With Tevez waiting, it’s no disaster if City miss out on Van Persie

Is it time to worry yet? As Financial Fair Play rules cast a dark cloud over the many Premier League benefactors, the Manchester City 2012-13 chequebook has gathered dust and Robin van Persie is still yet to be paraded around the Etihad Stadium by a grinning Roberto Mancini.

It is peculiar to note that after 30 days, the oil-rich Premier League champions are yet to make a single signing this summer. In fact, the squad of last year has barely changed and we’re just three weeks away from the start of their title defence.

Though many expect Van Persie to join following his much-publicised decision not to renew his Arsenal contract, Mancini may find he has the world-class forward he desires sitting in his dressing room already.

Carlos Tevez netted his first goal of City’s pre-season on Monday against Malaysia XI in a performance that would have given his Italian manager, who he has shared such a turbulent relationship with, food for thought ahead of the new campaign.

Last year’s rather seesawing fracas ignited an absurd stand-off between manager and player that led to the club banishing Tevez – without much protest from the striker himself – to Argentina for over four months, with Mancini telling anyone that would listen that the Argentine would never play for the club again.

As it turned out, Tevez apologised “sincerely and unreservedly” for his actions, remarked that he’d been treated “like a dog” and returned in time for City’s run-in. With hindsight you might suggest the club’s maiden Premier League title win could have been sealed in a less nail-biting fashion had Tevez been available all season, such was the brief flicker of form he displayed.

The brilliant hat-trick against Norwich was a stark reminder of the talent the volatile striker possesses and the almost telepathic link he shared with Sergio Aguero that day offered more than a subtle hint as to what the pair could offer Mancini.

Of course, there can be little denial that Van Persie would add considerable firepower to City’s attack – especially if he were to replace Edin Dzeko, who often flattered to deceive, even in scoring 19 goals in 40 games – but signing the Dutchman should not be seen as the Holy Grail this summer.

In the three years Tevez has been at City, Van Persie has scored 69 goals in 101 games. The Argentine falls slightly below that figure with 56 in 98, though suffered a significant dry spell last year, netting just four times.

And, though he is undoubtedly the more complex figure, Tevez is younger, more resistant to injuries – though Van Persie seems to have shed that injury-prone reputation – and can claim a potent understanding with his compatriot Aguero. Though the age gap is almost insignificant, the other two factors certainly count in Tevez’s favour.

City have found a style to claim their own in the Mancini era. It may seem churlish to describe it as a grown-up version of the approach so synonymous of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, but their watertight defence ensured they were never out of a game, while at the other end the genius of David Silva, incisiveness of Samir Nasri and movement and finishing of Aguero made them the most devastating attacking unit in the Premier League.

Clearly Van Persie is a player capable of tailoring his game to suit Mancini’s tactical demands, but in Tevez he already has a striker adept enough to contribute goals and assists within his framework.

Tevez’s mental state, however, will forever be under scrutiny. His time in Manchester, on both sides of the divide, has resulted in fractious relationships with team-mates and staff and there is the lingering concern that he is a man that has fallen out of love with football – quite possibly down to the nomadic career he has experienced under his agent Kia Joorabchian.

Yet, recent signs have been positive. Indeed, an improvement in his attitude has been noted by his club and international colleague Pablo Zabaleta, who said: “Carlos has been fantastic in training. He’s been prepared to work hard for the team and with his attitude and effort, that’s good for us.”

Mancini, meanwhile, left the door open for Tevez on Monday, admitting: “I don’t think I can change Carlos. I just want respect, for me and for the club.”

So far, he appears to have that respect. Tevez has been a prominent part of the pre-season schedule, starting all five of their matches, four of them alongside Aguero, suggesting he has convinced Mancini he is worth counting on once again. On their performance against Malaysia XI, Mancini added: “I’m even more confident today. Sergio played very well and his partnership with Carlos has continued from last season.”

If he recaptured the goalscoring knack he had in his first two years at the Etihad, alongside Aguero – who notched an almost unprecedented 23 league goals in his debut season in England – City will have no need to feel deflated should they miss out on the marquee capture of Van Persie.

A fully focused Carlos Tevez has the attributes to be just as devastating as Van Persie could be for City. Tevez has proved his pedigree under Mancini, whereas the Dutchman would still represent a gamble – however minor that might be.

To end on a vastly overused cliche – Tevez really could be like a new signing.


Tottenham players face uncertainty as Villas-Boas aims to show his true colours

It is fair to say July has been far more agreeable for Tottenham supporters than the last couple of months. They can boast a new manager in the form of Andre Villas-Boas as well as their first signing in Gylfi Sigurdsson.

