It seems unthinkable now that there were some fans, pundits and outside onlookers criticising the decision to hire Brendan Rodgers as Liverpool manager two years ago, but those dissenting voices have been in serious decline over the past few months.
And little wonder: Rodgers has taken his team from Europa League also-rans to title challengers in the space of less than a couple of seasons.
Whether they eventually lift the big prize or not this term, a top-four finish—the gold-standard objective for this year—is close to assured, almost eight weeks before the end of the current campaign.
Brilliant turnaround by Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers guidance this season… Big push needed all the way now! pic.twitter.com/NORnhx9icp— LFCHistoryShow (@LFCHistoryShow) February 17, 2014
For that, Rodgers deserves tremendous credit. It's his own innate mix of abilities which have ensured Liverpool's constant, visible progression, moving from an inconsistent and weak unit to the current iteration: a mentally strong, attack-minded team who have outscored all the competition and left almost all of their big rivals in turn shocked, overrun and defeated.
Belief in the Team and the Methods
A constant message from Rodgers from day one has been that the team will continue to improve, evolve and become more confident in the work they do.
The passing and in-game control came almost instantly in his first campaign. Matches against Manchester City and the like, where Liverpool dominated play and showed a keen and refreshing enthusiasm to cherish the ball, were eagerly appreciated by the home fans. Results didn't quite always run in their favour though.
Changes were still needed. Changes were made, too, swiftly and without recourse to wage brackets, reputation or personnel reaction. Those left out or who switched positions needed to get on board. This was the way Liverpool were playing—either be a part of it or don't.
Rodgers has always preached the need to play at a high tempo, to press the opposition and to make life as difficult as possible for them.
Throughout different stages in almost two seasons at the club, the manager's appreciation for results has not stopped him noting when performances haven't been good enough—just the same as he refused to be disappointed at draws after otherwise-impressive, encouraging displays which didn't bring the victories they deserved.
The mentality of the team is unrecognisable now from that which, two years ago almost to the day, collapsed in the last 15 minutes from a 2-0 winning position to lose 3-2 at Queens Park Rangers.
It simply wouldn't happen with this side.
Upgrading his Players
Brendan Rodgers can take credit in particular for one part of the team: the improvement of those who were there before him. He inherited a team that had potential, that showed flashes of impressive form, but one that lacked real structure or self-belief to make the most of its talents.
Of course, Jordan Henderson is the most startling and obvious example of this. Derided by some and cast aside by others as a waste of time and money, he's now an immovable part of Liverpool's first team, a tactically astute all-round talent who can help Liverpool control or attack as required.
Jon Flanagan has made strides aplenty, whilst Luis Suarez has hit greater heights than ever before. Natural improvement, or the effects of a man-manager rinsing the best out of an immense talent? Likely a little of both—but it's also the boss who structures the team to suit Suarez's style and lets him play within the framework with enough freedom to showcase that unnerving quality, game after game.
Others such as Stewart Downing, Jose Enrique and Joe Allen have also all benefited at different times from the confidence and conviction instilled in them by their manager.
As for Steven Gerrard, "finished" only a few months into this season according to some, he is once again central to everything great about this team: He's still an attacking player, make no mistake, but from a deeper, more controlled position than ever before, with even more responsibility on him than previously.
Brendan Rodgers: 4-3-3 and death by-possession football. That's what Liverpool's new boss was bringing, supposedly.
He has, but it's so much more than that. Systems and set-ups have changed with a regularity which could be called panicky and haphazard...were it not done with a critical, calculated and ever-improving eye for detail yielding positive results week after week.
A back three, two up top, 1-2 and 2-1 midfields and, most recently and successfully, a diamond midfield.
The shape changes, the roles of players within the framework of the team alter subtly, but everything is done with two aims in mind: stop the opposition playing in dangerous areas, and make the most of the talent on the pitch wearing a Liver bird on their shirt.
Rapid transitions are fundamental to the good work Liverpool do in the final third, and that all stems from Rodgers' absolute tenets: press hard, pass with intelligence, use pace and space.
The clinical edge seen by the team this season is something the side has missed for years beyond counting, but Daniel Sturridge and Suarez in particular have made those days seem decades away at times. Again, it is the meticulous planning—yet willingness to give freedom—from Rodgers which allows these forwards to wreak such havoc.
Liverpool don't have one system, one formation, one blueprint. There is no Plan B—just a long list of Plan A's which the team are showing they are comfortable and capable of starting with or switching to at a moment's notice.
In-game management is something the manager has alluded to, and it's something he himself is getting better at. Substitutions and squad depth do not always allow it to happen to the extent he wants, but he's getting there. The team is getting there.
More, More, More, and More of Everything
There are those coaches famed for tactical discipline or for an unyielding personality, for bringing fantastic flowing football to the pitch or for getting every last ounce of effort and ability out of the players at their disposal.
Brendan Rodgers has thus far displayed all of those traits, and more besides, during his 21 months at Anfield.
He has caressed and cajoled, protected and lambasted, altered, switched, twisted and stuck until he found a combination of players which suited his vision and which yielded points. And then he demanded more from everybody.
Everything can be improved upon, everything can be bettered. Hard work, focus on the group collective and a kaizen approach: continual, incremental enhancements in the process and the product.
Next season will be a massive test of these demands and consistencies. Can the levels of effort in training and matches be replicated when Liverpool add another 10 or a dozen fixtures, perhaps, to their annual calendar, with the Champions League and improved domestic cup showings?
Can Rodgers and his scouting team recruit the players to not only add depth but increased quality to cope on multiple fronts and with far more travel—and thus less preparation time?
And, on top of that, when under-performing sides this season step up their own game?
All that is yet before Liverpool and their boss. There are always more questions left to answer.
He may or may not lead the Reds to the Premier League title this season, but the fact that Liverpool are even as big a part of the conversation as they are at this stage of the season means Rodgers deserves endless credit for a job extremely well done so far.
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