News Analysis

Rodgers' grand Liverpool plan finally taking shape

Liverpool's Christian Benteke (right) bullying his way past Arsenal defender Gabriel Paulista. The Reds are playing with intensity and purpose this season as manager Brendan Rodgers gets to mould a resolute side.
Liverpool's Christian Benteke (right) bullying his way past Arsenal defender Gabriel Paulista. The Reds are playing with intensity and purpose this season as manager Brendan Rodgers gets to mould a resolute side.PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

LONDON • It is no more than a coincidence but there was an unavoidable resonance about Liverpool's first post-Mario Balotelli performance on Monday.

Just as the ultimate "haircut player" heads back on loan to AC Milan, it seemed poignant that Liverpool should produce not only a third clean sheet in a row but an urgent, industrious performance that underlined the suggestion of a team in meaningful transition.

The two events are of course unconnected. Balotelli was simply wrong for Liverpool, a terrible fit for a manager who prizes movement and adaptability in his forward line and who never had the patience to bend the most listless of maverick footballers to his will.

What was clear during the 0-0 draw at Arsenal is that Brendan Rodgers has maintained his own remarkable thirst for rebuilding.

Liverpool's manager may still be waiting for his first trophy but he has now achieved the remarkable feat of conjuring up four different teams in four seasons at the club, in each case out of an unavoidable combination of revolving personnel and evolving tactics.

First up was the light, neat, Swansea-flavoured Liverpool. After that came the Luis Suarez- driven attacking machine, with its thrilling, doomed title challenge.

Then came last season's stodgy sixth place, a season of defensive introspection that felt a bit like an extended Viking funeral for a single, indigestible superstar presence.

This time around, post-Steven Gerrard, post-Balotelli, post- Raheem Sterling, Rodgers has had a summer to concoct not only his fourth Liverpool team but perhaps his most intriguing.

Make no mistake: whatever Liverpool produce from here it will at least be pure, uncut essence of Brendan, a team no longer bound up with leftovers from someone else's grand plan.

Of Liverpool's 18-man squad at the Emirates only Martin Skrtel and Lucas Leiva were signed as first-team players by somebody else. It will take time - and the team will evolve further as players return from injury.

But after three Premier League matches it is hard to avoid the impression that this is the gnarliest, most resolute, most obviously team-like Rodgers team to date.

Without the need to accommodate Gerrard, who was never a very disciplined - nor by the end very mobile - central midfielder, Liverpool were able to field a high-pressure central midfield three.

Before the match Rodgers had suggested his team would pass up dominating possession in favour of "dominating space".

Whatever Liverpool produce from here it will at least be pure, uncut essence of Brendan, a team no longer bound up with leftovers from someone else's grand plan.

The desire to stay compact was clear from the start, however, with Emre Can, Lucas and James Milner providing a gristly central fulcrum, assisting Arsenal in their desire to give the ball away by closing down the space, and often retaining the ball well with simple, patient passing.

Liverpool's physical power was notable throughout. This is a team of athletes, with strength and mobility and defence and attack, and with a pair of Brazilian inside-forwards prepared to scuttle and harry between the lines.

Liverpool made almost half as many passes as Arsenal but they made more tackles, won more aerial duels and often out-muscled their opponents in the clinches.

Two new players stood out. Christian Benteke has already made a difference, his goal against Bournemouth last week the first by any Liverpool centre-forward in any competition since March.

Against Arsenal he was a mobile, menacing presence, making runs right across the forward line and showing a fine touch. Without really seeming to play an airborne game, he won an astonishing 16 aerial challenges and was by some distance the most adhesive, mobile centre-forward on the pitch.

Liverpool's other outstanding player was Joe Gomez, who is not yet 19 years old, who is not really a full-back and who definitely is not left-footed, but who played with a preternatural assurance on that side, shutting out Aaron Ramsey, keeping pace with Hector Bellerin and confirming the impression of a footballer of rare poise and grace.

Liverpool have three young south Londoners right now: Gomez, Jordon Ibe and Nathaniel Clyne. There is a template here, with similar qualities in all three of calmness, physical power and fine technical skills.

It would be wrong to read too much into three games at the start of a season when only Manchester City have begun with real intent.

In three years of ever-evolving Brendan-ism at Anfield there have often been periods of progress followed by a sudden plateauing out.

As Arsenal pushed Liverpool back in the second half at the Emirates, however, there was a sense of undeniable resilience in a team that had three teenagers on the pitch by the end.

And which, while it may not yet be Rodgers' most free-scoring creation, shows every sign of being his most carefully stitched, his most balanced and perhaps his most interesting.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2015, with the headline 'Rodgers' grand Liverpool plan finally taking shape'. Print Edition | Subscribe