Barcelona are said to be the best team of all time at the moment. That’s an expression that has been said of a few Liverpool teams in the past. It’s no coincidence. There is a real connection between Barcelona and Liverpool.
Barcelona´s passing game, is said to have been inspired by Johan Cruyff. In truth it´s a product of Ajax where Cruyff played. Its called “Total football” and is a tactical theory that says any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team. This was pioneered by Ajax between 1969 and 1973. It is not just on the team sheet but interchanging position during a match. So when the full back, or the centre half move forward, the team shuffles seamlessly and covers for them.
Phil Neal spoke about his goal in the 1984 European Cup Final when he put away a loose ball from the middle of the penalty area. “Somebody said, why were you up there Nealy in the penalty box in a European cup final? Because Liverpool Football Club gave me the freedom to go out and express myself.” This is a classic example of this system being used at Liverpool.
But that wasn’t where the connection started for Liverpool. You have to go back to 1966-67 European Cup where Liverpool were knocked out in the last 16 by Ajax, inspired by certain 19 year old. Yes, Johan Cruyff (7-3 on aggregate. 5-1 in Amsterdam). It is said that this was the game that convinced Shankly that a more patient, possessive way of playing would be required if Liverpool were to achieve consistent success in Europe. The pass and move game. Ajax of course went on to win three European Cups in the seventies, closely watched by Shanks.
This is where the Liverpool Way was born. Liverpool became more consistent in the league and in the seventies won the two UEFA cups closely followed by two European cups. Then again two European cups in the eighties. The team changed, but the tactics remained. And it was often said that Liverpool`s style was “European”.
Tommy Smith was a centre half who also played right back and defensive midfield. Ray Kennedy was bought as a striker and converted to the best left midfielder in the country at the time. Ian Callaghan was a right winger who became a central midfielder. Liverpool often used defensive midfield trained people as centre halfs (Hughes, Thompson, Hansen). These are examples of players who fitted the system in different ways and could interchange during a match. Remember, having more than one substitute is a recent modification of the rules ! This meant when you had an injury you often had to move players “out” of position. That wasn’t the case at Liverpool.
When Liverpool beat Nottingham Forest 5-0 in 1988 (I believe they were second in the table at the time) Dalglish was manager and it was said to be the best performance of a British team ever. It was the same pass and move total football style introduced by Shankly, carried on by Paisley and inspired further by the King himself.
Fast forward to the second half of this season. Players like Meireles and Maxi talk about being freed to play there game and express themselves: Like Phil Neal was?
And Gerrard talks about the increase in speed in ball training. It reminds me instantly of the Liverpool system under Dalglish. That’s why I have faith in Dalglish now, and why I see the connection between Barcelona and Liverpool, and the connection back to Shankly. We now have the right system and the right manager. We just need a few players who are good enough for this system, and we can rise to the level of best again.