Belfast Telegraph

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers was on ropes but he's never afraid to gamble

By Tim Rich

When he last prepared for a game against Manchester United, it occurred to Brendan Rodgers that he might be sacked. It was December; Liverpool's first eagerly awaited Champions League campaign in five years was drawing to its messy conclusion. The team were drifting in mid-table and the comments on the Liverpool Echo website were becoming increasingly vicious.

Liverpool's manager knew Steven Gerrard would be rejecting what always seemed a pretty half-hearted offer of a new contract. There would be fallout from that.

The players on whom Rodgers and the club's transfer committee had lavished considerably more than the £75m they received from Barcelona for Luis Suarez were, by and large, failing.

Lazar Markovic appeared an expensive luxury; Emre Can barely played. The ex-Southampton pair of Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana, who had cost around £50m, were spending increasing amounts of time on the bench.

The club's owner, John W Henry, had possessed the guts to sack Kenny Dalglish, which at Anfield was seen as a form of regicide. What he could do once, he could do again.

There was little danger of Henry, who had bet the farm on a young, charismatic but inexperienced manager, removing him. However, Rodgers acted.

He dropped his goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet; he adopted a radical 3-4-3 formation that deployed Can as a makeshift centre-half - Rodgers had seen him employed in that role for the German Under-21s. Markovic became an unlikely wing-back.

The manager has dealt with Gerrard skilfully, highlighting his contribution as one of the Anfield greats, perhaps the Anfield great, while emphasising that Liverpool will flourish without him.

They lost 3-0 at Old Trafford. It was their last defeat in the Premier League. That was more than 100 days ago. "I was impressed by how we played at Manchester United," said Rodgers. "The result wasn't great but I was pleased by how dynamic the team was. We looked fast again."

Rodgers' overhaul of Liverpool was radical. When a sportsman is in trouble, his instincts scream at him to be conservative, go back to basics, trust in what you know and grit it out. Though he hated the term, the template for that approach was Everton's "Dogs of War" under Joe Royle, who dragged the club clear of relegation and beat Manchester United in the 1995 FA Cup final.

"If it works for you, it works for you," said Rodgers. "If it doesn't, you could be out of work. It's a risky game but then I have taken risks all my life to get to where I have. The position we were in, I felt I had to be radical.

"The way I work is about being creative. I can't then go and watch my team slug out a result. I love the beauty of football. From a young age, I have enjoyed seeing skilful players beat people."

When he was younger, Rodgers enjoyed going to the Nou Camp to watch the Barcelona of Louis van Gaal, the one that won La Liga and the Copa Del Rey in his first season and in six games against Real Madrid he lost one, his last.

Liverpool v Manchester United is the nearest Van Gaal will get to an English Clasico. There is one essential difference. In Spain the game decides titles, in England it does not.

Since Bill Shankly held off Manchester United to win his first championship in 1964, the two teams have occupied first and second place just three times. This time they are fighting for fourth.

Asked if he could deal Liverpool a fatal blow to their Champions League aspirations, Van Gaal smiled. "No, I don't think so," he said. "It shall last to the end but Liverpool need another victory after their loss against us.

"That was their last loss - in December. It is unbelievable and they have played more or less the same system for 12 or 13 weeks. We played with that system [3-4-3] against each other in December. But we had played it for much longer so we won, I think."

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