In Celtic’s Champions League clash with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City on Wednesday, Brendan Rodgers will pit his wits against a man who has had a defining influence on his career.
Whether with Swansea City, Liverpool or Celtic, Rodgers has sought to emulate the kind of passing football with which Guardiola took first Barcelona and then Bayern Munich to the summits of the game.
“I’ve admired him from the outside looking in, at the courage he has showed to play the modern game,” Rodgers told Spanish sports newspaper AS in 2014.
“His love and passion (for) football, his great principles and ideas and the confidence he gives to people.”
Jose Mourinho gave Rodgers his first big leg-up in professional football, inviting the Northern Irishman, then working in the academy at Reading, to join him at Chelsea in 2004.
But it is Guardiola, Mourinho’s nemesis, whose example Rodgers has always strived to follow and it was in Guardiola’s native Spain that his ideas about how to play the game took shape.
Rodgers, 43, is an exponent of the joined-up coaching philosophy practised by clubs like Barcelona, where youth players are taught to play in the same possession-focused way as the first team.
Prior to joining Mourinho at Chelsea, he spent time touring Spanish clubs — Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla — to learn about their development of young players.
The Spanish influence was apparent at both Swansea and Liverpool.
Luis Suarez, the former Liverpool striker, says Rodgers spoke to him in Spanish when they first met and the Uruguay international appreciated the Spanish touches in Rodgers’s approach.
“You could see a Spanish influence in the way that Brendan worked,” Suarez, now of Barcelona, wrote in his autobiography.
“He was interested in Spain, he had studied there and what he’d learnt there was at the heart of our style of play.
“Passing, pressuring high, quick movement, arriving into the area rather than standing there waiting for it, coming inside from wide positions.”
– Sterling gratitude –
Rodgers’s playing philosophy took a Liverpool team spearheaded by Suarez and Daniel Sturridge to the brink of the Premier League title in 2014, but in a roundabout way, it also proved the team’s downfall.
It was while dropping between the centre-backs to collect the ball in the manner of Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets that Steven Gerrard succumbed to the slip against Chelsea that cost Liverpool the title.
Later that year, with Liverpool toiling in the league, Rodgers looked to Guardiola for ideas again.
Adopting the 3-4-2-1 playing system that Guardiola had introduced at Bayern, Rodgers inspired his team to a run of 10 wins and three draws that rejuvenated their season.
Rodgers’s commitment to passing football has not gone unnoticed by Guardiola.
“I don’t think there is any doubt about Brendan’s quality,” the City manager said last month.
“He was closer than anyone in the last 25 years to winning the Premier League at Liverpool and he has a lot of experience.”
Guardiola, 45, has been praised for revitalising Raheem Sterling this season, but the England winger also remains grateful for the guidance he was given by Rodgers during their three years at Liverpool.
“He was massive for me,” Sterling said this week.
“Every manager that I’ve worked with, I’ve tried to learn as much as I can, and he’s one that I definitely learnt a lot off. Credit to him, he was a fantastic guy.
“Playing me in different positions, making me understand the roles and maturing in certain systems. He gave me a lot of confidence as well.”
Looking to rebuild his reputation at Celtic after being sacked by Liverpool a year ago, Rodgers saw his new side dealt a humiliating 7-0 defeat by Barcelona on their opening Group C outing.
At Glasgow’s Celtic Park on Wednesday, against the man who laid the foundations for the present-day Barcelona, Rodgers has another chance to prove all those years of Spanish homework were not in vain.