How Would 2019-20’s Liverpool Rate Against Their 1980s Counterparts?
If there is one thing that soccer fans enjoy almost as much as actually watching the game, it is arguing over who the best players or teams are. Obviously, partisan loyalties usually sway these “debates,” but even when the fans are neutral, there is often no consensus.
I’m no Liverpool fan, but even I have been impressed by the way Jurgen Klopp’s team has beaten just about every team it has faced this season. By the time the Premier League was suspended for the 2019/20 season, Liverpool was an incredible 25 points ahead of Manchester City in second place.
Up until the end of February, this team had only dropped points in one game, a draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Watford unexpectedly became the first, and only, club to beat the Reds in the league this season.
Chelsea and Aston Villa beat second-string teams in the two cup competitions, and a master class from Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid dumped the champions elect out of Europe, but apart from those few instances, Liverpool has looked the real deal.
It has been 30 years since Liverpool last won the title in England, but I remember when it was much more of a regular occurrence for the league trophy to make its way to Anfield at the end of a season. So I thought it would be interesting to see how today’s stars compared with the players that won so many domestic and European titles back in the day.
For ease of comparison, I’ve chosen the 1987/88 team that won the English First Division (as was). Ian Rush was still enduring a largely unsuccessful couple of years in Italy with Juventus at the time, as Liverpool lost just two games on its way to the title. But could that team live with its modern counterparts? Here’s a comparison of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool vs. Liverpool in the 1980s.
Brazil international Alisson has had to put up with a truncated season after pulling up with a calf injury on the opening day of the season. There were many that thought that Liverpool’s title challenge would stutter immediately, considering the numerous clean sheets he kept last year. But Adrian stepped in for the next 11 games and performed admirably.
Alisson returned for the draw with Manchester United in October and has been in fine form once again. He suffered another injury just before the season was suspended, but he had shown once again what an excellent keeper he is.
The Liverpool team that lifted the 1987/88 league trophy had Bruce Grobbelaar as its last line of defense. The South African native ended up making 628 appearances for the club, winning the league title on six occasions. He also took home three FA Cup winners medals, three League Cup medals, and was part of the European Cup winning side in 1984. His famous “spaghetti legs” antics during the penalty shootout go down in soccer history. Possibly unfairly regarded as an unsafe pair of hands at times, he proved time and time again that he had the mental resolve to keep out the very best strikers.
As good as Grobbelaar was, I think there is no comparison between the top keepers of the past and the ones we see these days. The game has changed, admittedly, but the all-round skill and talent that modern goalkeepers possess put the majority far ahead of all but the very best from years gone by. Grobbelaar was also still able to pick up back passes in 1988, as the law forcing keepers to kick was not brought in until 1992.
In my opinion, Alisson is by far the better goalie.
I’m trying hard to allow for the different style of soccer we see today when comparing the two teams. But it is difficult not to see such a gap in ability between the defenders of the late 1980s and the all-round players that ply their trade at the back today.
The 1987/88 back four for Liverpool was usually made up of Steve Nicol, Gary Gillespie, Alan Hansen, and Gary Ablett. There were also players of the caliber of Barry Venison and Mark Lawrenson to call on when needed. The Liverpool defense conceded just 24 goals in 40 league games and also chipped in at the other end; Steve Nicol even managed a hat-trick away at Newcastle at one point.
These players may not have been the athletic specimens we have today, but they were rarely beaten.
These days, we look at our defenders to be the first wave of attackers. Players such as Trent Alexander-Arnold are just as important in making goals as they are in stopping opposing strikers scoring. Andy Robertson does the exact same job on the other side of the pitch, and both are able to combine the two roles perfectly. With a central defender with the talent of Virgil van Dijk, the modern-day Liverpool team will not concede many goals, either.
Joe Gomez is another fantastic player, but one of Jurgen Klopp’s few problems this season has been when the young England defender has been injured. There are enough squad players to cope, but it has been a very rare weak spot for the club.