But while forums and pub conversations may revolve around the merits and limitations of incoming players, Villas-Boas’s arrival heralds a much more uncertain time for the Spurs squad.

Under Harry Redknapp Spurs predominantly played 4-5-1 last season in a relatively fluid, positional free-for-all. Though Villas-Boas is primarily referred to as a coach who prefers 4-3-3 there are small tactical nuances that, if he communicates well enough, will render Tottenham a more polished outfit.

At this early stage, the questions are: Where do Spurs need to strengthen? Who is likely to be deemed surplus to requirements? How will Villas-Boas mould this team into his own?

With the club’s summer transfer window finally kicking into gear, I analyse the five key issues Villas-Boas will need to consider and identify how the current crop of Tottenham players will fit in.

The effect of the high defensive line

The high defensive line; a cocktail of the courageous and the downright suicidal. As seen at Stamford Bridge last season, Villas-Boas’s insistence on a back-four pressing the opposition to the point of lunacy, was Chelsea’s (and his) undoing. It seems more sensible to avoid the debate surrounding the rights and wrongs of that particular ploy and focus on why it relies so heavily on the personnel.

If, as expected, Jan Vertonghen completes his move to White Hart Lane, replacing Michael Dawson at centre-back (though conceivably Steven Caulker could be trialled too), Villas-Boas would preside over one of the quickest back-fours in the league. In Kyle Walker and Benoit Assou-Ekotto, he would have the athletic full-backs so key to his system, while Vertonghen, Caulker and Younes Kaboul both offer reasonable pace for centre-backs.

The high line does require a ferocious pressing game further upfield as well, and the midfield and forwards will be asked to push on and deliver the high-intensity defensive work needed to ensure the opposition do not have time to play balls behind the backline.

Of the first-choice rearguard under Harry Redknapp, Assou-Ekotto seems the only potential casualty of the new regime. Though a genuine cult figure at White Hart Lane, he has been singled out as the weak defensive link for Spurs. With his laissez-faire attitude to the game and a dubious attention span, the high line could pose him questions.

The wide forwards

It is highly likely Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon will need to adapt their game next season. The role of out-and-out wingers they were assigned under Redknapp looks set to be a thing of the past with Villas-Boas. His time at Porto saw the left-footed Hulk operating on the right flank and the right-footed Silvestre Varela from the left. Rather than attempting to hit the byline and cross for the awaiting Radamel Falcao, the two forwards were deployed as genuine goal threats.

It could work in Bale’s favour but it is unclear if Lennon will fit the system. Chants of “he plays on the left” may finally be rendered futile for the Welshman and his penchant for drifting to the other wing could become more than mere cameos next season.

The Lennon question is harder to solve. He has been known to occasionally move to the left and has shown he is capable of nipping inside and scoring with his right foot. Yet much of his career has been spent attacking his opposite full-back and making inroads in the space outside them. Villas-Boas’s biggest challenge could be moulding Lennon into the wide forward he needs.

Alternatively, the rumours surrounding the interest in Oscar, a 20-year-old attacking midfielder with six full caps for Brazil suggest Villas-Boas may already be sourcing a fresh approach.

The striker situation

There is a dearth of striking options at Tottenham following Louis Saha’s release and the expiry of Emmanuel Adebayor’s loan, leaving just Jermain Defoe at the club. Unfortunately for Defoe, it appears he is unlikely to fit Villas-Boas’s system – a set-up that requires a striker capable of occupying two centre-backs – something he has shown he is incapable of doing.

Adebayor is believed to be Tottenham’s main target and although his worth is a topic of much debate between fans – his all-round game outweighs his penalty box profligacy – realistically for a team without Champions League football, he is probably the best available, proven striker the club could sign.

The advantage Adebayor brings to the team is an ability to move into channels and vacate space for the other midfielders around him. This was often an under-valued part to Adebayor’s game and indirectly led to a number of goals over the course of the season. Though critics would often wonder just why the only striker on the pitch was fleeing his natural territory – the penalty box.

Even putting that aside, he is a fine footballer and one who has caused Premier League defences a torrid time over the years. His link-up play is good and he seemed to be a well liked individual, despite having embarked on a difficult career move.

The midfield trio

The central midfield three will be key to Tottenham’s style next year. As alluded to earlier, much of the defensive side to Villas-Boas’s system relies upon a midfield taking a proactive approach to putting the opposition under pressure. Therefore, a hard-working, technically proficient and quick midfield trio is essential.

At present, Luka Modric’s future is uncertain and although losing the Croatian would be a bitter blow, it is not to say the Spurs midfield would be lost without him.

