TIME is the killer. Liverpool fans have lived in a state of non-league title winning angst for 26 years. It’s something we could have done without. It’s a burden and then some, yet its weight has never broken us. Liverpool FC still feels like Liverpool FC.
To me, anyway, and I’ve now lived through a significant chunk of the club’s history. I’ve seen major change, and I’ve watched my team go from being one synonymous with unparalleled sporting success to being one striving for, and falling short of its ultimate ambitions. And yet the core values that define what the club is don’t feel substantially altered.
It’s probably that we’ve remained competitive. That we’ve periodically been able to summon up that thing that made us what we were, and to be able to continue to make our mark. Liverpool have always retained the knack for writing engaging new chapters. The folklore remains a continuous work in progress. The club always retains its relevance.
Sadly for their kin, Leeds United cannot say the same. Time has been the killer. Maybe they never put enough away in the vault when they were great (1965/75) to see them through what has been the longest winter. They are as much – if not more – defined now by decades of mismanagement (at all levels). They are now Leeds of the Championship. They are a club that just stopped being itself. That dropped its own thread and never found a way to pick it up again.
Football clubs’ personalities change through the ages. As fans we like to imagine that there’s always continuity. We tell ourselves that the spirits of the ancients of our clubs are ever-present. That they guide and define our teams. Give them their souls.
I’m not sure this is really true, though. I think football clubs are born, live, die and then re-incarnate. Several times over. Like Dr Who. We see connections that we think transcend time and space, such as the colour of kit we wear and the place our team is from. But everything changes. Even these things. Leeds haven’t always been dressed in all white (Don Revie changed their kit in the ‘60s to ape Real Madrid). Liverpool haven’t always been mighty all reds (Bill Shankly made it so in 1962).
When Liverpool FC were born in 1892, Liverpool was a different place. Liverpool is a different place now to the city I came to live in, in 1985. Liverpool Football Club was not the same football club before and after the arrival of Bill Shankly. He defined it, and regenerated and remodelled its soul. He took all on board to the highest heavens and set a template for his successors to follow. Liverpool FC have not died and been reconfigured in the era post the last league title win in 1990. The club has evolved. It has shifted with the changing face of the city, the sport and its support. It has not fundamentally re-incarnated though, as many of its peers have. The lineage can still be traced. The greats and the gods of the ‘60s to the ‘80s still have claim over the modern Liverpool.
The same cannot be said of many other clubs. Some have been entirely re-fashioned by ownerships. It is hard to see any connection between the Chelsea of the post 1960s era and the Chelsea after Roman Abramovich acquired the club. The team play in the same ground and still wear all blue, but there’s few other ties to bind the modern club to its forebear.
The reincarnation happens in myriad ways. The image I can conjure in my mind’s eye of Arsenal FC under George Graham and his immediate predecessors is a different football club to the one Arsene Wenger built. There’s that Arsenal and then there’s his Arsenal. Leeds United are another case in point. They have had numerous ownerships, but the club’s culture has ultimately been defined by its playing style, the calibre of its personnel and its success or failure on the pitch.
Only veteran Leeds fans could paint the truest picture, but from the outside looking in, I can barely see the connection between the Leeds of my youth and the pale shadow that still – almost coincidentally – plays at Elland Road today. Maybe this all changes when they get promoted, buy some recognisable top tier names and start to inhabit the upper reaches of the Premier League. Or maybe too much water has passed under time’s bridge. Maybe they can never be Don Revie’s Leeds again. They will have to find a new way to be Leeds.
As our luck would have it, we get to play a Leeds enjoying something of a mini-resurgence. The bad Leeds have been lying down for all comers for years. We get them just as they are starting to dream again. There’s a long way to go before anything approaching pride can be restored, but their world weary and broken, will take four wins in their last five as signs of life.
Leeds are currently in fifth place in the Championship. In a playoff position. Garry Monk is starting to make people notice him again. For a young manager he must feel experienced. He’s been on football’s rollercoaster for a good while now, and there’s no sign they’re stopping the ride for him any minute soon. If he’s paying attention, he’ll have spotted that now isn’t the worst time to be going to Anfield, despite first appearances.
Of course, the Reds have been irresistible at home this season. The football world has been forced to sit up and take note. But, for the first time in a while, injuries are beginning to mount. Jürgen Klopp has enjoyed a luxury of squad options this autumn. He’s had nice problems to solve all over the pitch. He’s been the guy who could sit back with the smug satisfaction that his team was so good that it couldn’t make room for strikers of the class and value of Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge. Now, things are a little different. Main man, Philippe Coutinho, will be out for a while with that ankle injury. Adam Lallana is struggling for fitness. Roberto Firmino isn’t a 100% and Daniel Sturridge has a calf problem.
It’s likely that Klopp would have looked to rest the vast majority of his first teamers for a home League Cup game against a second tier side, but his second string riches don’t look quite so abundant right now. The Liverpool manager will be forced to gamble whatever approach he takes. A Liverpool B team without Sturridge at its apex is a significantly weaker B team. If Klopp wants to make the 11 changes he made in the last round of this competition he knows he will be taking a significant risk that the team won’t make it to the semi-final stage. And, massive as the league title quest is for the club, a Wembley final is again within touching distance. Supporters love their cup finals. Liverpool FC regularly get to them. Its one of the things that has enabled us to remain being Liverpool FC. Never underestimate the value to the culture of big days out.
My guestimate is for a blended selection. The back five will most likely be fully refreshed with Simon Mignolet, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ragnar Klavan and Alberto Moreno almost certain starters. Lucas Leiva will surely play, but will it be at centre back or in the midfield holding role? Perhaps Dejan Lovren will be asked to provide some continuity, and to partner Klavan.
The lack of backup attacking options in the absence of Sturridge, Lallana and Coutinho (and possibly Firmino) may force Klopp to again favour a 4-4-2 diamond formation for Leeds’ visit. Even then, there is no obvious partner for Origi. Blooding 17-year-old Ben Woodburn is an option, but a very risky one. The manager will dwell on the wisdom of asking Sadio Mane to go again, so soon after an energy sapping weekend Premier league game.
The midfield – let’s say it’s a 4 – is anyone’s guess. If Lucas is required further back then Kev Stewart will start. Also coming into midfield contention will undoubtedly be kids Ovie Ejaria and Marko Grujic. The numbers don’t add up easily and it seems likely that at least one of Emre Can or Gini Wijnaldum will be pressed into service again.
Jürgen will want his players to see the changes as a series of opportunities, not compromises that might leave them vulnerable to being sucker punched by a Leeds team determined not to provide timid resistance. Nothing that happens on Tuesday night will turn the tide of football history but, for a big Leeds following, it will be glimpse back to their long, all but forgotten past. They will be looking for signs and omens everywhere. Reds beware.
The young Liverpool 11 to remind Leeds that they are still a bit shit:
Mignolet; Alexander-Arnold, Lucas, Klavan, Moreno; Stewart, Wijnaldum, Ejaria, Grujic ; Mane, Origi.