Looking at these two teams on purely defensive abilities, I am tempted to look at the 1987/88 vintage as the better unit. There was a solidity that shone through every single week back then. The game may have been easier for defenders, thanks to the lack of back pass rule, but they just played to the laws of the time.
But for overall influence and importance, I’m going with the modern team once again as the better group.
As influential as the current midfield is to the fast transitional play that the likes of Mo Salah and Sadie Mane feed off, this is one area where I think the vintage side excels. Steve McMahon was the snarling central figure in the 1987/88 team, and it was his hard tackling and distribution that set the tone for many of Liverpool’s attacks. He was ably backed up by the likes of Jan Molby and even Nigel Spackman, offering an array of passing and solid defending in front of the back four.
Ray Houghton arrived in October of 1987, and he added greater attacking play of his own. But the real jewel in the crown was John Barnes. Still cruelly underrated by many, his skill and goal scoring ability was phenomenal. If it wasn’t for John Barnes, I’m not sure this team would have won the league.
Including John Barnes in the midfield section is possibly cheating, but there was a definite 4-4-2 formation used at the time, and Barnes was part of that middle four. Jurgen Klopp’s side prefers three in the middle of the pitch, looking to the three ahead of them to score the majority of the goals.
I would go for Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as the main three for the modern-day Liverpool team. But James Milner could easily be substituted for any of them. I’m not a massive fan of Henderson as a player, but as a leader, he drives the whole team and does the same job when on England duty, even though he is not the actual captain of the team.
Oxlade-Chamberlain suffers from too many injuries to have a bigger effect on the team but is also an incredible talent, whereas Wijnaldum, although a completely different type of player, is underrated in the same way that John Barnes was all those years ago.
But even with the level of talent that Klopp has at his disposal, I don’t think that the current midfield rates higher than the 1987/88 version. As a unit, the old midfield was more influential.
This is partly down to the fact the current setup relies on its defenders to play a much bigger part on the attacking side of things. The ball is quickly moved through the midfield rather than those players having to start the moves themselves.
Another newcomer at Liverpool in the summer of 1987 was Peter Beardsley. The northeast native excelled for every single club he played for — even arch-rivals Everton when he joined the Goodison Park club a few years later. He didn’t really play like other strikers of the day but more like a modern-day false nine, and he only needed his one step-over trick to beat any defender he came up against.
His skill and ability drove Liverpool on, but it was the goals of his partner, John Aldridge, that won games. He only played two full seasons at Anfield but scored 29 goals in the 1987/88 season. With little backup, Aldridge and Beardsley performed week in, week out and led the team to glory.
As good as those two were, the current triumvirate of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, and Mo Salah is simply a different class.
It has been said many times that in any other team — in any of the top leagues — Firmino would be the star player. But he is just unlucky to be constantly compared to both Sadio Mane and Mo Salah. Mane has looked particularly good this season but has weighed in with goals since joining the club from Southampton. His contribution may only have been overlooked due to the incredible goal return of Salah. He scored an incredible 44 goals in all competitions in his first season at the club, and his 27 last year was seen as a dip in form, even though he picked up his second consecutive Golden Boot award.
There is no way to look past Salah, Mane, and Firmino as the better forward line between the two teams. The sheer number of goals is overwhelming, but it is the range of strikes and play that all three can provide that is truly frightening. And even when any of those three are either injured or off key, there is always Divock Origi to rely on.
Kenny Dalglish was still officially the Liverpool player-manager in 1988. But he only appeared on the pitch on two occasions during the campaign. He concentrated on his managerial abilities to inspire possibly one of the finest Liverpool teams of all time to the title.
But it is Jurgen Klopp that has the pleasure of coaching the better side, in my opinion. The game has changed, but even with the difference in playing styles, today’s team has the better all-round soccer players.
Of course, these kinds of debates are purely subjective, and you may have a completely different viewpoint on which team was better. If you are a Liverpool fan, then you have had the good fortune to support a number of successful teams over the years, but these two have to be up there with the best of them.
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