Just What Are They Smoking at Anfield?
By Daily Telegraph | Published: 09th February 2014 06:40 AM |
The impact of Brendan Rodgers has left the Kop rocking and dreaming of replicating former glories, writes Henry Winter
At the end of the most memorable performance of his Liverpool tenure, Brendan Rodgers swivelled 360 degrees, waving to the supporters as he turned, and then walked briskly across to shake the hand of a numbed Arsene Wenger. In the background, the scoreline glowed: Liverpool 5 Arsenal 1. All around, Rodgers's name resounded.
Here was confirmation, if any were required, that John W Henry appointed brilliantly in deciding to bring Rodgers from Swansea City in June 2012. To misquote Henry, what are they smoking at Anfield? Probably large cigars after this win over Arsenal. Henry, who had famously questioned Arsenal's choice of tobacco after an insulting bid for Luis Suarez, was not present but the co-owner, Tom Werner, was here to admire Rodgers's impact on the team.
Having acknowledged Wenger, Rodgers disappeared down the tunnel, off to the dressing-room which was soon shaking to loud music. Like the reverberating speakers, joy was unconstrained. The players did not know that the last time Liverpool put five past Arsenal, on April 18, 1964, they won the league, the first title under Bill Shankly. Rodgers's players were simply revelling in the quality of the performance, having carried out the manager's game-plan of pressing and pacy counter-attacking with real exuberance.
Along from the tunnel, Rodgers was soon eulogising individual performances and also attempting to suppress the incipient belief that Liverpool could push for the title, having just pulverised the leaders. Rodgers, a voice of calm amid the clamour, knows it will still take time, that the team remain a work in progress, however breathlessly exciting a work at times.
Liverpool have not won the league since 1990, and Arsenal's visit will always stir painful memories of a lost trophy, when Michael Thomas strode through to score in 1989. It's up for grabs now, the more ardent fans might think of the trophy. Not Rodgers. He's still building and Chelsea and Manchester City remain a cut above.
But the fact remains that Liverpool are clearly heading in the right direction under Rodgers, looking a more fluid, intelligent and cohesive unit, and climbing up the table. As countless ears listened to Rodgers after the match, the eyes were surely drawn to the walls around him. These were adorned with black-and-white stills of past managerial masters, of men who set the tone for the club, who provided the benchmark that all successors must aspire to.
There were pictures of Shankly talking at Melwood as the players stretched on the grass, of Shankly addressing Kevin Keegan and company in the dressing-room at Anfield and Shankly in front of the Kop, arms outstretched, the Messiah of the Mersey.
Another sepia print captured Bob Paisley running, fully suited, in front of the Kop and another of Paisley standing at the top of the stairs by the "This Is Anfield" sign, holding the league trophy. Paisley was also depicted drinking tea with Kenny Dalglish, Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans in the boot room. There was Joe Fagan standing in a bus-shelter dug-out, Gerard Houllier with the Uefa Cup while nearby was Rafa Benitez with the Champions League.
It is this history that ensures Rodgers will never get carried away, why he will keep drilling them hard at Melwood. But his post-match words will have lifted his players further, making them even more of a force. Rodgers spoke of their "wonderful appetite", praising all of them, lingering on how Philippe Coutinho has enhanced his game, "intercepting and blocking", and of his belief that "I don't think there's a better winger in England than Raheem Sterling". He enthused about the "selfless" contribution of Suarez, playing wide so Daniel Sturridge's pace could expose Per Mertesacker.
His tactics worked. Four goals up within 19 minutes, Liverpool fans were chanting "there's only one Brendan Rodgers". He has transformed the team, individually and collectively. The work that Rodgers has done with players on set-pieces at Melwood was heralded here, bringing the first two goals: Steven Gerrard's free-kick and then corner were both met by Martin Skrtel.
It is the tactical intelligence, the hunting of the ball in packs, the pace on the counter, the numbers in the middle and the relentless working for the cause, particularly the wide players like Suarez and Sterling tracking back, that is the Rodgers's way. They forced mistakes, Jordan Henderson pressing Mesut Ozil to win the ball for Liverpool's third and then Coutinho picking off the German's pass for the fourth.
Rodgers has revitalised Gerrard, fielding him in front of the back-four, sweeping skillfully, nicking the ball off Olivier Giroud after 32 minutes and Santi Cazorla after 38 minutes, also collecting possession from his defenders, dictating some of the moves. It suits the 33-year-old Gerrard, allowing him to unleash attacks with those 50-yard passes.
There is plenty of energy around Gerrard, youngsters like the tireless Henderson. Rodgers has shown faith in Henderson, calling the young Englishman into his office, offering him the opportunity of going to Fulham but promising him a chance if he shone in training. Henderson listened, learned, improved and is now established in Liverpool's first team, utterly eclipsing Jack Wilshere in front of the assistant England coach, Ray Lewington.
Liverpool's manager has drafted good players in, Coutinho delivering some sumptuous passes. Coutinho is light of frame but now relishing the physical, including a brief bout with Wilshere. Rodgers certainly recruited astutely with Sturridge, coaxing consistent performances from a striker who lost his way at Manchester City and Chelsea. Sturridge took his goal with real poise, outpacing Laurent Koscielny as he ran on to Coutinho's pass, and shooting unerringly past Wojciech Szczesny for his 15 league goal this season, his best return in a Premier League season.
Rodgers has encouraged fearlessness in his players, seen in Sturridge's form and in the way John Flanagan closed down Ozil, ignoring the vaunted reputation, the price-tag, simply wanting the ball more than the lazy German. Flanagan is young, occasionally raw, but benefiting from Rodgers's man-management, showing the confidence to play a wonderful first-time pass to Gerrard after 50 minutes, and then later to Sterling.
Rodgers has made Sterling more effective, improving his delivery and finishing. He seems to have made the winger accept responsibility on and off the pitch. His two goals were superb, credit to his composure and acceleration, but it was arguably a back-heel to Coutinho after 64 minutes that drew most applause.
Rodgers kept wanting more, throwing his hands down in frustration as a move broke down just before the break when Flanagan failed to keep the ball in.
He stood at the edge of his technical area, encouraging, instructing, occasionally waving to the Kop when they sang his name.
When removing a player from the fray, such as Sturridge, Rodgers embraced him, shook his hand and had a quiet word in his ear. It was almost paternal. Rodgers kept communicating while Wenger was even more silent than Stan Kroenke, the Arsenal owner making a rare visit to an away game. While Wenger sat stunned, Rodgers was beckoning players over during breaks in play, continuing to coach and coax, such as when Henderson sprinted across for some new commands after 75 minutes. He listened, nodded, took a slug of water and got on with the game, with fulfilling his manager's master-plan, a plan that has given Liverpool a future of genuine excitement and substance.
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