In the past Villas-Boas has employed an anchorman sitting deeper than his two partners in crime. Sandro has shown in his two years in north London that he is an excellent destroyer and the same can be said of Scott Parker. However, the latter offers less craft on the ball and could well be a victim of the managerial change. He is also dealing with a troublesome Achilles injury that may curtail part of his pre-season.

Sigurdsson has been signed to add a much-needed goal threat from the midfield and alongside either Rafael van der Vaart – whose future is also uncertain – and the return of Tom Huddlestone, Spurs look to have strength in the middle of the park. Huddlestone’s ability to pick a pass was missed at times last season and welcoming him back to the first-team will feel like a new signing.

The lack of pace, however, could hamper Villas-Boas’s pressing style and it would not be a surprise to see another central midfielder added – particularly if one of, or both, Modric and Van der Vaart depart.

Shedding the trouble-makers

Perhaps the biggest change for Villas-Boas will be casting off some of the more outspoken players. His downfall at Chelsea largely came about because of the disharmony perpetuated by the influential characters in the dressing room, and if he has learnt a lesson from his Stamford Bridge nightmare it may spell the end for players such as Van der Vaart.

William Gallas, another player with a history of trouble-making looks set to depart Spurs but it will be the loss of the talismanic Dutchman that may be Villas-Boas’s most controversial move.

Of course, it is entirely understandable that he would want to enter a new season with a group of players receptive to his methods and with the patience to adopt what is asked of him. There is little doubt a player of Van der Vaart’s quality could evolve and be part of a new system. But it is his candid nature, prevalent during Euro 2012 that may convince Villas-Boas to cut loose.

It would be a far from popular move, but is something that comes within the remit of managerial change. If Tottenham are to afford Villas-Boas the time he was not given at Chelsea, decisions such as this will need to be tolerated.

This article originally appeared on Goal.com

Defoe departure would signal a telling new phase in Tottenham’s revolution

There is perhaps no transfer, in or out, that would signify Tottenham’s transition to a new era more so than the departure of Jermain Defoe.

The phrase ‘new era’ has been synonymous with the club ever since Andre Villas-Boas arrived at White Hart Lane to replace Harry Redknapp, and, though the managerial change fits this criteria, the sale of one of the club’s longest-serving players will be most representative of the ambitious direction towards which the club are moving.

Rumours of an impending exit for Defoe – a cult figure at Spurs, with a respectable 118 goals in 298 games over two spells and seven-and-a-half years – have gathered pace in the last week as he is believed to be surplus to Villas-Boas’s requirements and available for just under £10 million.

Defoe became a popular figure at Spurs, signed by interim manager David Pleat in January 2004 as a sprightly 21-year-old. Oddly (although maybe not when you consider the reaction to Emmanuel Adebayor’s move to Spurs this season) there was little animosity towards the forward, despite his affiliation with London rivals West Ham.

But that may be down to the reputation which the striker carried at the time, as Pleat explained on completion of the transfer, saying: “I can’t think of a British striker at his age who has achieved as much in such a short space of time.”

Spurs had snapped up one of the most promising young poachers in the country and he started well, scoring seven times in the second half of the 2003-04 season, as well as beginning his first full campaign convincingly.

But it could be argued that this was the only stage of Defoe’s Tottenham career in which he was the main striker. Mido and Robbie Keane became Martin Jol’s preferred pairing before Dimitar Berbatov joined the Irishman to create one of the most potent strikeforces in the Premier League. After Darren Bent signed in the summer of 2007, Defoe found himself further down the pecking order and moved to Portsmouth.

Even on his return to White Hart Lane under Redknapp, Defoe was still competing with Keane, Bent and Roman Pavlyuchenko and the trend has followed him all the way to the present day. He has been the nearly-man at Spurs, despite an obvious goalscoring knack that would be so valued elsewhere – and that became his problem.

Still just 29 years old, he will offer at least a few more years of top-level service for whichever club he joins but it has become patently obvious that he has his limitations – and there will be few Tottenham fans who would disagree. Always good for a goal, but rarely offering much in the build-up, the modern Spurs team of consecutive fifth-place finishes under Jol and the improvements under Redknapp showed that the club required a front line capable of more than Defoe could offer.

Though the Keane and Berbatov axis best represented the value of possessing strikers with a rounded set of attributes, Adebayor’s productive campaign both in front of goal and as a creator last season highlighted a need for a striker suited to leading the line alone (though Defoe has improved in this aspect).

That is not to say that he has no role in top-flight football, though. If you were to give Defoe a full campaign he would return double figures – and to any side below the top eight, that would be vital. Teams such as Fulham, Aston Villa and Reading – to take three at random – would have no issue in providing Defoe the first-team football that he so desperately seeks. But at the summit of the league, the game has changed; as defences sit back and invite pressure, strikers able to interchange with their supporting cast tend to create a greater danger.

