One of my favorite things about soccer is that it truly operates as a team sport in that no one person, regardless of their talent, has an outsized influence on the outcome. The sport itself lends itself to being a bit of a slog - which, I mean, I get that it’s not American in nature and so the assembly-line, individualistic nature of baseball works for a metaphor for life within the American context, but the majority of results potentially being listless draws kind of works as a metaphor for life as I’ve experienced it.
At any rate, the way the game translates to necessarily being a terrific example of how no one lives on an island - that we all have a shared responsibility to each other - is one of the things that brings me great joy when observing the game. And I suppose it’s part of what makes rooting for Liverpool Football Club so special, given that the ethos of the club is rooted in, well, practicing the concept of solidarity.
In fact, one might say that this season has seen the best approximation of Shankly Socialism in Liverpool’s modern era.
“The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life.” - Bill Shankly
Bill Shankly is basically a footballing deity amongst us Reds. And to pick a quote about Shankly that typifies his worldview is like trying to name your favorite taco or your favorite Backstreet Boy song, in that while you may have a preference, you’re not turning down a taco or a BSB tune regardless of the options presented.
The one I chose to list above does a very good job at stating, plainly, what Shankly thought about the value of a team and how it should reflect community. A different one I might have chose is the one where he indicates that football is like playing a piano: you need 9 players to carry the thing and 2 who can actually play it. Meaning, everyone’s contribution, regardless of skill, is absolutely necessary and valuable.
In Shankly’s view, everyone had worth. Simple. And because of that, everyone has a part to play in writing the story of a team’s season. That success depended on everyone’s mutual sharing of their talent and effort.
Over the course of my time as a Liverpool supporter (9+ years at this point), I’ve not seen this ideal fully worked out. At least, not as it relates beyond Liverpool’s Top XI. This weekend’s definitive win over AFC Bournemouth, though, tells me Jurgen Klopp has finally hit on the perfect formula.
One of the big wonders about this iteration of Liverpool is if they had the depth to make a run that might result in multiple trophies. We’ve spoken ad nauseam about the fixture crunch that Liverpool are in the middle of and I suppose this section of the season is the true crucible in which we learn of Liverpool’s ability to bring home the title in the competitions it is most concerned with: the Premier League and the Champions League.
Repeating as title bearers (or, in this specific case, making it to three Champions League finals in a row) for Europeans most treasured prize might have always been a bit of a secondary goal for most fans. Especially given that we’ve tasted that glory so recently, I can’t imagine that many fans might be disappointed at not appearing.
Falling out of the competition before the knockouts, though, will likely be mildly annoying. We won’t get an answer to Liverpool’s state of that until tomorrow’s match against Red Bull Salzburg, but we do know that Liverpool’s performance on the weekend in the competition that most fans are likely internally prioritizing - the Premier League - did pay dividends and show evidence that Liverpool have what it takes to challenge for multiple trophies.
The biggest marked difference over the last week - and as evidenced so well in that Bournemouth match - is that Jurgen Klopp can rotate the front three and still find ways to score goals and put pressure on teams. Beginning with their match against Everton, Klopp only started Sadio Mane out of the front three and absolutely hammered the Toffees. Against Bournemouth, Klopp started with Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah and still put the Cherries to the sword.
And out of both performances, he was able to ensure that key squad members were rested and prepared for the big test in the Champions League tomorrow. More, the performances between the two sides - which saw two different tactical formations - shows the kind of flexibility and depth needed for a club fighting to claim each and every accolade.
For fans keeping score, these matches were big progressions over the health of the entire squad as it was one of the few times where substitutions were made to rest the front three and the team looked fluid and dangerous. Against Everton, Mané looked like he absolutely relished being the creator and menace on the attack. Against Bournemouth, Bobby and Mo were able to clear the way for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and a seemingly nearly there Naby Keita.
Looking forward, the joy in all of this is that it looks like Liverpool finally have the personnel and tactical flexibility to challenge teams that either seek to nullify our front three or to win matches wherein the gaffer wants to rest and rotate members of our vaunted attacking trio. The drop-off between the top XI and the bench seems much, much smaller now.
That’s good news because, as we know, the road to a championship will necessarily require contributions from players that are just beyond the spotlight, or whose name doesn’t quite fit onto the marquee. It’s gonna require the work and graft of people willing to toil. All hands, like Shankly indicated, are valuable and needed.
Jurgen Klopp seems to have figured out just how to arrange and place those hands for maximum effect in the push for silverware. Here’s hoping the Reds take that next big step tomorrow. Up the Reds.