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At the End of a Storm: Liverpool’s Long Road to the Champions League Final

On Saturday, Liverpool will bring manager Jürgen Klopp’s brand of heavy metal soccer to Kiev, where they will compete with Real Madrid for Europe’s most prestigious club soccer trophy. And the good times could just be getting started.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

You’re supposed to walk, the song says. You hold your head high, and you walk through the wind and you walk through the rain. Maybe your dreams get tossed around. Maybe your dreams get blown away. But whatever happens to your dreams, you keep walking and walking. And as long as you keep some hope in your heart, you’ll never walk alone.

Since its inception 126 years ago, the defining characteristic of Liverpool Football Club has been the act of putting one foot in front of the other—no matter what the weather was like outside. Soccer is just a game, but if you walk through enough storms, if you’ve really seen some shit, then don’t you get to call it whatever you want?

This Saturday, Liverpool plays Real Madrid in the Champions League final in Kiev. Real have won three of the last four European titles, but the last time the two sides met in this same match, it was 1981 and Liverpool was the club cementing a continental dynasty. For some, this game will mark the return of Liverpool to Europe’s elite after years in the wilderness. For others, it’ll be an opportunity to see if a collective primal scream can last for 90 minutes and deliver the game’s most prestigious trophy.

If you think that’s hyperbolic, you don’t know Liverpool. “Some people think football is a matter of life and death,” Bill Shankly famously said. “I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”

Shankly built Liverpool into the greatest club in England, and he also wrote the opening act of country’s greatest ongoing public sports opera. When he took over on Merseyside, the team was an ambition-free second-division club, a “happy-go-lucky, slap-happy” kind of place, as Bob Paisley, one of Shankly’s assistants, put it. By the time Shankly resigned in 1974, Liverpool had won three first-division titles, two FA Cups, and a UEFA Cup under the stewardship of its manager-slash-cult leader. Shankly regretted his decision to resign almost as soon as he made it. That “life and death” quote wasn’t hot air; he couldn’t live without the game, and he kept showing up to Liverpool’s practice sessions after stepping down—until the club banned him from their training ground at Melwood. Shankly never managed again before he passed away in 1981.

If Shankly turned Liverpool into the top team in the country, his successor turned them into the best side in the world. Under Paisley’s guidance, they won six first-division titles and three European Cups before he retired in 1983. While the so-called “Liverpool Way” was built by Shankly and characterized by simple passing and moving and collective attacking and defending, Paisley helped the team develop the patience and ball possession needed to succeed against more nuanced and patient continental sides.

During Liverpool’s golden era, politics and sports existed in tandem. “The socialism I believe in, is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards,” Shankly said. “That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life.”

Amid a rapidly changing country, Liverpool walked on. While Shankly was in charge, the city’s industry flourished, social mobility had not yet become a myth, and employment was near full. Then, in 1979, Margaret Thatcher became prime minister on a platform of deregulation, privatization, and anti-unionization. Industrial towns like Liverpool and Glasgow soon descended into decay and underemployment. “In a city cast as an outsider in its own land, battered by the deliberately engineered economic downturns and clearouts of the early 1980s,” David Goldblatt writes in his defining history of the sport, The Ball Is Round, “Liverpool Football Club was an enduring source of pride, a magnet for the energies and emotions of a public hungry for success.”

The insurgency would not last. Ahead of the 1985 European Cup final at Belgium’s Heysel Stadium, a group of Liverpool and Juventus fans threw missiles at each other. After that got old, the Liverpool fans decided to charge toward Juventus fans. The aggressors broke down a flimsy fence separating the two sides and began to push the Juventus supporters toward a retaining wall. Inexperienced policemen working the game did not know what to do, so there was nothing to stop the momentum. Bodies packed against each other and pressed against the concrete wall, which eventually collapsed. In all, 39 fans died and 600 other people were injured. Shockingly, as the dead were being ferried out of the stadium on stretchers, administrators decided that game still had to be played that night. Juventus won, 1-0. British clubs were then banned from European competition for the next five years. A season after winning its fourth European Cup, Liverpool was suspended for six.

Somehow it got even worse. Ahead of the 1989 FA Cup semifinal against Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, the policeman overseeing the match, chief superintendent David Duckenfield, attempted to ease crowding at the entrance turnstiles by allowing supporters in through an exit gate. This immediately caused two standing-only sections designated for Liverpool supporters to overflow. Fans were pushed downward and into metal fences as more and more people entered into the stadium. This time, 96 died and 766 were injured. In the aftermath, various policemen, politicians, and media members blamed the disaster on drunk Liverpool supporters. An initial coroner’s report ruled all the deaths to be accidental. Only in 2012 did an independent commision contest those findings. “On behalf of the government – and indeed our country – I am profoundly sorry for this double injustice that has been left uncorrected for so long,” prime minister David Cameron said at the time. Then, in 2016, after decades of pressure by various groups related to those killed at Hillsborough, an independent coroner’s report declared that the deaths were caused by police negligence and poor stadium design.