It is sad to see a loyal club servant leave and that will be the case for many if and when Defoe moves on, but with the aspirations of Tottenham eclipsing his worth, it is in the best interests of both parties to part ways.

Sadly for a man who openly cares for the club, he never attained the peak of his perceived potential. There is no shame in that but, as Tottenham look to move away from the nearly-men tag that has dogged their Premier League lifespan, they will need to discard the man who encapsulates that more than any other Spur.

This article originally featured on Goal.com

Pride of Italy: the making of Mario Balotelli

If there is one thing I took from Italy’s humbling of Germany it was to radically change my opinion on Mario Balotelli. And I’m sure I’m not alone on this.

I also learnt betting against Cesare Prandelli’s Italy is a sure fire way to empty the bank balance but that’s another matter.

For it was Balotelli’s sumptuous double that claimed the headlines and dumped Joachim Low’s German team out of Euro 2012.

Perhaps it is the unpredictability of Balotelli’s nature that lulled me into the belief that for all the plaudits the 21-year-old has received in his short career, it was all a bit of a ruse. His record at Manchester City – just shy of a goal every two games – is impressive enough for a striker not always deployed as Roberto Mancini’s first-choice.

Yet, the moments of madness, on-pitch tantrums, off-pitch mischief and red cards have blighted his time in England and critics – including Mancini – have doubted whether he is worth the trouble.

But he is eminently watch-able, a likeable character and a good footballer. How good, I was unsure – until Italy’s improbable run to the final of Euro 2012. This Italian team were meant to improve on the disastrous group stage exit at the 2010 World Cup but were never viewed as genuine tournament contenders – see the 14/1 pre-Euros price as evidence.

But Prandelli – a modern think-tank manager – has assembled an exciting, young squad, likely only to get better over the next few years. And after a three-goal tournament, it is highly probably that Balotelli will be at the heart of it. After fears that he was wasting his talent, Balotelli now looks to have assured his place on the international scene. This has been his breakout moment.

The partnership with Antonio Cassano – another player having a fine Euros – has blossomed. On paper, you’d be forgiven for thinking this would be Italy’s Achilles’ heel, but it has been quite the opposite. While the world lauds Andrea Pirlo for his dictatorial displays in midfield, it can be easy to forget that without the movement of those around him, Pirlo’s game would be hindered.

The courage Prandelli has shown to pair Cassano and Balotelli was calculated. The off-the-ball movement of the two terrorised the German defence, leaving one of the best performers in Poland and Ukraine – Mats Hummels – reeling. His partner, Holger Badstuber, fared no better as he was left glued to the ground for Balotelli’s first.

They are the two most intelligent strikers in Italy’s squad and have been given the freedom to be proactive this tournament. There are no restrictions on their movement and no demands on their work-rate – though that has not been under question this summer.

The talents Cassano possesses are not a mystery – though how he has summoned them following such a tough year – remains one. Balotelli however, has often flattered to deceive. A moment of brilliance can be lost in the furore surrounding a reckless tackle, a stamp or a wayward pass. In fact, this was most evident in the game against Spain. Balotelli’s nonchalant flick of his boot on the touchline to control a pass destined for the stands was brilliant. His ponderous finish when in on goal, less so. And he was remembered for that missed chance.

After two goalless games, but performances that suggested an understanding with Cassano was forming, Balotelli was dropped. A switch in formation allowed Prandelli to assess his other options but it was the final flourish in a 2-0 win over Ireland that made headlines. Balotelli’s excellent overhead kick capped Italy’s win and briefly tempted the volatile striker to hit out at his critics – something Leandro Bonucci put a stop to immediately.

That callow moment was one of a couple of incidents that reminded us of Balotelli’s impudence but as Bonucci clasped his hand over the striker’s mouth, it ushered in a new maturity as Italy headed to the knock-out stages.

The build-up to England v Italy contained plenty of Balotelli narrative. He is the only member of the Azzurri squad to play in the Premier League and the talk focussed on his battle with club-mates Joleon Lescott and Joe Hart. Though he didn’t score, Balotelli proved a constant thorn in the side of the English defence, finding space and troubling Lescott and John Terry in equal abundance. Much like his run for the second goal against Germany, he sprung the offside trap, only to be denied by a combination of Hart and Terry.

After two hours of football, Balotelli showed his mettle, stepping up to take the first penalty and coolly stroking it past Hart. His celebration – something so rare – showed the value he placed on the spot-kick. It was another riposte to his critics.

