Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers must learn how to be brutal as well as beautiful
That is the only way to emulate the all-conquering ‘red machine’ of the past who could be nasty bastards when they had to be – in order to get that win
Brendan Rodgers created an indelible link to Liverpool’s past when he said, on the day he was presented as manager, that beautiful football was part of the “identity, style and DNA” of the club. Here was “an educated group of supporters,” he said, so there could be no getting away from the need to entertain.
To a great extent, Rodgers was right. Bob Paisley famously once observed that “blood, action and movement” were what the Anfield Kop demanded. But Sunday’s defeat to Chelsea – and the taste it provided of the tough obstacles to come for Liverpool as they return to Continental competition next season – should give cause for some reflection about the actual characteristics of the club’s great teams, going back.
Divine skill and creation were certainly a part of it. But pragmatism, canniness and functionality also formed a huge part of the Liverpool equation through their most glorious era. Finer, more aesthetic qualities might have become de rigueur in the club’s fabulous last four months – “our game is based on being offensively creative as opposed to stopping,” was Rodgers’ latest articulation of this on Sunday – but Paisley would take issue with that.
His first trophy as Liverpool manager was delivered out of precisely the same kind of trauma which beset Rodgers’ players on Sunday afternoon. Needing a win or low-scoring draw at relegated Wolves to clinch the title in May 1976, they trailed 1-0 with only 14 minutes to play before Kevin Keegan, John Toshack and Ray Kennedy scored three late goals. The old Liverpool way often involved big goals late in big games. It didn’t always entail running rampant from the off.
An orator in Rodgers’ mould Paisley certainly wasn’t, but he possessed the same modernity and more. This was the man who understood, after Liverpool’s Uefa Cup defeat to Red Star in November 1973, that his boss Bill Shankly needed ball-playing centre-halves to play out from the back like the continentals did. The boot-room council of war which followed that defeat to the Yugoslavs was the beginning of the end for stoppers such as Larry Lloyd. Paisley made sure of it. But he, far more than Shankly, was the pragmatist – “adapting the style and tactics to suit the opposition”, as Paisley’s chronicler and biographer John Keith puts it.
One of the Liverpool squad from that time remembers a training session in a snow-bound Melwood in the late 1970s, when Paisley insisted on the session going ahead and using it to practise long-ball tactics, in case the players found themselves on the same type of surface the following Saturday. “When it had to be, it was just about winning for Bob,” that player tells me. It’s also why, as Keith recalls, Paisley would also leave out John Toshack for European trips, which were nearly always about containment and playing on the break.
An overriding impression of the club’s great 1980s period conveyed in the excellent and timely chronicle by Simon Hughes entitled The Red Machine (Mainstream, £15.99) is that the squad could also be brutal when the occasion required it. David Hodgson, one of 10 players interviewed for the book, tells Hughes how “at Liverpool – like at other clubs – they had excellent players. But there was something about Liverpool and the mentality there that set them apart. The Sounesses… the Dalglishes… the Hansens… little Sammy Lee: they could be nasty bastards when they had to be – in order to get that win...”
Hodgson, who lasted only two years, felt he lacked the mental strength, while Craig Johnston believed that the reason Shankly and Paisley liked – and signed – Scottish was the canniness they saw in them. “Those players were all professionals who were prepared to go all the way to win,” he tells Hughes. “In life generally, the guy in a fight who is prepared to die is the one that wins, and our team was full of those guys.”
Brendan Rodgers, right, was left fuming about touchline rival Jose Mourinho’s tactics on Sunday
The level to which Chelsea took that mantra on Sunday was dismally extreme and terribly joyless. “Determination to win at any human cost,” as one observer from Liverpool put it on Monday. But they did what was necessary and Liverpool’s belief that they could blow this team away in 30 short minutes, like so many others this season, was naive. “Throwing bricks at a wall when they might have put a few over the top,” is how Keith put it, with the perspective of one who has seen the club through good times and bad.
For a young, developing club, there are bound to be lessons. Rodgers’ players can only be the upstarts for so long. As they have flourished early, so they will take the next step early. Innocence, you hope, will give way to experience. Liverpool will become the favourites and learn to embrace all the challenges that entails.
If they are looking to the past to find out how to chart that course, they might observe the words of the manager who saw something more than an aesthetic in football. “A football team is like a piano,” Shankly said. “You need eight men to carry it and three who can play the damn thing.” But Liverpool can also adhere to the example Kenny Dalglish showed when Liverpool faced Wimbledon in the 1988 FA Cup final. He was no more willing to criticise the opposition’s brand of football before that game than he was after Liverpool had been put to a humiliating defeat. Talk of sledging in the tunnel was rubbish, he said. Wimbledon took their chance. Liverpool didn’t. “As long as they play within the rules, they hold Liverpool’s respect,” Dalglish reflected. “They deserve credit for what they have achieved.”
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