The club never really recovered from Heysel and Hillsborough—how could it? Liverpool hasn’t won a top-flight title since the league became the Premier League in 1992. For most of the 20th and early 21st century, Manchester United and Arsenal jockeyed for positioning at the top of the table. Then, in 2003, a Russian oligarch named Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea, and in 2008 the Abu Dhabi royal family took control of Manchester City. The economics of the Premier League had changed forever.

During this time, Liverpool did win the Champions League in 2005, but as its unofficial title, “The Miracle of Istanbul,” suggests, that game speaks more to the dramatic power of knockout soccer’s unpredictability than to the club’s newfound dominance. (Liverpool finished in fifth place in England that same year.) The high point of the club’s Premier League years was the Steven Gerrard era, and even that was its own kind of low-stakes tragedy. One of the defining players of his generation, Gerrard rebuffed offers from all of Europe’s best sides—including Chelsea—in order to stay with his boyhood club. He played the game on an astronomical scale—all orbital passes and rocket volleys—and he propelled the club to a European title and consistent Champions League qualification. But in his second-to-last season with Liverpool and with the team on the verge of its first first-division title since 1990, he slipped against, yes, Chelsea, and away went their title hopes.

Tragedies—real, public, personal, and imagined—have shaped Liverpool. Everyone just kept walking through the rain. That is, until Jürgen Klopp arrived with a simple question: What if we started running?

I’m not a participant in Liverpool’s history, just a passionate observer who’s found a way to feel things for a club that’s an ocean away. I was born in 1988—on the north shore of Long Island. And I didn’t watch my first Liverpool game until some time in the 2000s. I took to the club because when I played FIFA 2003, I wanted to use a good team, but not a great one. I loved El-Hadji Diouf, the Senegalese striker who came to Merseyside after an impressive 2002 World Cup. Little did I know that he’d quickly go on to become … well, here’s a 2015 headline from The Independent: “Why El-Hadji Diouf was hated by all at Liverpool.”

So many of the world’s best clubs reside in former industrial strongholds. In the late 19th century, migrants across Europe flocked to the towns with factories, and in search of some sense of belonging, they often clung to the one recreation every location could offer: the soccer club. “The provincial towns Nottingham, Glasgow, Dortmund, Birmingham, and Rotterdam have all won European Cups,” Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper write in the latest edition of Soccernomics, “while London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Istanbul, and Moscow never had until Chelsea got one in 2012.”

And yet so many of these local institutions have become global brands: Liverpool took in €424.2 million in revenue last year. Soccer teams, especially Premier League clubs, have spent the last 20 years broadening the definition of fan beyond someone who grew up in Barcelona or Liverpool and who goes to the Camp Nou or Anfield every weekend. But fandom, especially when you’re choosing it from the outside, is often an act of self-identification. I’ve never met a dock worker and I didn’t know who Margaret Thatcher was until I became a teenager, but I couldn’t get enough of the doomed grandeur and the stubborn, insurgent un-Britishness of the club. Today, you just need occasional access to the internet or a television to find your own club. Oh, and if you decide to pick Liverpool, you’ll also need a tolerance for the contact high you can get from watching this:

Before Klopp took to the sidelines at Anfield, Brian Phillips wrote for Grantland that “You enjoyed a Liverpool match the way the French exiles in Casablanca enjoy ‘La Marseillaise’—sincerely, but for the movement more than the music.” Since the inception of the Premier League in 1992, Liverpool were rarely fun to watch; you watched Liverpool games because there’s something incredibly romantic about watching the best of intentions come up short. Liverpool still have the most European cups of any British team, and only Manchester United has more first-division titles. Every game felt like a historic act, an attempt to reclaim past glories. And in a perverse way it feels good to be a part of that collective struggle. The most memorable Liverpool seasons—the ones that reaffirmed the club’s operatic scale—were the ones that they somehow didn’t win. In 2008-09, they beat Manchester United twice and put up the best goal differential in the league, only to somehow still lose the title by four points to Manchester United. And in 2013-14—eh, we don’t need to go through that again.

But now, with the team in the Champions League final, the music is all that matters. Klopp arrived at Anfield with a crew that promised to play “heavy metal football,” as the German described his preferred playing style while still managing Borussia Dortmund in 2013. “I understand football,” Klopp said soon after his arrival on Merseyside. “If the people are not interested in football, we can put some sticks in the park and play. It’s still the same game but it’s only this game because of the fans. That’s what I know, think and feel. … We have to entertain them.”

He’s done that, and it all started by asking his players to stop walking. After being hired to replace Brendan Rodgers in the fall of 2015, there wasn’t time to institute any complex tactical structure or coordinated movements midseason, so the staff just told the players to run. As midfielder Adam Lallana recounted to Raphael Honigstein in Bring the Noise, the writer’s recent Klopp biography, the new boss told his players one thing when he arrived: “Work hard and give me everything.”

