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Dec 13, 2012

A vision of the future

It may prove to be a year that shaped football's future: the NextGen Series, the Champions League of Under-19 football, was introduced in 2011. Liverpool and Aston Villa were founder members and yet, while there is no managerial equivalent, each were drawn to a precocious coach who made his mark in that same time.

Brendan Rodgers and Paul Lambert reconvene at Anfield, each as managers of European Cup-winning clubs, when Liverpool host Villa on Saturday. Two years ago, both were in the Championship with Swansea and Norwich respectively. In 2011, they were promoted together. Last season, they finished side-by-side in the security of mid-table, defying predictions of an immediate return to the lower leagues. Theirs were exploits that earned both a more prestigious job.

And yet there is a fundamental difference in their destinations. Liverpool's star may have fallen in seasons when they finished seventh, sixth and eighth but they remain a rung above Villa. Theirs is still one of the most illustrious posts in management. And had Fenway Sports Group not plumped for Rodgers, there is a school of thought that Tottenham would have done. All of which invites questions why two managers with similarly impressive recent records figure in different categories of the employment market; why one was fast-tracked and the other forced to take a slower route.

It is not a question of footballing ability, which has secured many a manager a job in the past. The 1997 Champions League winner (while playing for Borussia Dortmund) Lambert had much the more distinguished playing career, with injury forcing Rodgers into retirement before he had played a first-team game.

Nor is it simply because of the entertainment factor that is a consideration for bigger clubs. Lambert's Norwich outscored Rodgers' Swansea in both their Championship and Premier League campaigns. While Rodgers is the younger by four years, both are in the generation who could be described as rising stars.

Rather it is the result of a philosophy. Rodgers' passing principles are essential to his managerial ethos. His methods seem transferable; indeed, they carry the promise that superior players will adapt better to them. His long-term planning and faith in youth can mirror the beliefs of the men who, increasingly, appoint the elite managers.

Contrasts can be drawn between their predecessors, the Burnley butcher Bob Lord and Manchester City's Peter Swales - the latter of whom made his money renting out televisions - and the new breed of owners who seem to choose coaches they could imagine as dynamic executives in other areas of their business empires.

Rodgers took a 180-page dossier to his interview with John W Henry; Andre Villas-Boas was compiling scouting reports on his BlackBerry when most of his counterparts still thought it was a small fruit. They appear at ease in the era of spreadsheets and PowerPoint.

They seem progressive thinkers, who have developed theories - about passing and pressing at pace in the Portuguese's case - that sound impressive in the boardroom. They have ideas to be implemented on the pitch. They are the antidote to the anti-intellectualism of many an old-school football manager. Being a career coach may help their cause while their time on the staff of another educated manager, Jose Mourinho, is the footballing equivalent of an MBA from Harvard.

And they appeal to certain clubs: Tottenham and Liverpool in particular. It could have been Rodgers instead of Villas-Boas at White Hart Lane. Roberto Martinez was interviewed by Liverpool and linked with Tottenham. All are hands-on, tracksuited coaches but are immaculately dressed on matchday. In contrast, Lambert, the Martin O'Neill tribute act on the touchline, suddenly looks an anachronism. They are Armani, he is Adidas.

By promising to alter the culture of a club for years, Rodgers has a brand of purism that is persuasive to decision-makers. Other overachieving managers have encountered a glass ceiling. Some of David Moyes' Everton teams have played terrific football but the image as a Glaswegian streetfighter persists. It may impede his progress.

By studying statistics and employing an army of sports scientists, Sam Allardyce has shown he is no dinosaur but his old complaint that he would have secured an elite job had his surname is 'Allardici' is incorrect. This was a question of philosophy, not nationality; neither Allardyce himself nor his football were ever stylish of fashionable enough. His was not an ethos to seduce an owner.

The realists like Allardyce and Tony Pulis constitute an insurance policy against relegation. They are aware that short-term planning takes priority, that reaching 40 points is paramount. In contrast, Wigan's Martinez looks far into the future with a boldness that has an allure to directors of the contenders.

Thus far, the Spaniard has proved a skilled escapologist in relegation battles, but whereas summer is a time for optimism at many a club, winter is a season for pragmatism at many when the dreaded drop beckons; hence the many mid-season appointments of the arch-trader Harry Redknapp.

Yet the wheeler-dealer and Tottenham were an uneasy pairing, just as Kenny Dalglish ticked few of FSG's boxes at Liverpool. Their ideal was an ideologue with an ethos that could underpin the clubs for years. They were looking for a visionary as much as a football manager. The job description has changed.

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