There is a fine line between glory and failure. No one in modern-day soccer knows this better than Brendan Rodgers. When he arrived at Anfield, equipped with a 180-page “dossier” outlining his tactical plans, he instantly became an easy target for the jeering masses in stadiums and internet comment boards. Within months of his arrival, FOX aired a film called Being Liverpool, which felt more like a mockumentary than a documentary. People quickly compared Rodgers to Ricky Gervais’s David Brent, the bumbling middle manager of the British TV show “The Office” who was blissfully unaware of the cringes he produced everywhere he went. Rodgers came across as self-serious, and eager to dispense wisdom in the form of cliches and often ill-fitting phrases. It didn’t help that he had a large portrait of himself on his own living room wall.
Most Liverpool fans were cautiously optimistic and ready to overlook the embarrassing aspects of his personality if he delivered on his promise. What he promised was death by football. Possession, possession, possession. Liverpool were going to pass the ball and keep the ball. If it could be done in Spain, why not in England? In his first season (2012/13), Liverpool gave it a try. It didn’t work very well. Passes often went astray or to opponents, goals were conceded too easily, and the “death by football” approach sometimes looked more likely to kill Liverpool than anyone else. He did, however, bring both Daniel Sturridge and Phillipe Coutinhou to Anfield during the January transfer window and by the end of the season, there was a sense that progress was being made.
No one could have predicted what would happen next, and no one will ever forget it. In the 2013/14 season, Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool came within an inch of winning the Premier League, the glory that has eluded the club for more than 25 years. In the short span of a few months, Rodgers’ dossier seemed to have been revised if not thrown out altogether. Luis Suarez went from a raw, unpredictable talent to becoming the best player in the world, Raheem Sterling’s development went into overdrive, Daniel Sturridge suddenly looked like the best English striker in the game, and Liverpool played some of the most thrilling all-out attacking soccer the Premier League had ever seen. Rodgers abandoned his preferred 4-3-3 formation in favor of a 4-4-2 diamond with Steven Gerrard at its base. The team scored goals for fun. They won 11 games in a row, they missed out on the title by two points.
That Rodgers had fallen so far out of favor just a year and half later says more about the state of modern soccer than it does about him. He had his faults, yes: He couldn’t set up his team to defend a corner for all the money in the world. He oversaw enormous spending over two summer transfer windows that saw the arrival of a host of very average players. And he seemed to second-guess himself constantly, often tinkering with formations to the point of total confusion when things weren’t going his way. Perhaps it was time for him to go. Things had gotten bad, and they didn’t look like they would improve. But before turning our attention to his successor, let’s take a moment to remember just how close his team came to greatness. It was a strange and wild ride, and not all of the shortcomings that plagued his team should be placed purely on his shoulders. There is the matter of the infamous “transfer committee” he was forced to work with, there is the lack of mega-funds that have boosted the fortunes of his more successful competitors, and there is another factor that should not be overlooked: this was brand new territory for Rodgers. He had never managed at a big club before, never shouldered the type of pressure and expectation that come with the territory, never competed in European competition before. He was young and learning on the job, and he gave it his best shot.
Somewhere along the way in 2013/14, when Liverpool’s title challenge started to look like a truly miraculous possibility, some fans hung a banner from the stands at Anfield that simply read “Make Us Dream.” No one can deny that his team did just that. They didn’t capture the glory they were chasing, but they gave it a hell of a try. If you need reminding what it looked like, take a look at the video below.