When the final whistle blew at Anfield on a cold November night in 1973, Bill Shankly knew a major tactical switch was needed if his beloved Liverpool were ever to be crowned kings of Europe.
Beaten home and away (2-1 in both legs) by the talented Red Star Belgrade, coached by the legendary Miljan Miljanic, Liverpool struggled defensively throughout both legs against the technical brilliance of Red Star’s rapid attacks.
It was then that the tactical innovation took place that shaped Liverpool’s European history.
Shanks realised that, despite winning the UEFA Cup just a season earlier, significant change was needed and acted swiftly by changing a defensive system that had served him so well since his arrival at Liverpool.
Moving Emlyn Hughes from midfield to defence and promoting a young Phil Thompson from a back-up midfielder to partner him, Shankly now had a defensive partnership that was not only comfortable with the ball but was also the starting point for many of the team’s attacks.
The change had begun.
One of the casualties in this change was Larry Lloyd. Signed from Bristol Rovers in 1969, as a replacement for the great Ron Yeats, Lloyd played a huge part in the Reds’ 1973 League/UEFA Cup double, even scoring in the 1st leg of the final of the UEFA Cup. He was sold to Coventry in 1974 and, ironically, went on to win two European Cups with Nottingham Forest.
In Liverpool’s next European game (a record breaking 11-0 win over Stromsgodset) the Thompson and Hughes partnership made its European bow, with Thompson even getting forward to score twice and Hughes once.
Despite losing in the next round on the away goals rule to Ferencvaros, Liverpool’s new method of play had been formed.
To have two central defenders who had the technical qualities of midfielders with first class distribution, awareness and an excellent reading of the game—as well as being able to build attacks from the back—was a huge advantage to the team and this system of play led to the club dominating Europe for a number of years as Thompson-Hughes became Thompson-Hansen and eventually Lawrenson-Hansen.
Each new player was comfortable on the ball, with the intelligence to use their possession and ability to play from the back or even to step forward to give an extra body in midfield.
Liverpool conquered Europe by playing the continental way.
Possession was everything and there was no sense in having defenders who simply kicked the ball hard and long at every opportunity.
In his book Brilliant Orange, the neurotic genius of Dutch football, David Winner tells that:
In Holland English centre halves are, despite being admired for their fighting spirit, are often objects of ridicule.
In addition, former international Jan Mulder also using Tony Adams and Steve Bould as examples of having “too much spirit and not enough technique”.
The great 1974 Dutch World Cup team suffered a defensive crisis when key defenders Hulshoff and Israel missed out through injury. To combat this, they moved midfielders Arie Haan and Wim Rijsbergen to the centre of defence. Despite losing the final to West Germany, they are still regarded as one of the greatest teams of all time with every outfield player able to combine technique and intelligence to keep possession of the ball whilst building devastating attacks.
While football has changed in many ways and the need for a strong centre back is vital to the modern game, the need to have possession of the ball is as important as ever and, in Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool again have a manager who embraces that exact belief. What’s more, in Daniel Agger—and possibly in several others—the Reds have a defender who is a perfect example of a modern day continental centre back.
Shanks would be proud.
Liverpool might have won the League Cup last season instead of the UEFA Cup, but perhaps Reds fans stand on the precipice of a new dynasty after similar realisations were made about how the clubs needs to change and go forward.