And that has been the true story of Balotelli’s Euros. He has only played 13 times for Italy but lacked the support and acceptance of the press. That was until his double against Germany.

‘Pride of Italy’ adorned the front page of Gazzetta dello Sport’s website with a picture of a topless Balotelli, flexing his muscles and proving another point to pundits too quick to write him off. The same image was met with ‘We beat them black and blue’ on Tuttosport’s front page today – a telling innuendo. Balotelli’s rise has been difficult for some on the peninsula to stomach but for pure footballing reasons – as it should be – he deserves the adulation he receives.

Whether all of this truly represents Balotelli’s breakout remains to be seen, but for the first time, I, like many others, are left wondering just how good he could be. His first test will be in Sunday’s final against Spain. His second, retaining the Premier League. In years to come, this tournament could be referenced as the making of Balotelli.

Unless he gets sent off in Kiev…

Who next for Tottenham?

This article was originally published on Goal.com on June 14.

A new state-of-the-art training ground, plans to move into a 56,000 seater stadium, a squad full of talent, sound financial footing and a board willing to spend to secure regular Champions League status. Managing Tottenham has never looked so enticing.

It seems an age since a summer provided so many Premier League casualties and though most of the vacancies have been filled, possibly the most attractive surfaced on Wednesday night as Harry Redknapp was relieved of his duties at White Hart Lane.

Daniel Levy’s next move will garner more interest than the uncertainty that surrounded the Chelsea or Liverpool jobs as the club look to press on with the encouraging groundwork laid by Redknapp.

The one-time FA Cup winner was a short-term appointment who over-achieved and earned a much longer spell in charge of the club. Yet, he never shared the long-term vision for the club – something that would always count against him.

The club are set to move to a new training base this summer – tipped to be one of the most advanced facilities in Europe – while plans for a new stadium in Tottenham are making steady progress. Simply, while the club was being built around him, Redknapp failed to keep up, leaving the board no choice but to chase a manager prepared to provide the long-term planning the new facilities merit.

The bookmakers early favourite is David Moyes and some have even stopped taking bets on the Scot pitching up at White Hart Lane. Judging by Tottenham’s recent history he seems to fit the profile.

Moyes has shown in his 10 years at Everton that he is capable of squeezing every last drop of potential from a thin squad – consistently keeping the Toffees in the top half of the Premier League.

He has worked admirably under testing financial constraints – with a net spend of just under £20 million in his time at Goodison Park. It isn’t clear what Tottenham’s position is at present. In the last 12 months a substantial profit has been made via the transfer market, but it is unclear whether the short-term replacements merely reflected the precarious position of Redknapp.

Moyes represents a safe pair of hands for Levy. It is unlikely he will carry the gung-ho attitude Redknapp exuded though, and it is possibly a distant dream that Spurs would be deemed title contenders under him, but if his missive is to obtain Champions League football, logic suggests he is the best bet.

Fans were constantly reminded by Redknapp over the years that the football the team played was the best the club had seen. If style is a prerequisite to get the job, critics will point to the reactive, back-foot football of Moyes as a reason to look elsewhere.

Roberto Martinez is bound for greater things than a never-ending relegation struggle at Wigan and his time at the DW Stadium has been admirable. The Spaniard has had his hands tied in the transfer market with a lack of investment, yet has developed a fascinating playing style that confounded adversaries in a run-in that included wins over Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Newcastle.

It is unclear whether Martinez is the real deal or just the flavour of the month though. The Spaniard endured a painful start to the campaign but largely avoided criticism (because of the lack of expectation surrounding Wigan), instead lapping up the plaudits when his side narrowly survived relegation – hence the generous praise afforded to him. Redknapp on the other hand, let a very healthy position slip, enduring a difficult second-half to the campaign that ultimately cost him his job.

It is hard to quantify how good Martinez is. He has over-achieved at Wigan – a good sign – but has yet to manage in the Premier League under the weight of serious expectation. Should Levy appoint Martinez, it would be a sizeable gamble and one that carries a shade too much risk if the club are simply chasing top four stability.

If he is looking for a manager capable of building a dynasty – entirely plausible given the heavy links to Brendan Rodgers earlier in the season – then Martinez becomes a very real option.

Another long-term option is Andre Villas-Boas. There is no doubt the Portuguese has talent but Levy will insist on appointing someone with proven Premier League credentials. An unhappy six months at Stamford Bridge hardly screams ‘natural successor’ but Villas-Boas does retain an impressive CV whilst his reputation remains largely intact.

