Defying The Football Luddites: Rodgers & Villas-Boas
Breaking with traditional approaches is never an easy thing, particularly for a football coach in the spotlight of the modern media era. Today on the blog, Daniel Evans takes a closer look at two coaches hoping to defy the cynics.
The ossification of the top four has made the premier league depressingly predictable. For romantics, football is becoming harder and harder to love. Last season was particularly bleak. Evil (Real Madrid) beat Good (Barca); Evil Chelsea won the CL through sheer luck/ the intervention of Satan; obscene billionaires Man City won the premier league, and this was then abhorrently spun as a victory for the underdog; and worst of all, my beloved Cardiff City sold their soul and became a laughing stock for 12 pieces of silver (or in today’s money: 100 million).
Yet one can still find a source of interest within the Premier League, specifically, the careers of Brendan Rodgers and Andre Villas-Boas, whose progress (or lack thereof) should be followed keenly by all.
The Modern Coaching Environment
Both Rodgers and AVB are victims of their epoch, managers battling against inflated levels of expectation and a lack of perspective. As Super Sunday detaches each game from its proper context within a 40+ game season and presents it as a stand alone, must win cup final, each televised defeat is viewed as a catastrophe. With each defeat or draw, Rodgers and AVB notice that the photos of themselves in their offices/wallets are starting to dramatically fade, ala Back to the Future (pop culture reference out the way).
Although the two men don’t invite instant comparison (AVB looking like a suave, anthropomorphic cat, Rodgers like humpty dumpty), the reception they have received from pundits and other sceptics in the media (the fans of both teams have been far more sanguine) allude to wider structural problems facing the British game, specifically, the latent suspicion of the playing styles both men employ.
This is the manifestation of a cultural problem which is holding back the development of the English game. Rodgers’ success with Swansea last year was viewed with a mix of suspicion and awe, akin to that which often surrounds Arsenal. Playing passing football is all well and good, it was agreed, but will it keep them up?
The assumption was - and to a large extent still is - that playing possession football is a purely aesthetic pursuit, rather than an efficient way to win games. ‘Remember Blackpool!’ came the cry. But Blackpool didn’t go down because they kept the ball on the floor, they went down because they shipped about ten goals a game. Now Rodgers’ Liverpool are being viewed in the same way: Rodgers is persisting with this style for his own perverse pleasure. Martin Skrtl’s calamitous backpass against Man City illustrated the inherent ‘riskiness’ of trying to play from the back.
The shock at Rodgers’ decision to release Carroll is also revealing. Liverpool, we are told, need a ‘plan B’. Again, the belief is that pumping the ball up to a big man is ultimately an efficient way of scoring. Every club should have a big centre forward kept in a glass case near the pitch, which is to be broken with a hammer in case of emergencies.
Now this is not to deny that Liverpool are woeful up front, but the lingering belief in the need for a big man- any big man- is problematic. The same criticisms have been levelled at Wenger’s Arsenal, who have repeatedly been found guilty of ‘fannying around’ with the ball on the edge of the area instead of getting it into the mixer.
AVB’s ‘high defensive line’ and preference for the 433 has also drawn criticism. The panic is etched on the faces of ex-defenders in the punditry teams prior to Spurs games: ‘surely he’s not persisting with the high line?’ The now mythical ‘high line’ is of course now forever associated with David Luiz and John Terry falling over against Arsenal, and is thus an inherently risky or naive tactic, deeply unsuited to the British game.
It is interesting that the high defensive line is ostensibly perceived as dangerous because defenders are necessarily less mobile than other players, and prone to being caught on the turn. Instead of taking a moment to reflect about the deep problems with a footballing culture which churns out professionals with the turning circle of the QE2, the focus is shifted to the manager and system itself.
Second, prior to Spurs’ game against Reading, the discussion turned to whether the Spurs players would be able to deal with the transition from the beautiful simplicity of Harry Redknapp to the ‘confusing’ and ‘technical’ AVB. Supposedly AVB’s introduction of tactical jargon will reduce the Spurs players to quivering wrecks, terrified and confused at the diagrams being drawn on the whiteboard. That is, it is assumed that professional footballers are thick, and should therefore not be ‘overloaded’ with instructions, data and the like. It is far more effective to just tell them to go out and win. The very journalists and pundits who bemoan the failures of the English national team are frequently guilty of perpetuating a discourse in which tactics and analysis are viewed as inevitably ‘complex’ or theoretical. Rafa Benitez was criticised for being ‘overly obsessed’ with tactics, and recently AVB has been (outrageously) described as ‘borderline aspergers’ in his attention to detail.
It may be hard for people to sympathise with these two managers. Rodgers seems to believe he invented passing, whilst AVB is aloof and uses big words. Plenty of coaches in England, from the grassroots up, are committed to possession based football: Rodgers and AVB are not revolutionary innovators or the saviours of English football.
A Changing Landscape
Yet as both these coaches come under scrutiny, their footballing philosophies are also being very publicly interrogated. Footballing cultures develop at the grassroots level, but they also start at the top and trickle down. Both Rodgers and AVB prioritise youth and technical ability over passion and athleticism: success for these two may hasten the necessary paradigm shift within the wider English game towards a more technical, possession based approach.
If they fail, it will give ammunition to the (thankfully weakened) luddite tendency within the hierarchy of the English game.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @theenverhoxha
And read more of his work on his blog: WittyPlayOnWords.Blogspot
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Football is a game which evolves. Managers should keep up with that. It doesn't mean changes across the board but fresh ideas are always beneficial. Most of the managers you mentioned there DANEVANS184 are the typical types sticking to their old perspectives, later wondering why they could not cut it with the big boys when the game became tough. Even when it comes to transfers, clubs should think outside the box rather than overpaying for some player carrying a price tag already four times as much as it should be. Michael Laudrup can teach a lesson or two on this subject.
David, absolutely agree regarding the 'established' managers. Whilst younger managers like Rodgers and AVB get flak, as soon as a vacancy arises (e.g. Bolton), the same tired old faces are lined up: McCarthy, Redknapp, Curbishley, Brown etc. The same spiel is regurgitated that the Mick McCarthy's of this world, despite their boring style, will get teams promoted, have experience yada yada. It's all a big old boys club it would appear, with the press a big part of it
Letting Carroll go was not Rodgers' policy. He was promised someone else in his place. At least that is what he said. Borini is a central striker and playing him on the flank will not be beneficial. Rodgers just needs to convince Suarez he needs to play on the flank instead. Liverpool might stop hitting all those posts maybe and actually get more goals instead.
Actually I dont like Rodgers and his policy. Now Liverpool got only 1 fit striker - Suarez and being in such complicated situation I cant see them being factor incoming months. Also AVB is with shaken confidence after the last season, and need time to boost it. I cant see neither Tottenham, either Liverpool in the big four at the end of the season ,despite their playing style
People fearing what is new. In my view more questions need to be asked of managers still relying on obsolete methods and tactics that have over time also hindered the potential of the England national team. Fresh ideas are what the English game needs but at the same time it would be a pity to just forget same basic tenants that were the strong point of English sides in the past. Striking a balance is possible but Rodgers and Villas Boas need to be given their space. It is a good thing that forward-thinking teams, big clubs, like Liverpool and Tottenham have placed faith in them.