That sounds trite and it sounds obvious—it’s not like Rodgers was telling the players not to work hard. But Klopp’s system isn’t just aided by extra running; it depends on it. While his first partial season saw up and downs in England and ended with a loss to Sevilla in the Europa League final, his first full year brought Liverpool back to the Champions League. “Gegenpressing,” Klopp’s signature style, which creates offense through attackers and midfielders that swarm the opposition as soon as they lose possession, ripped apart the top of the league. “You disrupt the opposition attack,” Liverpool’s chief scout Peter Krawietz told Honigstein. “You might catch out a team at the very moment they’re planning an attack and change their position accordingly. The left back might have started running up the pitch.” Fourth place was the only reward, but Klopp’s side went undefeated against the Premier League’s top six. In keeping with Liverpool tradition, being the best of the best still wasn’t enough to win the league.

This year brought another fourth-place finish, but sometimes the league table lies. I love Liverpool—I really do. It’s been the one constant in my life since high school. In an inverse of the classic fandom origin story, my dad became a Liverpool fan because I was one. A small reason why I got this job (and my previous one) is because Chris Ryan and I got to know each other throughout the ups and downs of the doomed 2013-14 campaign. Most of the friends I’ve kept from college and before then are the ones who root for Liverpool; it gives us a reason to stay in touch. My girlfriend, a loungewear connoisseur, bought me a Liverpool robe last Christmas. And I still have trouble sleeping through the night when there’s a game on at 4:30 a.m.

Yet, as “de facto soccer journalist” has worked its way into my job description over the past couple years, I’ve had to assess the club in less irrational ways. Thankfully, work in public soccer analytics has created some tools that just didn’t exist 10 years ago. And this season, those tools write out a pretty clear message: Liverpool are one of the best teams in the world. Expected goals, which takes historical data and puts a conversion probability on every shot a team takes and concedes, rates Liverpool as the clear second-best team in the Premier League. And FiveThirtyEight, which uses similar data, rates Klopp’s side as the fifth-best team on the planet.

You don’t need the numbers, though. Liverpool used to be like watching a not-quite-world-class tightrope walker in a windstorm. But now that same guy is lighting the tightrope on fire and riding a motorcycle across it. They create chaos—and then they thrive in it. At Klopp’s first club, Mainz, he and Zeljko Buvac, Klopp’s right-hand man ever since he became a manager, would make players jump through obstacles before shooting, and they’d stick poles and boards on the practice field to create sudden deflections. “The same randomness that players encountered on the pitch became part of the programme,” Honigstein writes.

Klopp has famously said, “Gegenpressing is the best playmaker.” And if you can turn your entire team’s collective energy toward something that was typically the responsibility of a single player—the near-mythological idea of the no. 10—why wouldn’t you? The decade of Steven Gerrard was unforgettable at Anfield, but setting aside one position on the team sheet for “savior” was destined to fail.

Now, the system isn’t necessarily the star; it just makes everyone better. Mohamed Salah went from a great secondary goalscorer in Serie A to a legitimate challenger to the decade-long Lionel Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo duoply atop world soccer. Andy Robertson was a budget transfer from a relegated team, and now he’s one of the best fullbacks in England. James Milner was an England retiree on the tail end of his career, and he just broke the record for assists in a Champions League season. Trent Alexander-Arnold was an unknown spaghetti-thin midfielder-turned-fullback from a Liverpool suburb, and now he’s going to the World Cup as a teenager.

Klopp’s contract runs through 2022, hopefully extending the effervescent present well into the future. Milner is the only consistent starter older than 28, while the devastating attacking trio of Salah, Sadio Mané, and Roberto Firmino are all under 27. All three were analytically savvy signings in back-to-back-to-back summers, and a fourth is on the way this offseason in 23-year-old Naby Keita, the most Klopp-ready young midfielder in the world. The team certainly still has the potential for the odd catastrophic result—see: the 4-2 defeat to Roma or the early season losses to Manchester City and Tottenham—but every tide seems to be rising. If this success looked unsustainable, the final against Real Madrid and their 11 superstars would feel like a referendum on soccer philosophy: for the individual or for the whole. Instead, it’s just a huge game in an era that promises many more.

While the walking might be at a minimum, the collectivism of the ’70s and ’80s is back—on the field and the sideline. I asked David Goldblatt how he thought Klopp, who’s said, “If there’s something I’ll never do in my life it’s voting for the right,” fit into the club’s larger managerial tradition.

“Klopp is the perfect fit—a 21st-century Swabian social democratic incarnation of Bill Shankly—keeping Liverpool connected to its socialist, European and cosmopolitan traditions,” he said.

That’s the thing about running: You don’t have to do it alone.