As their fans never fail to remind us, Liverpool are the most successful club in English soccer, if you add up league and European titles (the European caveat would be completely unnecessary if not for a certain Scot and American capitalism, but that’s another story). So it stands to reason that the club can put out a handy all-time XI. Hell, if this piece were to be trimmed down to a paragraph or so I could have just written out the team from 1977-1984.
Four times European champions, and to get into the competition for old big ears they had to win the English league first, anyway. They won the honor in consecutive years (1977 and 1978) and reached three more finals in the next seven years. But it wouldn’t be right to just write in that XI.
That team was the product of great management, togetherness, and a few superstars. Kenny Dalglish was Liverpool’s greatest ever player for sure, but you cannot, in my opinion, produce an all-time XI from the red half of Merseyside without names like John Barnes, Kevin Keegan and of course a couple of modern giants – Stevie Mbe and El Pistolero.
First things first, the formation. As tempting as it would be to cram Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Ian Rush and Luis Suárez into a 0-6-4 formation, pragmatism must win out. Liverpool have always wanted the ball, and as Bill Shankly once famously said: “If you’re not sure what to do with the ball, just pop it in the net and we’ll discuss your options afterwards.”
So it’s a 4-2-3-1, four or five players swarming the centre to monopolize possession, tricky and creative players out wide high up the field to receive quick passes, and a natural goal scorer to finish things off.
Goalkeeper – Bruce Grobbelaar
A 34-year career in three different countries, but it was the 13 in Liverpool from 1981-1994 that were really special.
Ray Clemence was the number one in the side that started Liverpool’s love affair with European cups, and he was a fine goalkeeper indeed. In modern times, Pepe Reina’s skill with the ball at his feet and ability to command a defense in the Rafa Benitez’s years were admirable. But there was nobody quite like Grobbelaar.
Acrobatic and capable of making saves that required immense agility and positioning, what really stood out were the intangibles. The character to put Roma players off their penalties in 1984, and the sheer terror he instilled in his own defense that made them want to be as perfect as him.
Full-backs – Phil Neal, Alan Kennedy
Fullback has been such a problem area for Liverpool in recent years that I seriously considered going with a three-man back line of Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson and Sami Hyppia; or worse, playing Jamie Carragher at right back. But this team has to attack in true Liverpool style, so defenders have to be goal threats from open play as well as set pieces. They must be comfortable on the ball, whipping it off opponent’s toes and then striding upfield.
The two fullbacks, Phil Neal (above) and Alan Kennedy certainly fit the criteria. Neal won four European cups and eight league titles, sometimes playing so high up he could be considered a right winger. He would have been excellent in the modern game that requires full backs to operate as auxiliary wingers, overlapping so attackers can cut inside without surrendering an offensive weapon on the flanks.
Kennedy scored winning goals in the European Cup finals of 1981 and 1984 and took the decisive spot kick against Roma in 1984 (not to mention a nifty goal in the 1983 League Cup final against Manchester United, which to some means more than all the rest). His goal against Real Madrid in 1981 epitomized what a Liverpool player should be about – instinctive and intelligent movement inside from the left, keeping his head in a tense atmosphere to get in position, and the confidence to shoot from a tight angle.
Central Defenders – Alan Hansen, Sami Hyppia
It was tempting to pair Hansen with his old colleague and media buddy Mark Lawrenson, and the team would be no worse because of it. However, the big Finn is a constant reminder that trophies are not the only way to judge careers (although his first season as captain was when Liverpool won a treble). For £2.6 million, Liverpool got a defender that wasn’t afraid to put his body on the line, could read the game and lead his fellow men. Thirty-five goals in 464 appearances was testament to the goal-threat he was.
Hyppia was no slouch on the ball, regularly taking ball-playing responsibilities from Jamie Carragher in the most productive period of his Liverpool career, but Hansen is the Beckenbauer of this team. To those who grew up watching him on television and hearing his constant moaning about defending in modern times, it may be surprising to learn that Hansen often was only too happy to faff about with the ball in his own box, playing it out along the ground, and leaving it to the less cultured defenders to put their head in the way of shots.
The difference, of course, is that Hansen was extremely gifted on the ball, calmly bringing it out of defense and distributing it sharply to teammates to start quick moves before the opposition had time to adjust. With Hyppia doing the dirty work for him, Hansen would be able to focus on getting the Liverpool engine moving.
