Brendan Rodgers returns to Liverpool this weekend for the first time since the club’s long wait for a league title – one he came so agonisingly close to – was ended by his successor.
It’s not the first time that Rodgers has headed back to Merseyside since his sacking a little over five years ago, but the circumstances are somewhat different with Liverpool now holding the status and aura of Premier League champions.
Rodgers may feel some regret, even resentment, that he was unable to see the job through after coming closer than any of his Premier League predecessors, Jurgen Klopp’s success last season one that – but for a global pandemic – would have seen Liverpool supporters embark on a summer-long party three decades in the making.
The Northern Irishman arrived at Liverpool as one of Britain’s brightest up-and-coming coaching prospects, having recovered from early setbacks at Watford and Reading to thrive at Swansea, guiding the club into the Premier League and embarking on a superb debut season at the top level, all whilst playing an aesthetically pleasing brand of football.
It was a risk by the Reds’ hierarchy, but a calculated risk and one which so nearly paid dividends for England’s biggest sleeping giant, one without a league title in over 20 years.
Rodgers arrived at Liverpool just two years after Fenway Sports Group had seized control of the club and rescued the Reds from a precarious financial position, inheriting a side that had stagnated under club legend Kenny Dalglish despite reaching two cup finals the previous season.
His debut campaign saw Liverpool finish seventh – a one-place improvement but a position far below both expectations and aspirations at Anfield – though there were shoots of growth, not least in their attacking returns.
Rodgers’ side scored 71 goals for the league season, an improvement from the previous campaign’s paltry tally of 47 goals, when Liverpool lost a staggering 11 Premier League fixtures after the turn of the New Year.
His second summer saw the circus of Arsenal’s now infamous bid for star player Luis Suarez, bidding just a single pound above the Uruguayan’s release clause, only for Liverpool’s ownership to categorically refuse to sanction his sale.
Retaining the services of the forward proved the key factor behind the league season that came to define Rodgers’ reign on Merseyside, the young coach assembling one of the most fun but flawed sides in Premier League history.
Suarez led from the front in one of the most sensational individual campaigns the division has seen, ably supported by exciting Rodgers’ signings in Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho, an emerging Raheem Sterling and a deeper, fine-tuned Steven Gerrard.
Rodgers showed his tactical flexibility by manoeuvring his players into a 4-1-2-1 formation, a system which got the best from the players available to him and allowed the scintillating Suarez and Sturridge to dovetail in attack, becoming the first strike partnership in history to finish as the league’s two leading scorers with 52 goals combined.
Liverpool incredibly scored 3+ goals on 21 occasions throughout the league season, including seven times in just eight fixtures during a captivating run-in that looked destined to end with Rodgers ending the club’s wait for a maiden Premier League title and etching himself into folklore.
It didn’t pan out that way, of course, the momentum of their run and a bubbling cauldron of pressure and excitement getting the best of an inexperienced but exhilarating side and their enthusiastic young manager.
A combination of tactical naivety and a cruel Steven Gerrard slip infamously halted them in their tracks against Chelsea and took the destination of the title out of their own hands, before their ‘Crystanbul’ capitulation at Selhurst Park perhaps provided a microcosm of their flaws – blowing a three-goal lead as they desperately sought to close the goal difference on eventual champions Manchester City.
Hopes of responding with another title challenge were virtually extinguished following the departure of Suarez to Barcelona, whilst the reinvestment of the forward’s £75m fee saw several ill-advised purchases including Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert.
Liverpool slipped from second to sixth – despite a mid-season resurgence that saw an inspired switch to a 3-4-1-2 formation and a 13-game unbeaten run – and the writing was ultimately on the wall for Rodgers.
Just one season after publicly criticising Tottenham’s inability to challenge for the title after spending £100m+ following the sale Gareth Bale, Rodgers repeated the trick with some questionable recruitment post-Suarez and a poor start to the 2015/16 season saw him sacked.
Scotland was his next destination and Celtic offered Rodgers – whose pride had been hit – an opportunity to rebuild away from the Premier League spotlight and whilst expected to win at the perennial Scottish champions, he did so in style.
Back-to-back domestic trebles were achieved whilst laying the foundations for a third, in addition to completing a historic unbeaten campaign.
Celtic offered huge comfort but the lure of a Premier League return ultimately proved too strong and in Leicester’s approach for his services he received an offer too good to turn down, a young and hungry side with ambitious owners and significantly less pressure than one of the division’s leading clubs.
So far it has proven a perfect match, Rodgers’ first full season seeing Leicester challenge strongly for a Champions League place before agonisingly slipping to fifth on the final day, though the Foxes are well placed for another push towards the top four this season.
Liverpool may have been the least successful stint of his previous three jobs, but each of the clubs he has managed have improved under Rodgers and it is time he is recognised amongst the best – and most tactically flexible – coaches in the Premier League.
The often cringey sound bites of his younger years have almost served to make him a caricature of himself, in an era in which the tabloids and social media vultures are ready to pounce on any quotes that can be used as weapons in the ‘build them up, knock them down’ mentality of the modern media.
Rodgers recently joined Frank Lampard in placing a chip on his own shoulder in reference to the praise afforded to British coaches following Leicester’s win at Leeds, though his comments do have some justification.
He has, however, largely let his football do the talking in recent times.
It’s just well then that Rodgers football is more than enough to do his talking at present, with the Northern Irishman taking his high-flying Foxes to Anfield this weekend as the Premier League leaders.
He was not quite the man to end Liverpool’s long wait and the job perhaps came too soon for Rodgers, who may just regret his inability to capture the iconic status now enjoyed by the adored successor in the opposite dugout on Sunday evening.
Rodgers needn’t look back on his Reds reign with regret, however, his failings have helped shape a manager who – regardless of public perceptions – ranks amongst the best in the division.
He will likely be relishing another opportunity to demonstrate such this weekend.