed at Tony Pulis’ decision to join Crystal Palace in November 2013. Why on earth would anyone take the job at Selhurst Park and expect to keep the Eagles in the Premier League? Well, the Welshman displayed the coaching credentials that saw him have such success at Stoke upon taking them into the top flight and has mathematically kept them up with three games still to play.
Speaking to reporters at Upton Park after the club’s fifth consecutive win on Saturday, Pulis explained: “We sat down and had a look at the strengths of the team and we’ve worked out a system which would suit them. You have to be strong and resilient but we’ve got great pace on the break.
“They’ve really bought in to what we’ve tried to do. They’ve worked very hard on the training ground, that doesn’t just happen, you have to work very, very hard.
“They’ve stomached a lot of weeks without having days off and a lot of stuff that would bore a lot of people. But they’ve bought into it and it’s got results.”
Palace have conceded just seven goals in their last 10 fixtures – the product of sound coaching.
Let’s contrast this to the misfortune of a pair of highly-regarded managers in Moyes and Andre Villas-Boas; two of the season’s sorry tales.
The former was sacked from his job at Old Trafford on Tuesday morning, bringing an end to a tedious tenure that yielded neither results nor excitement. There was no evidence that Moyes knew how to get United playing with the attacking intent the fans were used to seeing under Sir Alex Ferguson. The club spent around €75m over the course of the season and with no sign of progress he was deemed to be wasting it.
Tottenham were one of pre-season’s dark horses. There was talk of the title at White Hart Lane; that the €127m spent to replace Gareth Bale would in fact make Spurs a more rounded team with greater depth. In actuality it robbed the club of their only match-winner (a nod to Liverpool here for keeping hold of Luis Suarez) before criticism grew over the Portuguese’s rigid and unimaginative style.
There’s no denying that Villas-Boas is as active a coach as you could find and a recent video of his first session at Zenit showed he exudes the same vitality and passion that he displayed on the touchline for Spurs. However this never transferred itself into the sort of evolutionary progress made at Anfield.
Even more laudable is the fact that of the €55m spent by Liverpool this season, very few of their acquisitions have made an impact (Simon Mignolet and to an extent Mamadou Sakho aside). A lot of the positives have come from players Rodgers inherited or bought in 2012-13. It bodes well for the new signings over the course of their career on Merseyside that personal development ranks highly within Rodgers’ coaching mantra.
“My aim as a coach is to make players better,” he said after victory over Norwich on Sunday. “I know the consequence of that will be winning.”
The form of Raheem Sterling ties in with this statement. Rodgers hailed the 19-year-old as the best young player in Europe after his two goals and assist at Carrow Road. On a personal level this will sit near the top of the Northern Irishman’s resumé.
Sterling has matured and has begun to shed his reputation as a flash tearaway with a poor attitude. His mother has moved into his home in Liverpool and is credited with refocusing a player expected to make Roy Hogdson’s World Cup squad. This after featuring sporadically earlier in the season to becoming an integral part of Liverpool’s phenomenal 11-game winning run.
There are mitigating circumstances across the rest of the league of course, and Manuel Pellegrini will undoubtedly point to the spate of injuries suffered by Sergio Aguero as a defining reason why they do not top the table at this juncture – but then Liverpool were without Suarez for the opening five games of the season.
Jose Mourinho will lament the quality of his forwards but praise is due for the manner in which he has shored up a defence that has seemed uncharacteristically pregnable in recent years. His second season in charge will in all likelihood resemble something akin to the growth seen at Anfield.
If Liverpool do go on and win the Premier League, Rodgers will deserve every column inch afforded to him. In the same BBC interview held at the beginning of the season he backed away from answering a question about challenging for the title. “That’s our challenge” he muttered before again emphasising that his aim was to return the club to the Champions League before his three-year contract expired.
That particular target has been accomplished and a first title since 1990 beckons. If one lesson is to be gleaned from Liverpool, Everton, Southampton and Crystal Palace this season, it is that sound coaching and a distinguishable plan can outweigh a squad built on riches.