However, the nature of his time at Chelsea should worry potential Premier League suitors. He couldn’t impose the style of play that made him so successful at Porto and was ousted by a core of influential and experienced players. That wouldn’t be an obstacle for a younger, more impressionable Tottenham squad, but it may cast seeds of doubt over the authority he carries on the training ground. In short, he would be a risky appointment.

There are also two out of contract Champions League winning managers who have expressed an interest in managing in the Premier League. Rafa Benitez and Fabio Capello both hold hugely impressive CVs and should be considered by Tottenham.

Capello may be the big name manager Tottenham need if they are to retain the services of Luka Modric and Gareth Bale. His reputation within the game, despite the England debacle, remains unrivalled. At club level, he is one of the most successful coaches in the game – and certainly the most decorated of the realistic unemployed options.

However, he is the antithesis of Redknapp – a strict autocratic manager who may struggle to gain the affection of the players.

Benitez, though laughed out of the San Siro, following his dire tenure at Inter, should be a realistic candidate. He has remained active outside of the management game, delivering seminars and talks on his footballing beliefs. He is clearly a devoted student of the game and though some may deride the style of play he mustered at Anfield, he would bring the analytical, statistic-driven coaching many feel Redknapp ignored.

Redknapp didn’t so much as build something at Spurs – rather he balanced a decent squad with a few well considered purchases. The squad was strong enough to achieve third but it didn’t and now is the time to hire a man capable of building towards the next level.

Whichever direction the club turn, and it could well be someone not mentioned – Laurent Blanc, Luciano Spalletti, Jurgen Klopp – Daniel Levy cannot afford a protracted interview and hiring process. This summer was already set to be demanding and will be made more so with every passing day.

Profile – Brendan Rodgers

Fenway Sports Group’s methodical appointment process heralds a new era for Liverpool as Brendan Rodgers is poised to step into Kenny Dalglish’s shoes. Although, in stark contrast to the decision that handed the Scot the power to save the mess Roy Hodgson had originally created, this will arguably be far less popular with the Anfield faithful.

With just a solitary year of Premier League experience, Rodgers probably didn’t envisage such an opportunity arising so quickly. However, as FSG implement a top-to-bottom reform of the club, eyes will be cast toward the on-pitch revolution as his particular brand of football will be exhibited at Anfield.

It has been a steep rise and as he takes his place in the Anfield hot-seat for what will be the biggest test of his credentials, I look back on the Northern Irishman’s career that elevated him to one of the British game’s great clubs.

Rodgers began his association with football as a defender playing for Ballymena in Northern Ireland before moving to Reading at the age of 18. A series of injuries restricted his time to reserve team games before he was forced to retire because of a genetic knee problem.

Rather than walking away from the game though, he displayed the desire to succeed that became synonymous with the work we have been exposed to over the past few years. Driven by a need to support a young family and a genuine love for the sport, Rodgers moved into coaching, stating: “I started coaching for one reason and that was to make a difference.”

At the age of 22, Rodgers was in charge of Reading’s youth academy, spending copious hours on the training field honing the skills he now attributes to his success. The key, perhaps, was variety. In his early days, he would train the youth prospects in the day and coach at local schools during the evening.

As he formulated a plan for his career, the belief in strong communication became an integral part of his mantra. Rodgers recognised the importance of broadening his education and strayed away from the somewhat archaic belief in Britain that everything a coach could learn can be acquired on these shores.

He has cited the Dutch ‘Total Football’ side of the 1980s as an inspiration as well as Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ a decade later. The admiration for teams that played with a certain panache can be seen in the DNA of the Swansea side he managed to such acclaim over the last two seasons.

But getting there was far harder than it may look. Rodgers took Spanish lessons three times a week for seven years after he was advised that adding that extra string to his bow would open doors to the elite level.

During that time he organised weekend trips to Spain and Holland, taking in games at clubs renowned for producing home-grown talent. These trips took him to Amsterdam, Enschede, Sevilla, Valencia and, of course, Barcelona. The idea was to decipher the strategy and structure of clubs that carried a vision from the academy through to the first team.

The information he gleaned during his visits to the continent assisted his own development as head of the academy at Reading and his work was recognised in 2004 by Chelsea coach Steve Clarke, who recommended him to Jose Mourinho – Chelsea’s new boss – who placed him in charge of the youth set-up.

The skills he developed at Reading and the philosophy he had formed in his studies abroad were suddenly more applicable when used in conjunction with a higher calibre of footballer.

He made the step up from the academy to the reserve team just two years after his appointment and was charged with being the link between the academy and first team. His focus on the constitution of football clubs around Europe was all the more relevant and made an impression on Mourinho.

“I like everything in him,” said the Portuguese coach of his young charge. “He is ambitious and does not see football very differently from myself. He is open, likes to learn and likes to communicate.”

