With the departure of one of the Premier League’s all-time greatest managers, Sir Alex Ferguson, a position has opened. It is not the position as Manchester United’s manager; a position which David Moyes was personally handpicked for. On the other hand, it is the position as a spearhead figure of the Premier League.
In his 26 years as United’s manager, Ferguson’s behavior on and off field harvested both praise and criticism. Despite being a controversial figure, his prolific career demanded respect, and he was undoubtedly one of the best managers the English league has had. Arguably, one of the reasons he became such a big figure within English soccer was because of his controversial nature. Looking across Europe at those managers who have been rated the highest, there has always been an element of defiance. Take Jose Mourinho who led Chelsea FC and Real Madrid to several championships while provoking everyone from his own players to other managers and the media. Also, consider Liverpool’s very own Champions League winning manager, Rafael Benitez, who was very vocal about the level of control he wanted in the club and also not afraid of rivaling Alex Ferguson.
With Jose Mourinho back in the Premier League, he is a possible contender for top man having already lifted the spirit of Chelsea’s players and also their position to third place. However, Brendan Rodgers should not be discarded so easily. When he was appointed by the American owners from Fenway Sports Group in 2012, he approached the fans with a great deal of humility that softened a fanbase that felt betrayed after Kop favorite, Kenny Dalglish, was fired. Whenever he spoke to the media, it was in terms of the work that laid ahead of him and his feelings of gratitude towards the owners. Rodgers found himself in a position where he on one hand had to balance between the owners who could strip him of power just as quickly as they gave it to him and on the other hand, the fans who were craving progress after having camped in the middle of the Premier League for too many seasons.
Without much to show for in his career, other than having relegated Swansea AFC, Rodgers attempted to show teeth before the start of the 2012 season when he employed Ferguson’s old envelope trick. In 1993, Ferguson showed his team three envelopes with the names of three players who would let him down. The mind game was deployed to make sure that Manchester United’s first title success in two decades would not make them overconfident. However, later it was revealed that the envelopes were empty. The same was the case for Rodgers’ envelopes which were just as empty.
Rodgers’ method was ridiculed at the time, especially because Liverpool lost their very first game with 3-0, and the manager did not yet command the respect of the team. While not successful, it did show something that has come to characterize Rodgers’ time at Liverpool: his willingness to try new things. This willingness led to a change in the soccer philosophy of the club, experimentation when it came to playing formations and also the increased use of academy youngsters – something which Kenny Dalglish had reintroduced to the first team with the use of Raheem Sterling and Jon Flanagan.
The signings and his style of managing all escalated in the 2013-14 season, where Liverpool won the first three matches convincingly and claimed the number one spot in the Premier League. Personally, the Reds’ manager won the honor of being named the Premier League Manager of the Month for August and his work with the first team led to the continuing backing of first team players – most notably captain Steven Gerrard who with his standing in the club can make or break a manager. The impressive display of form so far this season, has given manager and players alike a sense of confidence that they have not had for a long time. Like a new pair of shoes, Rodgers has had to get used to being the manager of a top four contender. That the Irishman is walking more comfortably game by game, has shown itself in his post-match interviews and generally in his statements.
After Liverpool’s defeat at Manchester City, Brendan Rodgers questioned whether it was right to have a referee from Greater Manchester in charge of the Boxing Day match. This post-match comment led FA to charge the manager who normally does not react with such strong emotions. With the charge, Rodgers is joining an outspoken group of managers which Alex Ferguson is very much a part of. Last season, the former Manchester United manager was fined £12,000 when he commented that the referee, Simon Beck, was biased in their game against Tottenham.
One area where Rodgers still treads lightly is in regards to his relationship with FSG. There are probably few Liverpool supporters who have forgotten the summer transfer mess where Clint Dempsey got stuck between Rodgers’ desire to sign him and FSG’s unwillingness to meet the asking price. The ordeal ended with a big question looming over the Merseyside club: who was really in charge of managing the team? With the January transfer window opening, the manager admits that the squad is small, yet emphasizes that he would rather use his bench and academy players than purchase new signings.
With the many injuries plaguing Liverpool ahead of the second half of the season, the squad size needs serious addressing if the Reds want to be contenders for the league title. Brendan Rodgers needs to be more vocal in his intentions to take the team to the top and that will require taking on the owners both behind closed doors and in public to set the team’s aspirations straight. While not a manager to engage in mind games with the league’s other managers, Rodgers no longer has to be the outsider among men such as the experienced Arsene Wenger, the newcomer Manuel Pellegrini and his very own mentor, Jose Mourinho.
With the transfer window ongoing, it will soon be clear how much Liverpool is going to invest in a direct challenge for the top spot of the league, and if Brendan Rodgers have what it takes to make it at the top level.