Directing the Pianists
Brendan Rodgers discusses the importance of possession football and what he's learned from José Mourinho
It's not every day that the manager of a Premier League football club cuts short a lunch with the queen to accommodate a journalist's request to interview him. But this is what happened when, shortly before the end of last season, Brendan Rodgers made his excuses and left a Diamond Jubilee civic banquet held at Swansea's City Hall in the presence of Her Majesty to drive back to the Liberty Stadium as quickly as he could. A rather embarrassed Blizzard contributor had explained that, his train ticket being non-exchangeable and non-refundable, not mentioning First Great Western Trains' pitiless fare policy for late bookers, changing the date of the agreed rendez-vous would entail gigantic costs neither he nor his employer could justify.
The remarkably friendly press officer of the Welsh club ("remarkably friendly'" being words which, judging by this visit, could be used for all members of Swansea's staff, players included) passed on the message to Rodgers, who skipped the royal pudding and ushered the El Mundo correspondent Begoña Pérez and myself into his office, first apologising for his lateness, then offering water, coffee and biscuits to his guests. It was very difficult to watch Swansea's following game with neutral eyes after such a welcome. Since then, of course, Brendan Rodgers has moved on to what he hopes to be bigger and better things, which doesn't mean he has moved on to a different way of thinking about the way football should be played. What he believed in and preached in Wales is what he will still believe in and preach at Anfield. Fortunately, that's precisely what we talked about that afternoon.
One of the most striking aspects of your work at Swansea was the adoption of a possession-based type of football that many people thought was unsuited to British players — and with a playing staff that was overwhelmingly British...How did you achieve that?
¡Muy facil! All players, whether they're Spanish, French, English, Welsh, want to play football. To play. We were favourites to be relegated but our biggest success has been our philosophy, our identity of football. The players have been incredible in their capacity to play our style of football. Of course, you've got to be effective, win games, but the starting point is the football. We have an idea of the 'ideal football' we want to play and we work on making it a reality. All players want to attack — and our way of defending is to have the ball. Of course, you want the players to believe and you get to this by working on it every day on the training ground, with the ball at their feet. We've spent a lot of time at Swansea polishing this idea of football by working on tactics. Every way of learning is used. By working on the field, by watching videos... everything we did on the training pitch, we did with the ball. You'll never see a pianist run around his piano. People ask me: "why don't you run through the forest, through the trees?" Well, I've never seen a tree on a football field. Our philosophy was to feel confident in a possession game and keep improving the players through video analysis, through talking, communicating...
Where does this 'philosophy' stem from? Barcelona?
I've been a follower of their model for many, many years. I was so enthused by it. Van Gaal... I just loved their way of playing. It goes back to my life as a young man. My father loved European football; he also loved the Brazilian team. His own dad loved the Brazilian team. So I grew up loving the technical game, and when I played as a young boy, I played in teams that were not technical. So I spent more time without the ball than with it. I always wanted to change that. But I had a very short career as a player, from 16 to 20 [for Ballymena United in his native country, Northern Ireland, then, very briefly, Reading]. So my ideology then was, "Ok, I'm not going to have an influence on the game as a player, technically or tactically. Can I do it as a coach?" My objective was to show that British players could play football. That was the challenge.
To take up that challenge, from a very young age, you spent a great deal of time in Spain. How did that come about?
The experience of travelling, getting familiar with other languages, other cultures definitely helps. It makes you a better person. You respect more, you understand more what a foreign player is going through, you experience new ideas. There's no doubt that my spending time in Spain made me a better person. I worked very hard to learn Spanish. Every day, I studied with a teacher who came from Madrid... but my Spanish is not perfect. And my French, muy, muy mal! [laughs] My Italian, not so great... I went to Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla, clubs which had that tradition of playing and youth formation. I wanted to see the connection between the first team and... the child. I wanted to see from close how the club worked on developing the under-9s, how they put that ethos of technical continuity into practice. I didn't just turn up at the gate of those clubs, of course. I made contact through coaches who'd been there. At Valencia, for example, there was a former player called Juan Sol, who also played for Real Madrid, who was a good friend of mine, and with whom I stayed when I went there... There was also José Luis Albiol — the uncle of Raul Albiol, the Real Madrid central defender — Alex Garcia, who was youth coach at Barcelona... I had loads of contacts. I wanted to see for myself how this model worked.
Is there any particular reason why you didn't try to do the same thing at Real Madrid?
No. I'm not sure why. My feeling was more for the canteras, the Dutch influence...
You worked with José Mourinho for three years at Chelsea and often speak of him as a major influence. One thing, though, is that, in many respects, as a manager, he's the complete antithesis to the 'model' you love. He relies on established players, he's not that keen to integrate youth players into his starting XI. So how can he be such an important figure for you?
