How Rodgers used the Blues to get Swansea City firing
Five points from second, seven points from seventh – it seems that Swansea City can start planning for the play-offs. Swans fans take nothing for granted after last season’s collapse, but things are different this time around. Brendan Rodgers has called heavily on his Chelsea connection to boost the Welsh side’s firepower, as Alistair Hendrie explains.
Brendan Rodgers is a man with friends in high places. After cutting his teeth coaching Reading’s youth team, he obtained a glamorous, lucrative coaching role at Chelsea, taking the reins for their academy, before overseeing their reserve side. During his time in London, Rodgers formed a productive working relationship with Chelsea’s legendary manager Jose Mourinho.
The Portuguese cherry-picked Rodgers himself and said of the Northern Irishman: “I like everything in him. He is ambitious and does not see football very differently from myself.” For a young, inexperienced manager, these are heart-warming words.
Rodgers showed the ambition Mourinho spoke of when he was surprisingly chosen as the Watford manager in November 2008, ironically enough with their current manager Malky Mackay also applying. He then used his contacts to prise Liam Bridcutt and Jack Cork away from Chelsea on loan for the Vicarage Road club. Cork in particular blossomed under the wing of Rodgers, who took the Hornets to mid-table safety in 13th. That Watford lay limply in 21st when he took over just underlines his credentials.
Watford’s revival had lifted everyone at the club and Rodgers was held in high regard around the Hertfordshire area. This all changed when he showed himself to be capable of maverick decisions even Mourinho would be proud of. In an event which his newly formed reputation severely diminished, Rodgers returned to Reading as manager in 2009 after just eight months at Watford’s helm.
Fans of the Berkshire club were living in great anticipation. After Steve Coppell, arguably the side’s greatest ever manager, left the club along with a host of key players, Reading now had a new visionary manager with a reputation for enterprising football. Given his connections to Chelsea, rumours were rife over the likes of Cork as well as team-mates Fabio Borini and Scott Sinclair joining Rodgers at his new post.
However, a depressing line of failed transfer activity left Rodgers without the resources he wished for. The supposed moves for Cork, Borini and Sinclair never came to fruition, nor did the pairing of Grzegorz Rasiak up front with Watford’s Tommy Smith, who performed a spectacular u-turn in moving to Portsmouth when he was ostensibly moments away from becoming a Royal.
One loan move for a Chelsea product was successful though. Ryan Bertrand became a mainstay in the Reading back-line. His marauding runs from full-back along with his positioning sense and calmness on the ball led to calls for Bertrand to be signed permanently. This form also saw Bertrand continue to gain caps for England under-21s.
But the vision Rodgers had for a mini-Chelsea with expressive, attractive football never took hold. His Reading side looked disjointed and mismanaged. After a string of poor results including shameful hidings by Crystal Palace and Queens Park Rangers, as well as a two goal lead materialising in a 3-2 loss against Peterborough, Rodgers was ignominiously sacked after just six wins and six months in charge.
Leaving under the gloomy cloud of an on-air row with a disgruntled radio journalist, Rodgers laid low before accepting the managerial role at Swansea City in July 2010. The Welsh side have made a name for themselves as purveyors of free-flowing football under managers such as Roberto Martinez and Paulo Sousa, so surely the Rodgers blueprint for football with flair would now formulate.
Fast-forward to the present day and it is as if Rodgers and Swansea are a match made in heaven. He finally has some stability and a club at which he can express himself. Swans fans have been treated to silky, high-tempo football all season and lie comfortably in the Championship play-off zone five points from automatic promotion, despite demeaning losses to Scunthorpe and Preston and fraying away form in recent weeks.
As is the way with Rodgers, he has exploited his Chelsea connections to great effect yet again at the Liberty Stadium. Since joining last August, Sinclair has been Swansea’s outstanding attacking performer. Bristol Rovers fans still feel cheated after Chelsea pursued their young talent and bought him as a 16-year-old after just two appearances for the Gas. His nimble footwork, decisive runs and wise footballing head have been a source of much joy for Rodgers this season.
Sinclair, one of four Chelsea products in the latest England under-21 squad, has amassed 22 goals in all competitions this season, including a virtuoso solo effort against Nottingham Forest, as well as winners against Middlesbrough, Reading and Burnley. A winger who can also score penalties, he is the main source of creativity and the outlet which Rodgers most likes to take advantage of. But since Jason Scotland left for Wigan Athletic with Martinez, the Welshmen have been missing one vital ingredient – a striker who scores goals.
Last season the Swans’ highest scoring striker was Finn Shefki Kuqi with a meagre five goals. Their obstacle to success was glaringly obvious. Rodgers again called to Chelsea for help and Carlo Ancelotti loaned him the promising Italian starlet Borini.
The 20-year-old made his debut against Forest in March wet behind the ears. Borini had never started a professional match in his career, but took to the occasion with gritted teeth and clenched fists. After scoring nine goals in 21 games for Chelsea’s reserve team, Borini scored a brace for his new side and immediately laid down a claim for a permanent move.
This promising talent smashed home his first from close range when he feigned to shoot with a bouncing ball, waited for a cluster of defenders to make attempts to block, and then fired home. The deadly combination from Chelsea then led to success again as Sinclair slalomed through a hapless Forest defence, shot, then saw Lee Camp’s save result in an easy tap-in for Borini’s second.
Not only specialising in six-yard box mischief, Borini also scored a devilish free-kick against Norwich. In a 3-0 win for the Swans, the former Bologna striker delicately cushioned the ball into the top right-hand corner from 25 yards out. He also scored Swansea’s opener in an underwhelming 2-1 loss at Burnley. Borini calmly received a defence-splitting through-ball from the talented Darren Pratley, showed nerves of steel and took the ball early, placing it in the bottom left-hand corner from 18 yards out. He now boasts four goals in his last five games.
After short-term success preceded villain status at Watford and the Reading debacle, Rodgers has inherited a Swansea squad crafted by others. The Welsh side play exactly in the style he has always advocated. He is in fine standing at the club and now has a platform for his cutting-edge band of high-tempo, pass and move football.
Whilst Rodgers’s men have appeared wayward in recent weeks, they have still beaten the teams around them. Norwich, Forest and Leeds foster hopes of promotion, but have all come unstuck against Swansea’s youthful, athletic approach.
The Welsh outfit’s run-in looks favourable. With four games left, they face Ipswich Town, Millwall and Portsmouth, as well as the seemingly doomed Sheffield United on the last day of the season.
Rodgers will hope that the likes of Sinclair and Borini will flourish over the climax of another captivating Championship marathon. Plus, as Swansea reap the rewards of Borini’s form, just like Bolton are doing with Daniel Sturridge on loan from Chelsea, it is notable that Ancelotti sticks with older players and the expensive yet hapless Fernando Torres.
The fee Swansea paid for Sinclair last summer equated to one percent of the total pushed into Liverpool’s bank account in exchange for the Spaniard in January. While Torres labours, both Sinclair and Borini continue to put Swansea on course for a league fixture at Stamford Bridge.