Brendan Rodgers used to stand at the back of Jose Mourinho’s press conferences during his time as Chelsea youth team coach, on the look-out for tips, though there is a feeling on Merseyside that he could provide the lesson tonight.
A win over Chelsea would be his first against the man who gave him his first break – it’s been three draws and three defeats for the Northern Irishman so far – but more significantly it would feel like staging post on a turnaround since the desperation of 3-1 defeat at Crystal Palace in November which has revealed qualities of adaptability and tactical acuity in Rodgers.
There is a sense among many outside of the Liverpool bubble that his self-conscious modernity and clever turn of phrase makes him more David Brent than Bill Shankly. “It’s not just about training players, it’s about educating players. You train dogs,” Brendan Rodgers said in the 2012 Being:Liverpool documentary, which was one of the club’s less bright ideas. “Player plus environment equals behaviour,” he added, in another of the more excruciating soundbites from the series.
But after the Palace defeat – which left him looking an extremely desperate man in the post-match press conference room – he set about reordering his priorities and restructuring his team.
He introduced the 3-4-3 system to resolve the aerial struggles Liverpool were facing at the back, create more muscularity in midfield and allow Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho – the two bright lights – to operate as inside forwards. The system has also brought qualities we did not always believe were there in Mamadou Sakho and Lazar Markovic, who had never played as a wing back before.
It did mean dispensing with some of Liverpool’s attacking zest. “I am not a fantasist,” Rodgers reflected “We have seen the type of football we have played here in the last couple of years. We hope to return to that but in the meantime we have to get results.
And quietly it has worked. Liverpool have one defeated in 14. The powers of expression which had seemed so lost are finally returning as the team grows in confidence an shakes off the timidity. The League Cup semi final first leg against Chelsea last week was their best performance of the season.
Rodgers always expects the unexpected from Mourinho. “I’ll look at two or three teams they can play,” he said yesterday. “They’ll look at the game and being at home they may want to take a defensive midfielder out and put an extra attacker in, but that might leave the spaces open a bit too much for a team like us with our numbers and our quality. As the opposition coach you’re always analysing and looking; you’re thinking of the ‘what if?’, what might they play, what could the changes be.”
But a victory tonight would be another step on the road to redemption: a first win of the campaign against one of last season’s top four and – something managers often talk about – a big step towards a first trophy under this management, from which others can flow. If Chelsea can be dealt with, Liverpool will believe they do not have to fear either Tottenham Hotspur or Sheffield United, the other semi-finalists.
“The manager spoke to us before the first game and said it is always the first trophy that helps you start something,” Lucas Leiva said yesterday. “He is looking for that first medal to put a mark on the group. Of course we were fantastic in the Premier League last season but at the end we didn’t win.” Liverpool travelled south, not only with Daniel Sturridge – who is unlikely to play – but with supreme optimism.