“I just wish I had met him when I was coming into my prime, maybe 25 or 26 years of age,” said Steven Gerrard.
It was 2015. As Brendan Rodgers was his Liverpool manager at the time, a tribute could be dismissed as a piece of flattery. There is a temptation to point out that, five days before his 25th birthday, Gerrard won the Champions League under Rafa Benitez, so perhaps he did not want a change of management. But he is a notably straight talker so the words felt heartfelt.
As Gerrard and Rodgers prepare to meet in dugouts in the Midlands, to follow those in Glasgow, it is with the sense a rival was a mentor. Gerrard admired Rodgers’ training sessions. Rodgers reinvented his captain as a holding midfielder. Yet a relationship was complicated and soured: Rodgers’ decision to bench Gerrard away at Real Madrid in 2014 helped convince him to leave.
While still at Anfield, Gerrard argued that, had he played for Rodgers for several seasons in his prime, he would have won the Premier League a couple of times. It is simplistic to boil Gerrard’s club career to three dates under three managers, but if he won the treble under Gerard Houllier and inspired Benitez’s side to the Champions League, the abiding image of his time under Rodgers is his infamous slip against Chelsea. Both have won the title north of the border. Neither has south of it.
Yet if Gerrard is influenced by Rodgers, perhaps the influence of some of his other managers is more apparent on the pitch. In profile, Gerrard resembles Kenny Dalglish, the Liverpool legend with an aura, appointed to manage in part because of force of personality, rather than the career coach.
In tactics, there may be more of Houllier and Benitez: understandably, given that he spent six seasons under each, playing more than twice as many games for both of Liverpool’s first two foreign managers as he did for Rodgers, being made captain by the Frenchman and reaching his peak under the Spaniard.
But while Rodgers arrived at Anfield as the apostle of possession, thus far Villa have less of the ball under Gerrard than they did for Dean Smith: either 36 or 37 percent in each of their three games. Rodgers always used to say that he wanted to have an extra man in the centre of midfield to dominate the ball and while Gerrard plays 4-3-3, it is not for that reason. Rodgers’ sides evolved, both Liverpool and Leicester had the strikers to become quick counter-attackers, but playing on the break came more naturally to both Benitez and Houllier.
Thus far, Gerrard’s Villa seem modelled more on them. It is in part because Gerrard has championed Marvelous Nakamba, a specialist defensive midfielder, for a role Didi Hamann played for much of his Liverpool career. In contrast, Rodgers used a playmaker at the base of his Liverpool midfield, in Gerrard himself. When Rangers set a record for conceding the fewest goals in a Scottish Premiership season, it suggested Gerrard learned more from Benitez, whose defensive record at Anfield was far superior to Rodgers’. Albeit against lesser sides, Gerrard’s Rangers were far more frugal in Europe than Rodgers’ Celtic.
But there is another Liverpool manager to factor in: one who Gerrard worked for, but never played for. His relatively narrow 4-3-3 is not identical to Jurgen Klopp’s – the central player, often Ollie Watkins, is the most advanced forward for Gerrard, not withdrawn like Roberto Firmino – but, as at Rangers, he has shown a fondness for inverted wingers operating infield. That is the Klopp way.
His influences can reflect Liverpool’s evolution: Houllier’s side played radically different football to Klopp’s. But while he has only had a few weeks to make his mark at Villa, Rodgers may not recognise much in a reunion. So far, Gerrardball looks very different to Brendanball.
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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.
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