Brendan Rodgers: Spain have been a great model for me over many years
Swansea’s young manager is about to complete an impressive first Premier League season and he is heading to join Vincente del Bosque’s Euro 2012 training camp for four days
It is 9am on Wednesday at Glamorgan Health and Racquets club and the cafe is a busy place to be. Fitness fanatics are strutting in and out, a few toddlers are testing the patience of their mothers and those a little longer in the tooth are sipping coffee while flicking through the papers. It is not a particularly unusual scene, apart from the fact that on one table, seemingly oblivious to everything going on around him, a Premier League manager is holding the morning meeting with his backroom staff.
Brendan Rodgers, whose Swansea City side have been such a revelation in the Premier League this season, must feel as if he works in a goldfish bowl. Without a training ground of their own, Swansea make do with what is effectively an upmarket leisure centre, where the public mingle with the players in an environment that feels a million miles from the state-of-the-art facilities and acres of land most Premier League managers take for granted.
Not that Rodgers seems fazed. The only request the Northern Irishman made when he took charge a couple of years ago was to have his own office, which is not much bigger than a broom cupboard and located in a corridor that everyone walks past to get to and from the changing rooms. “This was a physiotherapy room,” Rodgers says from behind his desk. “When I came here there was no office. But I needed some sort of privacy. It’s not what Arsène Wenger or Sir Alex Ferguson has but, listen, it’s raw and it allows me to work.”
Rodgers loves to work, especially on the training field, which has been his “natural environment” ever since he took up coaching at Reading in his early 20s. This week he invited the Guardian to spend a morning with him to talk tactics and to see the training sessions that have helped to produce a Swansea team who have made more passes this season than any other Premier League club. It is a remarkable statistic, although what is often overlooked is how hard Swansea work without the ball. Their pressing game, where they close people down in zones and at speed, is fundamental to the way they play.
“I like teams to control and dominate the ball, so the players are hungry for the ball,” Rodgers says. “You’ll see in some of our exercises this morning, a lot of our work is around the transition and getting the ball back very quickly. Because I believe if you give a bad player time, he can play. If you give a good player time, he can kill you. So our emphasis is based around our positioning both with and without the ball. And for us, when we press well, we pass well.”
Winning the ball back quickly and high up the pitch was a key feature of Barcelona’s approach under Pep Guardiola and, as Rodgers explains, is much more sophisticated than it may appear. “You cannot go on your own,” he says. “You work on zonal pressure, so that when it is in your zone, you have the capacity to press. That ability to press immediately, within five or six seconds to get the ball, is important. But you also have to understand when you can’t and what the triggers are then to go for it again because you can’t run about like a madman.
“It’s decision-making and intelligence. And this was always the thing with the British player, they were always deemed never to be intelligent, not to have good decision-making skills but could fight like hell for the ball. I believe they have all of the [attributes] and, if you can structure that, then you can have real, effective results.”
Swansea are living proof. They go into the final game of the season, at home against Liverpool on Sunday with a chance of finishing in the top 10. Whatever happens, though, it has been a remarkable campaign. They have not only won matches but won them in style, including memorable victories against Arsenal and Manchester City. There was also the goalless draw at Anfield in November, when Swansea were applauded off the pitch by Liverpool fans.
“That was really touching because that is such an historic ground,” Rodgers says. “But I suppose in terms of performance the highlight has to be beating what could be the champions, Man City. To actually dominate the game as well — we controlled possession, kept passing and kept the confidence and then, eventually, we were able to get the breakthrough. So in terms of where they’re at and where we’re at it was a defining moment.”
It is close to 10.30am and Rodgers is looking at his watch, the cue to dash to the training pitch, which is artificial and belongs to the Llandarcy Academy of Sport and Learning. The grass pitches that Swansea used earlier in the season were dug up and relaid a couple of months ago, leaving them with little option but to train on an all-weather surface. Not that the facilities appear to have any effect on the standard of a training session that is fascinating to watch.
At one stage nine players are working in small teams of three in an area that seems so confined that it is difficult to believe they will be able to run around freely, let alone pass to a team-mate without an opponent intercepting. Yet they manage to do so time and again, often taking no more than one touch before quickly moving to create an angle to receive the next ball. All the while those without the ball are snapping at their heels, pressing with the sort of intensity that Rodgers demands in matches. It is, in short, easy to see why they are so good at keeping and retrieving the ball.
“When I first came in I said to the players, we will push ourselves in every element of training, so it’s reflective of the real game, so I don’t have to go on about intensity all the time because that is an obligation,” says Rodgers, who closely watches training all of the time. “This morning’s session is based around football strength, small-space work, lots of options on the ball and covering the principles of our game, which are possession, transition, pass-think, pass-think, pass-think and the core ingredient of hard work.”
It goes without saying that Rodgers would like better facilities but the players seem to buy into the idea that Swansea are offering something more valuable than plush locker rooms and rows of immaculate training pitches. “There is only a certain type of player that will come here, a player that is hungry and a player that wants to develop his talent,” says Rodgers. “You get the raw materials here in this moment but they’re arguably the most important materials, which are time and quality on the training field.”
They also get to perform for a manager who has a clear philosophy on how his team should play. 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. These are all areas that we have to continually improve on but that is the basis of our game and it doesn’t change.”
One of the few criticisms levelled at Swansea this season is that they often keep the ball in their own half or in areas where they are not hurting the opposition, although that argument is flawed in several respects. Rodgers points out that, while the primary reason for possession will always be to penetrate, the simple fact is that, while Swansea have the ball, the opposition are unable to score. He also says that by “recycling” the ball for long periods his team are able to recover. “The only time we rest is when we have the ball,” the 39-year-old says. “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.
“When we’re stuck in the game, we go back to our default system, which is possession.”
Always open to fresh ideas, Rodgers has been exploring an alternative system, which he tested in the 4-4 draw against Wolves last month, when Swansea changed from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3. He also hopes to have a few more tricks up his sleeve after spending four days with Spain at their Euro 2012 training camp in Austria later this month, as a guest of their manager, Vicente del Bosque. “Spain have been a great model for me over many years, so I always take the chance where I can to travel and understand new methods,” Rodgers says.
Before then, however, Swansea aim to finish off their season in style. Rodgers, back in his office after training, points to four words scribbled on a whiteboard. “Our motto was that there, Per Ardua Ad Astra, which means through adversity to the stars. Because this is what we’re in, a real adverse situation,” he says. “So this weekend is about celebrating success. For us to stay at this level, for the players, my staff, the club and the supporters, it is an incredible achievement.”
What’s in a day: Swansea’s training routine
10am, Warm-up The players begin their warm-up on the tennis courts in the fitness centre, where they do some core work. Then they have agility work and relay races on the training pitch
10.45am, Keep-ball The players are split into two groups and those on the outside, who are allowed only one touch, try to keep the ball off the two in the middle
11am, Six v three Remaining in two groups of nine, the players are split into three teams of three within each group. In a confined area, 10 yards by five yards, each team of three takes it in turns to try and get the ball off the other six players with the aim of scoring in the small goalsat either end
11.15am, Twelve v six The players move to a bigger area, 40 yards by 30 yards, and this time it is six versus six in the middle, with full-size goals and goalkeepers at either end. The other six players are located on the outside and are on the side of the team that has the ball, effectively making it 12 v six
11.45am, Shooting – Midfielders and forwards stay behind for a shooting session
Midday, Finish The sessions are 25 minutes shorter than normal at this stage of the season