One thing that separates Brendon Rodgers from many other British managers is his tactical flexibility. Unafraid to use different systems of play from the 4-2-3-1 at Swansea which drew comparisons to Barcelona, to the diamond that had his Liverpool team running over teams in attack akin to Klopp’s Dortmund. However, his principles of play are clear and have a been put to the test across various leagues like the championship, premier league and the SPL with Celtic.
It’s all about the ball. Dominating it, looking to win it back quickly, owning it, this is especially true of his Swansea and Celtic sides with Liverpool being the outlier and Leicester being something of a hybrid between the two styles capable of playing a possession style or sitting deep and hitting teams with fast counters as evident against City and Leeds this season.
“I like to control the games. I like to be responsible for our own destiny. If you are better than your opponent with the ball you have a 79 per cent chance of winning the game for me it is quite logical. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are if you don’t have the ball you can’t score.” (Rodgers 2012)
Rodgers outlined his vision for Swansea from the get-go incorporating the whole club from the first team right through to the academy. His aim was ambitious he wanted Swansea to be an attacking and attractive team to watch, whilst also establishing them as a Premier League club using players brought through the club’s academy.
To achieve his vision Rodgers outlined a number of principles to create a philosophy and club culture based around possession-based football. He believed the perfect style of play revolved around the circulation of the ball. To do this his team had to have good positional play, with players moving to create plenty of passing lines through the formation of triangles all over the pitch allowing them to dictate the play.
As with all of Rodgers teams, the transitions were hugely important Swansea were no different and they pressed high, used cover shadows and defended in zones across the pitch. The aim was to make the pitch as big as possible when in possession and as small as possible without the ball.
Swansea arrived in the top flight with a clear philosophy from which they had no intention of deviating. Dominating games through possession and winning admirers for their bold, proactive style of play. Swansea survived comfortably, achieving their pre-season goal finishing 11th and 11 points clear of the drop zone. Funnily enough, they ended 2011/12 third in the possession table, with only Arsenal and Manchester City averaging a higher share of the ball over 38 games.
As stated above the shape Rodgers used was primarily the 4-2-3-1 to enable him to get the best out of Gylfi Sigurdsson. Britton would dictate from deep whilst Allen would fulfil more of the Xavi role hence his nickname the Welsh Xavi.
With the ball
Rodgers talks about four phases that underpin Swansea's approach when they have the ball. There is the building and constructing from behind, the preparation through midfield, the creativity to arrive in the areas and then the taking of the goals..
As with Barcelona Swansea built from the back, their centre backs were comfortable receiving the ball before distributing it to a midfielder usually Leon Britton. He would come deeper to form the triangle with the centrebacks outlined in Rodgers philosophy.
Swansea make the pitch as big as possible by players coming deeper such as Britton, they also stretch the pitch wid with their fullbacks hugging the touchline, this combined with their triangular formations makes it easy to keep the ball whilst playing through the gaps left by the opponents who need to cover a larger area.
An area in which did differ a lot to that of Barcelona is that they played with an out and out striker in Danny Graham rather than the false 9 of Messi, in this aspect, you can see the combination of two influences on Rodgers that of the Spanish and Barcelona sides full of small technical players which he admired. The other is the physical and focal point that is able to occupy defenders of Mourinho who he worked under at Chelsea blending these two styles together to create side able to play beautiful football but also put the ball in the net.
One criticism thrown at Swansea is that they often keep the ball in their own half or in areas where they are not hurting the opposition. Rodgers pointed out that, while the primary reason for possession will always be to create and exploit space, the simple fact is that, while Swansea have the ball, the opposition are unable to score.
He also said that by keeping the ball for long periods his team are able to recover. The only time we rest is when we have the ball, "When we haven't got the ball is the moment for intense pressure to get the ball back. But you can't go for 90 minutes, so in order to recuperate and conserve energy, we'll do that sometimes by building our way through the game — our tiki-taka football, our small lending games to keep the ball.
Swansea likes to press high and use a high line to make the pitch smaller, once they win the ball back if they can counter quickly they will do so otherwise they will set about building patiently again.
Swansea do counter-press but it's not as aggressive as the Dortmund press under Klopp, instead, they use more cover shadows to prevent the opposition from playing into open receivers.
Swansea like Barcelona defended zonally, they split the pitch into equal zones with each player responsible for their own zones. The aim was to suffocate the opposition whilst remaining an organised and structured defensive shape, rather than the chaotic nature of man-marking and intense pressing as we see with Bielsa's Leeds. Rarely would you see Swansea players going to ground in the challenge instead they would look to make interceptions rather than outright tackles to win the ball back.