He's a different man from the one portrayed in the press and the media. He is a good man. He was a fantastic educator. What he gave me was responsibility and opportunity. I was very young then [Rodgers was 31 when he joined Chelsea]. I was brought in in September 2004 — José had joined in June. They wanted to put his tactical ideas in practice throughout the club — his two favourite systems — the 4-4-2 diamond, the 4-3-3 — and I was one of the few British coaches who walked that way. We connected straight away. From the moment I arrived, he always looked for me. No question: he put me under pressure. He took me to the big players. If it hadn't worked, he wouldn't have given me a second chance. But he gave me that opportunity to work with the big players. He guided me. He told me how it had been for him when he was a young coach coming through. Of course he wants to win, but our ideas about football are not radically different. The personalities are.
Almost every single player who's worked with Mourinho has insisted on the exceptional quality of his training sessions. In what respect were they so good and what did you get from them?
José prepares hard and in great detail — but loads of coaches do. I'd say that one of his biggest attributes is his ability to respect. He respects every player, whether they're playing or not. You cannot be another person — but one of the biggest things I got from José was respect, and seeing how he respects everyone. As to the details of the exercises... I can use a black pen as well as José! [laughs] Or a red pen. Or an orange pen! There are many colours in the world and they're for everyone...
What about his attention to detail in planning training exercises?
I spend a lot of time preparing my sessions. My staff totally understands the training. And the images that they see... [He rummages through folders, looking for drawings of training exercises.] I've left them at the training ground. But everything's drawn here, the colours, the details. What goes on the field goes on here [showing a diagram of a football field].
But what did you take from him?
He's a great man... but I take from myself. You cannot be anyone else. I've learned from many good people. I worked with some fantastic British coaches. When you're clever, you learn from everyone. The good things and the things that are not so good. My philosophy was already formed before I even went to Chelsea. What I was able to do at Chelsea was to experiment with some of the best youth and senior players in the world. By the time I finished at Chelsea, I had 15 years working as a coach from five-year-olds to the Ballacks, the Decos, the Shevchenkos, the Lampards. Then it was my time to go alone. You cannot take man-management from Mourinho: it has to be from you.
Are you still in touch with him?
Yeah. Every week. Real Madrid were fantastic last season. But look at José: the defeat against Bayern was his, what?, was it the fourth, fifth Champions League semi-final that he'd lost? He's also learnt to lose. He's not just a serial winner, he's adapted to losing as well.
Talking about losing, seeing what happened to Barcelona and Bayern in the Champions League, are people starting to find ways to counter possession teams?
Well, with Swansea, you had 77% possession against Newcastle and still lost 2-0.
I will always defend the right to play attacking football: you'll win more games than you will lose. You just have to keep finding solutions, yes, but the intent of my teams will remain the same. If you look at Swansea last season, it's been incredible, not just the possession and the number of games we've won, but also the fact that we have learnt as much from the games we have lost. You mention the game against Newcastle: they were chasing a spot in the Champions League and we killed them here. But we couldn't score. They have a £10m striker [Papiss Cissé] who gets two chances and scores two goals. Well done, my friend! If teams defend like that [against Swansea], they show the ultimate respect they can pay to our way of playing. As a coach, I'd never say: we play the right way and Newcastle the wrong way. All coaches want to win; I'm a coach: I want to win, but I want to do it in a certain style and I will never come away from that. I will have to try to find the solutions. For a club like Swansea, when we came to the Premier League, people said we were like Blackpool. Seven months later, they were comparing us to Arsenal. It shows how much we had grown.
Could a Swansea ever step to the next level and play in Europe?
No sé. Football is such a short-term thing. It's not by accident that the teams with the big money are there every year. Manchester City and Chelsea came to where they are now because they have money. A coach is not a magician.
What type of player do you look for? What is the first thing you look at when you evaluate a potential recruit?
Technique. I like to know that they can play football. Then, intelligence and, at this level, personality, the capacity to play at the highest level, but they also need to have the capacity to have the ball for nearly 75% of the game. Some players would rather not have the ball than have it. I need players who want to have the ball.
...and have the humility to accept constant drilling on the training pitch?
Big ego, ¡hasta luego! It's a question of DNA, of a certain culture of football. I spoke with some players last summer. Big players. I was asking them to become part of our system, telling them I could help them be big players again. The first question one of them asked me was, "Where's the nearest airport?" So he tells me straight away he wants to be away more than here. Then I ask another one, "What's your training like at this other club?" And he says, "It's fantastic, we normally get three days off!" Straight away, they tell me they don't want to work. The personality is vital. I push my players every day, big demands, big pressure.
Would you agree that you also place big demands on the supporters of your teams? In England, most of them seem to prefer a high-intensity, box-to-box approach...
At Swansea, when we played back, they clapped. Normally, in England, when you play back, phew... Because they understood the football, that we had to go back to go forward. It's education. In England, it's difficult at times. But that's ok. It's education. Life is about educating and improving. This is my journey, from the time when I was a young coach, working with young players and telling them, "You can play like that." "We don't play that way in the first team." "I don't care, this is what I want, the way I work."
Do you sometimes feel that your philosophy, as you say, makes you a lone ranger among British coaches?
I don't worry. I used to want everyone to play football, bam-bam-bam, but I respect other teams, players and managers. But it's very short-term nowadays, people will play as they see fit to survive. My way of working is different. It doesn't make it right. It doesn't make it wrong either.