In England’s grey cities of the north, the past is often recalled in sombre tones as the tale of one misfortune after another. In the streets that border Liverpool’s foggy quays and redbrick houses, the story is no different. When Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool team took to the field against Real Madrid in the Champions League Final this May, they did so as representatives of a city in which poverty levels have improved only marginally since the Reds last beat Real in a European Cup final in 1981. Eleven of the city’s neighbourhoods are among the most deprived one per cent in the country. In Anfield, forty-three per cent of children live in poverty.
With his grizzly warmth and booming laughter, the fun and pleasure that flows through Jurgen Klopp’s body and onto the Anfield pitch is the tonic a city needs. As the academic John Bennett has shown, football and theatre have long blurred into one on the stony banks of Liverpool’s Mersey River — the earliest plays here integrating scenes from famous games to attract football fans. With his pyrotechnic, frenzied football laced with pace, flair and no shortage of theatre, Klopp has transformed Anfield into a stadium apt for any dramatic staging.
The man from Stuttgart represents nothing less than a nostalgic comfort blanket for a population in search of lost glory. As in the stands, Liverpool fans have thrown back the years by transforming a 1985 Italian disco tune into ‘Allez, Allez, Allez,’ the chant that soundtracked last season’s run to the Champions League final, on the pitch Klopp’s team has transported a city back to the glory of the 1980s. These were simpler, more innocent times for any Liverpool fan. It was an era in which the Reds ruled Europe and, in the words of the American poet Allen Ginsburg, to be Liverpudlian was to “feel like you were at the centre of the universe.”
Amidst the 1980s’ dark years of economic austerity and embarrassing perms, with race riots sweeping Liverpool in 1981 and unemployment increasing by 33 per cent by 1985, Anfield’s European nights kept some swagger in the Liverpudlian soul. As Thatcher’s government approved the city’s “managed decline,” the club’s continental ventures prolonged a population’s belief that its city existed among European royalty. It also provided the city with a cosmopolitan outlook. Liverpool has become defined by its love of Europe, to the extent that the city almost feels untethered to England itself — a People’s Republic of Liverpool amongst the gloom of the British isles. It is for this reason that the mischievous German coach and a resurgent Liverpool are such a great fit.
In pubs with cluttered wooden tables and timeworn flowery carpets, Liverpool fans still gather to share stories of the club’s messiah of the 1960s, the Scottish manager Bill Shankly. Shankly believed that football was a game that belonged to the people, not commercial interests or brands. As he noted, “The football is everything where you see only empty factories and people on their knees.” It was a game “that gave these people purpose, keeps them passionate.”
It is here that Klopp melds perfectly with Liverpool’s working-class identity as a football club. As he told the German journalist Raphael Honigstein in his book Bring the Noise , “We are the vanguard of the regular guys in the pub. They want us to run and to fight. Our entry ticket is well-defined: passion, willingness to run, will.”
A fez-wearing Jurgen Klopp smiles back at you out of a framed photograph on the wall at Bakchich, a small wood-panelled Lebanese restaurant on Liverpool’s Bold Street. Bakchich is where Liverpool’s transcendental forward Mo Salah comes to eat amongst selfie-taking fans with his wife and four-year-old daughter after home games. Salah is the figurehead of this reborn Liverpool side. With his demonstrative hair and swirling feet, he has provided the goals that have once again spruced up the spirits of this port city. Yet, it is off the field that Salah provides an insight into the causes behind the rejuvenation of a football club.
In 2010, under the ownership of American duo Ton Hicks and George Gillett, Liverpool was one day away from filing for bankruptcy. The owners, according to filed accounts, had cost the club £327 million, a total fuelled by disastrous transfer acquisitions and a commercial strategy that the academic Mark Hudson described as ill thought through. Worse still, the club lost its working-class identity and, in the eyes of many, any sense of moral fibre.
Since the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, Liverpool has been known for its backing of social justice causes. Yet under Hicks and Gillett, the club continued what many saw as it shameful role in buying-up houses in the Anfield area only to leave them vacant and poorly maintained. This was allegedly a cynical attempt to drive down house prices with an expansion of Anfield in view.
Though Liverpool’s new owners, Fenway Sports Group (FSG), made a number of early missteps, the club today is unrecognisable from that which they took over. With Michael Edwards as sporting director, the club has identified undervalued talent such as Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane that has allowed it to nevertheless compete against more moneyed rivals. FSG have also reinstalled in the club a moral purpose. Liverpool has taken steps to repair relationships with local residents, including setting up the “red neighbours” scheme, providing a breakfast club for disadvantaged children and space in the Kenny Dalglish stand for school and charity events.
Ever since Shankly’s tenure at the club, Liverpool has orientated itself around messiahs. There is a yearning for charisma at the club, to the extent that fans have even projected less self-assuming managers such as Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez into semi-religious figures.
If Liverpool has found its new redeeming characters in Klopp and Salah, it is the club’s reliance on charismatic authority and the genius of individuals that presents its central vulnerability.
Despite his mastery of the high press, a system introduced into Germany by Mainz manager Wolfgang Frank in the 1980s while Klopp was still a player there, there remain doubts as to how many strings there are to Klopp’s tactical bow. As last week’s defeat away to Napoli again demonstrated, Liverpool’s tactics often boil down to vertical balls to the forwards before hoping that the individual genius of Salah or Firmino can fashion a chance.
When Salah and Firmino are in form, and the roar of Anfield is on their backs, a stadium and its team can gather an unstoppable momentum. But when opponents play a low defensive block against them, or Salah or Firmino are not quite at it, they can often be snuffled out. Liverpool drew six matches at home last season against bottom-half sides who came to Anfield simply to defend. Premier League title winners don’t show such complacency. Four of the past five title winners have won at least nine of their home matches against the Premier League’s bottom 10. The exception is Leicester, which recorded eight victories.
In a city known for its cheerful insubordination, Liverpool fans are unlikely to lose sleep over such reservations. With 20 points from eight matches, the club has made its best start to a Premier League since the 2008-09 season, in which the Reds ultimately finished second.
Liverpool look ready to go one better this time round. In 2008, Liverpool faced an easy opening schedule, with matches against Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Wigan.
By contrast, this season’s Liverpool has already won away at Spurs and secured key draws away to Chelsea and at home to Manchester City. Extrapolated across a whole season, Liverpool’s present form will see them achieve 95 points and concede just 14 goals.
Under the tolling bells of the Liver Birds Building, Liverpool fans can content themselves in the fact that if history doesn’t repeat itself, it often does rhyme. Klopp’s Liverpool is averaging 2.01 goals per game this season, the same number as the club did under a certain Scottish manager called Kenny Dalglish in 1990. Incidentally, Liverpool last won the league that season.
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