Central Midfield – Graeme Souness, Steven Gerrard
It is not easy for me to put Graeme Souness in this team, leaving aside that his managerial tenure was the start of Liverpool’s decline. As a spectator, it is hard to reconcile his sometimes cruel treatment of fellow professionals with how I want the game to be played. He broke jaws, stamped, and was generally not very nice.
Yes, in that era everybody was much rougher than the sanitized game we have today, and that often Souness was singled out for special treatment by the opposition, but it is important to note that for all Liverpool’s brilliance over the years, they have always had players with a touch of the devil in them. And for all their attacking brilliance at their best, they have never been afraid to exploit the rules of the game and mix it up with anybody.
As a player, Souness’s value to the side is unquestionable. He not only has the technique to play in the team, but he is as good a shield for the back five as has ever played the game.
As for Steven Gerrard, he was close to not making the team, to be honest. In many ways, he is one of the least talented players on the team, someone who was defined by a four-year period of exceptional form from 2005-2009, and someone who at times decided that he had to do everything to the detriment of the team – a product of an age where media attention and hype-building of players often obscures their objective contributions to the team.
But what a four-year period: goals, assists, tackles, vision. Gerrard was the creator-destroyer-passer midfield trio in a single player. With timing and a sense of occasion as well, he’s scored in the final of every cup competition. And when the situation demanded it, he was ready to put his ego aside and do what was best for the team. The man played right-back in a European cup final for goodness sake. We know the name, son.
Wide forwards – Luis Suarez, Kevin Keegan
It is absolutely ridiculous that I have to leave John Barnes out of this team. The man who was unfortunate to play in an era when his qualities were underappreciated was more gifted than most in this side, but he happened to play in a position where there is an abundance of options. Hell, Luis Suarez and Kevin Keegan are not really wide forwards (both would rather play as a central striker) but what can we do?
There is nothing to say about Suarez that hasn’t already been said. Like Souness he was a mongrel, someone who wanted to win so badly he did things incomprehensible to most human beings. But he was the greatest player to grace Liverpool this millennium, of that there is no doubt, and geniuses get leeway. His greatest compliment is the side Liverpool have been since he left: In his prime he took a seventh place team to the cusp of winning the title. Thank God he was born in the YouTube era.
Kevin Keegan would have been Liverpool’s greatest ever player if a certain someone didn’t exist. He was the original Sergio Aguero, a complete forward that could score with both feet and his head and the strength to hold off defenders. Don’t fear that his talents would be wasted on the wing. Two attacking fullbacks mean that he will have license to cut inside and play one-twos, maximizing his ability to operate out of tight spaces.
Trequartista – Kenny Dalglish
King Kenny is the ultimate example of Liverpool’s famed boot-room and the club’s best ever player (that’s why he gets his own section). Ostensibly a forward, he was comfortable dropping deep and playing between the lines, which he did to great effect partnering with Ian Rush. A favorite ploy was getting a defender to break the line by following him and slipping in a wide forward or midfield runner through the void just created.
Or, of course, he could face people up and dribble past them. Named by FourFourTwo as the greatest ever British forward, Dalglish didn’t have to leave it up to others to score.
Striker – Ian Rush
The old breed of striker is dying out. Wingers are scoring goals, midfielders are scoring goals, a goal-poacher who isn’t mobile enough to press and can’t do his share of defending on set-pieces is a luxury few teams can afford.
In some ways the false nine method of playing the position is the ultimate insult. Not using your striker to score goals but as a dummy so that others can do what he’s paid to. Not for Ian Rush. If you can only do one thing, do it really well. And nobody was better at exploiting space in the box to make a chance to shoot, and then finishing with aplomb.
Robbie Fowler as a great Liverpool player lived fast and died young, three straight seasons of over 30 goals and then never topping 20. Michael Owen’s body betrayed him, Rush’s career overlapped both, despite starting in 1978 and really that’s what separates him from the pretenders to the throne. 346 goals, in 660 appearances, topping 30 goals in every season with Liverpool except for 1984-85, when he disappointingly got only 26.
Manager – Bill Shankly
Liverpool’s Best XI
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