In 1973, Liverpool exited the European Cup to Miljan Miljanic’s Red Star Belgrade. Having lost the away leg just 2-1, Bill Shankly had every reason to be optimistic about progressing to the quarter-finals, but an impressive counter-attacking game by the Yugoslavians ensured they went through. It was time for introspection.
Upon emergence from the famous bootroom, Shankly declared: “The Europeans showed that building from the back is the only way to play.”
“We realised it was no use winning the ball if you finished up on your backside,” said Bob Paisley. “The top Europeans showed us how to break out of defence effectively. The pace of their movement was dictated by their first pass. We had to learn how to be patient like that and think about the next two or three moves when we had the ball.”
If the Merseyside club wanted to dominate Europe as they had done domestically, they would have to develop their defence beyond the old-fashioned stoppers that had previously so impressed in their backline. Once Larry Lloyd tore his hamstring, midfielder Phil Thompson was moved back to accompany Emlyn Hughes in the centre of defence, leading to greater fluidity. “The main aim is that everyone can control a ball and do the basic things in football,” said Shankly. “At the back you’re looking for someone who can control the ball instantly and give a forward pass. It gives them more space and time to breathe. ”
At the end of the season, Bob Paisley, whose espousal of pass-and-move football was arguably greater even than Shankly’s, replaced the Scot and carried on in this direction. In came Alan Hansen, whose humble claims that he barely ever crossed the halfway line are far from true – a cultured centre-back not too different from some of the best Italian liberi, the Scot was the paradigm of what Liverpool wanted. Even his lesser defensive partner Mark Lawrenson was at odds with the typical British defenders of the time; an enduring memory of Lawrenson is his goal in the 1982 Merseyside derby, where he finished off a move he started.
“At Liverpool we don’t have anyone running into no man’s land,” explained Shankly. “If you get the ball in the Liverpool team, you want choices… you want at least two people to pass to, maybe three, maybe more… You might not be getting very far, but the pattern is changing. Finally, somebody will sneak in.”
Under Roy Hodgson, Liverpool are playing the stereotypical English kick-and-rush style that the club opposed in the seventies, only minus the rush. There is no “running into no man’s land” because no one is allowed that far forward, all there is are repeated long balls into no man’s land. Fernando Torres is out of form because the only service or support he receives are Jamie Carragher’s hoofs delivered directly to the opposition’s defenders instead of him.
Not that Hodgson is the first to do so, Gerard Houllier implemented a similar system at Liverpool to moderate success, the difference being that he actually had the players available to do so. His teams set up in much the same way as Hodgson with two narrow bands of four, forcing the opposition to play through them; it was negative but it worked. The key was the big man-quick man striking duo of Emile Heskey and Michael Owen – sit deep and you allowed Heskey closer to goal, perfect for his aerial ability, play high and you allowed Owen space in behind.
When Rafael Benitez arrived at Liverpool, he went about completely switching the way Liverpool played. Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz were a dominant partnership under Houllier, but were ill-suited to Benitez’s style. Their reading of the game and domineering physique were key when playing Houllier’s backs-against-the-wall style, but their lack of pace would be exposed by the higher line Benitez required to play his more imposing style. Henchoz was immediately dropped for Jamie Carragher while Hyppia was later replaced by Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel.
Prior to Benitez’s arrival, Carragher was considered as part of the deadwood alongside the likes of El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao that needed removing – however his reinvention as a centre-back proved to be a masterstroke. Given videos of Sacchi’s Milan and his training under his new manager, his reading of the game improved tenfold and, while he’s never been anything close to quick, he had the extra yard of pace necessary to make those last ditch tackles. Previously, he was the equivalent of John O’Shea to Liverpool – a utility player to fill in any gaps in the defence. As a right-back, he had frustrated Liverpool fans with his complete lack of attacking ability and, with the success of Arsene Wenger’s use of attacking full-backs at Arsenal, was replaced by Steve Finnan.
A huge fan of Arrigo Sacchi, Benitez aimed to apply the idea of universality to his team as well as the pressing, carrying on where Houllier had begun and what Shankly and Paisley had done years before. When Finnan began to age, in came Alvaro Arbeloa, a solid if fairly unspectacular player, but one whose attacking qualities are generally underrated, and then Glen Johnson, a right-back so attacking that his weaknesses lie in his defensive game.
At left-back was Djimi Traore until John Arne Riise was moved back from his left-midfield position, and once he was (mistakenly) sold on, Fabio Aurelio and Andrea Dossena vied for the position; the first a former central midfielder with an exquisite left foot and the latter a bombing wing-back. Eventually, it was the young Emiliano Insua who became first-choice – another full-back whose defensive qualities were called into question more often than his attacking ones.
In the centre came Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel – both very good ball-playing defenders, particularly Agger, who is reminiscent of Hansen, and notably faster than their predecessors making them better suited to Benitez’s higher pressing. Behind them is Pepe Reina, one of the finest sweeper-keepers around and perfect for dealing with any balls played over the top. It is fair to assume that the backline Benitez was hoping to create was one of Reina, Insua, Agger, Skrtel and Johnson had he continued.
Fast forward to Hodgson’s tenure and against Stoke Liverpool had a much deeper backline of Reina, Paul Konchesky, Skrtel, Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Carragher. Reina, I repeat – one of the finest sweeper keepers around, is being groomed for a more English style. Konchesky has most of his question marks over his defensive ability too, but only because we knew he had nothing going for him on an attacking front. Skrtel looks nervous all the time playing in such a deep defence, wary of how close to goal he is. Kyrgiakos is a player on form because he reads the game well and is physically imposing, much like Hyypia and Henchoz, but isn’t particularly good with the ball at his feet.
Meanwhile, Carragher, his extra yard of pace gone, is playing at right-back again, endlessly hoofing the ball forward instead of passing the ball a few yards to Lucas, whose red card was most likely born out of frustration that he was endlessly having to retrieve the ball because Carragher was electing to give it away with his embarrassingly poor long balls rather than pass it to him (Lucas made just 25 passes on Saturday, almost half as many as in the same fixture last season – a game that Benitez was particularly defensive in without any fit wingers – with Stoke having more than 50% of possession for the first time since they have been promoted to the Premier League). The likes of Agger, Johnson, Martin Kelly, Danny Wilson, Daniel Ayala and Andre Wisdom must be wondering what they have to do to displace someone who’s looked like the average player he always was without Benitez for the past 18 months, especially since he’s been rewarded with a new two year contract – let alone Insua, who’s been replaced by the worst player I can recall playing for Liverpool.
Gareth Roberts recently put forward the suggestion that Hodgson hasn’t improved a single thing since taking over, but it goes further than that: tactically, Benitez has him beat, Houllier has him beat, as do Roy Evans, Kenny Dalglish, Paisley and Shankly. If a man who’s been dead for close to thirty years and famously couldn’t complete a week-long coaching course because he found it too boring tactically outmaneuvering Hodgson isn’t a sign that he should receive his P45, I don’t know what is.