Rodgers himself has been effusive in his praise for his mentor saying: “With Mourinho, my football education was the equivalent of going to Harvard.”

Championship side Watford were the first club to entice him into the throes of senior management and the man from Carnlough guided them from relegation candidates to safety with typical style. However, impending budget cuts and an opportunity too good to pass up saw Rodgers move back to Reading to replace outgoing manager Steve Coppell.

Six months later, the romantic homecoming was over. Just five league wins, including a solitary home victory over Blackpool led to a mutual parting of ways and suddenly Rodgers’ burgeoning career was in the doldrums.

The then Reading striker Shane Long offered insight into the failure saying: “It just didn’t seem to work at Reading… the Barcelona way of playing. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, it just didn’t seem to click. It was a big transition in a short period of time and we couldn’t make it work.”

He joined Swansea seven months after leaving Reading and in his first full season led the club to the Premier League via the play-offs. He had found a club with a philosophy akin to his, with players intelligent enough to adopt his basic principles and took the Swans to unprecedented heights. He describes his current charges as ‘sponges’, so adept are they at taking on board his methods.

Despite being written off by all and sundry, he led Swansea to an 11th place finish in the 2011-12 season, drawing admirers from across the country and beyond for their hypnotic passing style. Only Arsenal and Manchester City – a team Swansea dominated and defeated – out-passed his side.

Rodgers took four points from Liverpool last season and had his team applauded from the pitch by the Anfield faithful – something he recalls with affection: “That was really touching because that is such an historic ground.”

Now he is moving from a club without a training ground to call their own to Melwood and the eminence of Anfield. All eyes will be on Rodgers and it will be up to him to prove he can convince Liverpool’s multi-million pound stars of his ideology. If as much patience is afforded by FSG as the fans, Liverpool may well have struck gold.

A Prattling Premier League Preview – Weekend of 5/5/2012

As you can see I’ve timed this new feature superbly with it being the penultimate weekend of the season. In spite of that, here’s my slapdash take on this week’s Premier League fixtures:

Arsenal 3-1 Norwich

Definite home win. Norwich have basically decided it’s holiday time and after surpassing the magic number of 40 points, they’ve gone and lost their last three league games by an aggregate score of 11-1. They even lost to Blackburn AND failed to score against them (just the third team all year to do that).

However Arsenal are in a strange run of form, scoring just twice in their last three games and picking up just two points at Stoke and at home to Chelsea. Even the mighty Robin Van Persie seems a little jaded as the season comes to a close.

That said, if there’s one thing to galvanise a Dutchman it’s an award. Basking in the adulation of his peers and perhaps more importantly, the football writers, I fully expect Van Persie to lead Wenger’s side to a comfortable home victory.

Newcastle 1-2 Man City

The biggest game of the weekend sees Roberto Mancini’s side head across to the north-east and face Newcastle – surely team of the season. Alan Pardew’s side have already defeated Manchester United and Liverpool at St James Park (sorry, the Sports Direct Arena), as well as claiming a point from Arsenal and Tottenham.

Now, is Papiss Cisse the greatest finisher of my lifetime? At the moment – yes, quite considerably. Is he lucky? Yes, that too. His 13 goals in 12 games should strike fear into the hearts of all things sky blue but City seem made of sterner stuff this year. Captain Kompany looked incredibly focused immediately after the club’s win over Manchester United and I reckon this could be the man capable of stopping Papiss.

I just can’t see City passing up yet another chance to claim a maiden Premier League title. This will be a narrow away win.

Aston Villa 1-3 Tottenham

It’s hard to find crumbs of comfort for Alex McLeish – Aston Villa’s lame duck manager. It looks as though the Midlands club will survive relegation by default as QPR, Wigan and Bolton will have to find four points from six. Throw in a mischievous clubbing incident, some liberal fines and a team that have won just twice in 17 games and you have a problem.

That problem will likely be exacerbated by Harry Redknapp’s team on Sunday. They’ve rediscovered some semblance of the form that at one point made the north Londoners a foregone conclusion for a Champions League place. A flowing 4-1 win over Bolton on Wednesday, a team I view as having a better starting eleven than Villa, should provide enough support to predict an away win.

Bolton 1-1 WBA

A tricky fixture to call as we just don’t know how the Baggies will respond to the imminent departure of their boss Roy Hodgson. I’m going to throw it out there that they’ll want to sign off in style as a form of ‘thank you’ to a manager who has turned the perennial yo-yo club into a mid-table outfit.

