The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, they say. We may be in love with Italian calcio, but there’s more to football than what happens south of the Alps. In our “The Grass Is Greener” column, we discuss what’s up with international football and its trending news.
In the minds of reminiscent British football supporters, 1990 is mainly remembered as the year of opportunities spurned (and penalties missed). It was also the year of Paul Gascoigne’s tears in Turin, having been yellow-carded in the World Cup semi-final defeat to West Germany. And the year of David Platt’s energetic volleyed goal in the last minute of extra time that brought England victory against Belgium earlier in the same competition.
Personally I recall none of these things. My football imagination had only begun to awaken at this time. My sole memory of British participation at Italia ’90 remains Scotland’s hapless 0-1 defeat to Los Ticos of Costa Rica in their group stage opener in Genoa, a topic I saw fit to raise as a point of conversation at a barbecue hosted by a Scottish neighbor later the same day. We’ve not spoken since.
When reflecting on the year 1990 on a domestic level, I tend to associate it with Liverpool – both in a footballing sense and in a more general one:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
It was the year the Anfield club tasted English title winner’s champagne for the 18th time in their history – a Season of Light for Kenny Dalglish’s “Boot Room Boys” just 12 months after they were pipped to the post by Arsenal on the closing day of the 1988-89 season. It remains their last domestic title victory and the final year in which Liverpudlians – either red or blue – laid hands on The Lady, the elegant League championship trophy of the day, which was replaced in 1993 after England’s First Division was rebranded.
The only “premiership” on people’s lips in 1990 was that being served by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – never a popular figure in Liverpool – on whom time was about to be called. Political discord was being felt right across the United Kingdom at this time and especially on Merseyside, historically front and center stage in the display of British anti-establishment sentiment. English football was marred by strife in this period too; its clubs remained prohibited from UEFA tournaments following the tragedy of the Heysel Stadium disaster at the European Cup final of 1985, which claimed 39 (mostly Italian) lives.
Liverpool was banned for six years in total, the others for five. It took English clubs many years to get going again in Europe and it was not until Alex Ferguson guided Manchester United to Champions League glory against Bayern Munich in the final year of the century that one even came close to lifting the jug.
The 28 years since King Kenny delivered their last championship silverware have been Liverpool’s long Winter of Despair. That is not to say they did not meet with triumph along the way. Their most notable successes in this period came under the stewardship of Gerard Houllier and later Rafa Benitez – beating Alavés in the UEFA Cup final of 2001 and clinching the Champions League trophy four years later following an unforgettable fight-back versus AC Milan.
The Reds did not meaningfully trouble their peers for the English crown however, in what became a sustained period of domestic drift – much to the glee of rival fans, especially those in Manchester. All too often they resembled an aging cargo vessel in Liverpool’s famous Albert Dock – graceful, seaworthy but ultimately not destined to deliver the goods of days gone by.
Managers came and went over the years but it was not until Brendan Rodgers’ time at the helm that Liverpool came close to delivering long-awaited success at home. The 2013-14 campaign saw them play an electrifying brand of counter-offensive football, scoring no fewer than 101 league goals, as captain Steven Gerrard and goal-machine Luis Suarez combined to devastating effect. The Anfield outfit looked like they had reemerged to punch weight with the big boys once more. The season belonged to them.
But again, the “Good Ship Liverpool” did not moor. In a crunch game, a cruel slip of the studs on the part of Gerrard handed fellow title challengers Chelsea victory and denied The Reds points that likely would have won them the Premier League ahead of eventual champions Manchester City. It was the 36th game of a 38 game season and the damage was done. The Reds’ supporters could have been forgiven for believing the Liver Bird had had its wings clipped irreversibly by the football gods.
Enter a gentleman from the Black Forest by the name of Jürgen Klopp, manager in L4 since October 2015. 1990 was a defining year for him too. It marked the beginning of his 18 year-long association with FSV Mainz 05 which ultimately saw him become head coach and club legend, guiding Die Nullfünfer to promotion and subsequently into European competition.
For his nation, 1990 represented a year of twofold celebration – as Germany’s reunification was realized and Die Mannschaft won their third World Cup final, avenging Argentina’s victory four years earlier. Klopp was just getting started in the professional game, but one imagines he will have found time to celebrate. If you have observed his animated behavior on the touchline during matches, you will know he does celebrating well – a spectacle made even more flamboyant by purported help from the Belgravia Centre, the UK’s leading purveyor of follicular solutions for men.
Now fast-forward to 2018 – past another successful managerial spell at Borussia Dortmund that yielded back-to-back Bundesliga titles – and on to Liverpool, where it appears that Klopp has begun to chart a course that might afford him the opportunity for more celebration. The Reds are genuine title contenders from the outset this season, for the first time in a generation.
Liverpool made a statement of intent in the summer – acquiring Naby Keita, Fabinho, Xherdan Shaqiri and goalkeeper Alisson for combined fees totaling close to 200 million euros. These arrivals have supplemented what was already an impressive reservoir of talent at Anfield. Mo Salah and Virjil van Dijk would surely secure places in any team in the world. Established players that pre-date Klopp’s arrival such as Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino have excelled under him. Even James Milner has rolled back the years. The German hasn’t had transfer policy all his own way though; he has been forced to sell for big money aswell – as in the case of Philippe Coutinho’s departure to Barcelona.
But good players are nothing without a style and a philosophy. Klopp extols the gegenpress method, of which he was a pioneer. His trademark 4-3-3 formation supports this by overloading the central areas of the pitch, making the opposition vulnerable when receiving the ball. It makes for pretty intense contests and he has equipped his troops with the work ethic required to carry it out effectively.
Klopp has also brought an identity to the club that is distinct from his predecessors. It amounts to something new – a break from the Liverpool of the past. A belief in the importance of the bond between players and fans followed him from Dortmund and it has endeared him to The Reds’ supporters. His effervescent charm appeals to journalists and the wider football population too. The German carries an air of not taking life too seriously and British people tend to like this approach. It is at odds with Rodgers, and those before him, who were cast in the traditionally more serious Boot Room mold.
On Sunday afternoon Klopp’s charges lock horns with Manchester City at Anfield. Installed as bookmakers’ favorites at the start of the season, the clubs are staying true to forecasts and currently occupy the top two places in the Premier League table. Juxtaposed with Pep Guardiola’s juego de posicion system, this pivotal match promises to be an interesting tactical exchange – and rarely disappoints in terms of entertainment.
Klopp has an impressive record over Guardiola, beating his sides seven times to date, more than any other manager. Naturally nothing is decided in October but if the tally rises to eight, it might set the tone for the campaign to come. For Liverpool fans, it would be their Epoch of Belief.
Klopp is yet to haul his first Anfield silverware, but one senses it will come this season. The club’s supporters, for all of their happy memories of atmospheric European nights, would trade them in in a heartbeat to experience the elation of a first Premier League title win. It would represent not a return to the Liverpool of old which belongs to a different time, but the start of a new era where competing for title trophies is habitual.
The wait might just be coming to a close.