AVB wins battle of Special One proteges
Jose Mourinho's time in the Premier League was but three-and-a-half years but he laid deep foundations. Since 2004, there have been many imitators: urbane and earnest young managers clad in expensive clothes who would like the media to know that they too are special. None have ever quite been able to live up to him.
Two men who actually sat at Mourinho's feet are in positions of high responsibility now, though both are currently being outdone by their more prosaic former colleague Steve Clarke at West Bromwich Albion. Both expound their footballing philosophy freely and in deep technical tones while favouring bespoke tailoring, though Brendan Rodgers' trench-coat was far more ruffled than Andre Villas-Boas' slim-fit number.
Neither shirks from a soundbite either, though both have a propensity to misfire their bon mots. One claimed to have been born with a silver shovel, the other grew up in an apartment block plush enough to house a post-England Bobby Robson. And both are on second chances in the management game, having already slipped up in their short time in the business.
They now lead teams with history and pretension of future glory obtained by winning in the right manner. For Villas-Boas, there is the 'Glory Game' idiom devised by Danny Blanchflower and Bill Nicholson to live up to at Tottenham. Rodgers aims to revive the 'pass and move' founded in the Liverpool 'Boot Room'. They also share a propensity to be too clever by half. Neither is a man to embrace simplicity where jiggery-pokery is possible.
Rodgers' attempt to reinvent the wheel of Stewart Downing bore unfortunate fruit in Tottenham's opening goal. Gareth Bale's afterburners had already taken Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson out of play, and he played the ball across the box. Downing's lack of defensive instincts cost Liverpool as he allowed Aaron Lennon to tap in. Jose Enrique, a left-back by profession, but playing ahead of a player bought for £20 million to play left wing would surely have known better. Downing looked to the skies in knowing despair as Lennon celebrated.
Villas-Boas was almost made to pay for his own tinkering when Hugo Loris showed off a rustiness brought on by not playing as often as he should have done in the Premier League. The Frenchman dashed out rashly from his box to present an open goal for Jordan Henderson, who addressed the ball with the goal gaping but was put off by a Kyle Walker challenge. In trying to find new roles for Henderson and Downing, Rodgers is trying to solve problems left to him by a previous regime - but neither is proving a good fit for the new establishment.
Henderson, in a midfield three with Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen which was frequently switched around by the antsy Rodgers, could consider himself unlucky. First, Clint Dempsey fell rather too easily under his tackle, and then from the resultant free-kick, Bale, adopting a Cristiano Ronaldo technique, scored a free-kick that owed its trajectory to a brush off Henderson's face and left Pepe Reina utterly wrong-footed.
A breathless game in which the ball barely went dead could not be claimed as a triumph by either manager. It was not football in the manner either would prescribe. Villas-Boas favours the counter-attack, which Spurs did not do enough of, while Liverpool's possession game was hardly smooth. This was hurried stuff, far too frantic.
The excellent Walker cleared after Gerrard made a penalty claim when falling under the hot breath of Mousa Dembele as Spurs had lost control despite being two goals clear. Luis Suarez was as lively as ever, and made his requisite penalty claim after being tackled by William Gallas. In an attacking sense, Enrique operated in tandem with Downing, who looked far more comfortable when delivering crosses than having to deal with them.
Rodgers stood brooding throughout on the touchline, barking the odd instruction and showing off a first-rate and voluminous whistling that could win him a career as a shepherd if all should fail in football. For the first half his technical area accompaniment was voluble Spurs assistant Steffen Freund, whose in-game brief appears to be performing the pogo and barking orders in his Germanic tones while happy clapping. Once things got real, Villas-Boas was at Rodgers' side.
After Bale's bizarre own-goal, which came off his face rather more fiercely than the previous rebound off Henderson and which is set to be a huge YouTube hit, Villas-Boas was to be seen muttering to himself and punching the air wildly when the ball fell back into home hands. At one point, as the final whistle drew close, no less a diplomat than Jermain Defoe was to be found telling the bench and Villas-Boas in particular to calm down.
When referee Phil Dowd signalled the final whistle, Villas-Boas's joy was unconfined. Having blown leads against Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and, yes West Brom, Liverpool had been held off. Like the Manchester United victory that previously bought him credibility, it had been a close-run thing. Rodgers, meanwhile, had impressed with good in-game management but was undone by early mistakes. A primal scream was let out by Villas-Boas, only for his celebration to be broken up by having to shake the hand of Rodgers.
"We are bitterly disappointed having dominated the game," a downbeat Rodgers said. "You'd struggle to come here and play as well as that and not get something." Another mark of the Mourinho disciple is to draw positives and then make sure that officialdom is aware of a wrong that needs righting. "We haven't had a penalty all season," he pointed out. "To arrive at this point and not have a penalty, I don't know what we have to do."
Rodgers then delivered a couple of his own standards. "The model of our game is very good...we're at the beginning of a cycle," he reminded.
Villas-Boas delved into the technicalities of the game, handing out his own refereeing stat, that of Phil Dowd's prolific awarding of penalties, but admitted that the game had been "difficult for us".
He could count himself fortunate to win the battle of the Mourinho-lites. Neither can yet hold a candle to the achievements of their one-time mentor. And Jose would neither approve of nor want to be involved in a game that for all its quality of entertainment was a study in a lack of control.