Bolton had a brief period of 15 minutes against Spurs where they looked to have the courage and fight to battle against the increasingly magnetic pull of the Premier League trapdoor. I suspect they’ll be better against West Brom and at least keep it tighter at the back – they’ve only conceded once in four games at home…

Fulham 3-0 Sunderland

Pyjamas on, lights out. That’s the impression I get with these two teams. Both have had positive years – Fulham’s first with Martin Jol in charge must be deemed a success and only the uncharacteristic 4-0 humping by Everton prevented the Cottagers from pushing on for a 7th place finish (thought it is still an outside possibility).

Meanwhile an iffy start by the Black Cats, which led to the sacking of Steve Bruce, was arrested by Martin O’Neill. But without a win in six, they look perfectly content with their mid-table finish.

I doubt O’Neill will allow his side to head to a game and not put up a decent fight but a relaxed side under Jol should dominate this fixture.

QPR 2-1 Stoke

The hosts are teetering. They’re on the brink, but are just propped up by Bolton who have a much more inferior goal difference. The importance of the games at Loftus Road was something hugely emphasised on Mark Hughes’ arrival and to be fair his team have consistently delivered, beating the likes of Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea. The problem has been their away form – six consecutive losses.

But we won’t worry about that right now – it’s all about dealing with Stoke. Deputy sling-shotter Ryan Shotton hasn’t been nearly as effective as his mentor Rory Delap – hence the Irishman’s return against Everton. I do wonder if the narrow space between touchline and stand will cause him a problem?

Stoke are another side content with their campaign and should QPR match the commitment forever expected of a Tony Pulis outfit, I predict a massively important home win.

Wolves 2-2 Everton

Has Terry Connor burst into tears yet? Not quite actually and that’s largely down to the stirring comeback in Wales that saw Wolves snatch a point off the Swans. TC hasn’t had much fun in Mick’s hot-seat but it was pleasing to see him get a touch of fortune and even break out a smile. The pressure is off and this is the final game at home before the Championship calendar hangs in the offices of Molineux.

Finishing a season in vastly better form than they began it, we have David Moyes’ Toffees. Yes, once again, the late season rally from Everton has kept their season nicely entertaining. This year it’s particularly enthralling if you’re of a Merseyside persuasion as the battle for 7th – possibly the least talked about battle in a Premier League campaign – is actually interesting. Everton lead by three points over Dalglish’s Reds and although it ultimately will mean very little with Liverpool winning at least one trophy, it’s important to Evertonians. So a win here? No actually.

Man Utd 4-1 Swansea

Ah, the other Manchester club. A routine home victory? An ‘easy’ fixture as Roberto Mancini put it? I beg to differ. I think the Swans will give United a real test. I don’t think they’ll win, or even draw, but it will be a lot tougher than Mancini predicts.

United will need to be thinking about goal difference and on paper this is a great chance to spank a few hundred goals past one of those rubbish promoted sides. Thing is, they need the ball and little Joe Allen quite likes it himself. In amazingly contradictory shocker, I predict Swansea to dominate possession but United to win by three.

Blackburn 1-3 Wigan

The biggest battle at the bottom of the table this weekend and it is simply a must-win game for the home side. In fact, if Steve Kean’s side lose, they’d need a miracle in other results not only this weekend but on the final weekend too. So it’s a good job, he prepared his side correctly – playing a scarcely believable 5-4-1 away at Tottenham in a form of damage limitation. In his technical area last week Kean showed the body language of a man that has finally accepted that he’ll simply never be accepted. It’s hard to watch but ‘team Kean’ may finally be put to rest.

By who? Well those plucky Barcelona boys up in Wigan. Possibly playing the best football the league has seen this season, the Latics have done what they do best by springing into life a month before what seemed like certain relegation. Unconventional to the very end – who else plays a 3-4-3? – Roberto Martinez’s charges are playing their way from relegation. Oh yes, in a middle finger to the supporters of battling, long-ball survival football, Wigan are just passing the life out of anyone who dares step to them. Away win.

Liverpool 2-0 Chelsea

In one of those unfortunate fixture computer calamities, Liverpool and Chelsea meet again just four days after they duel at Wembley for the FA Cup. Given that this will be the last game of this round of fixtures, I’ll draw some quick conclusions from my predictions.

Chelsea will no longer be able to catch Spurs in the league and so everything becomes tailored towards the Champions League final. That means an immediate rest for anyone who played in the extra time win over Liverpool on Saturday – especially fatigued match-winner Fernando Torres – ooof what a story that was!

Liverpool are four points behind Everton and with just a League Cup to show for this year, must hunt their rivals down. Full strength team including a ludicrously petulant Luis Suarez. He may get sent-off but he got a goal and an assist before he did.