Elland Road, Leeds
13th April 1991
Leeds United – 4 (Chapman-3, Shutt)
Liverpool – 5 (Houghton, Molby, Speedie, Barnes-2)
The 1990s had just began and English clubs were still absent from European football in the aftermath of Heysel tragedy. The top division was called “First Division”. Since the 1981/82 season every league title save one, thanks to Michael Thomas’ most dramatic of dramatic efforts for Arsenal, had ended in Merseyside. George Graham’s Arsenal was once again proving to be stiff challengers for Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool in their bid to win their 19th league title. Desperate to keep pace with the leaders the Reds had to win a crunch game against Howard Wilkinson’s rejuvenated Leeds United, a team which had surprised most experts with their strong performances after getting promoted. What followed was one of the most scintillating encounters in the history of English league football.
After coming agonizingly close to winning the title in 1988/89 season, Liverpool was back in business the following year, clinching their 18th title with a healthy 9 point cushion over Aston Villa. The Red machine was up and running when the 1990/91 season began as they notched up eight consecutive victories to start the season. This brilliant run of form included a 4-0 thrashing of Manchester United and a 3-2 win in the Merseyside Derby. December saw a sharp drop in form as the Reds lost twice – the 3-0 reversal against direct rivals Arsenal was particularly damaging. Their stutter continued in the New Year and Dalglish’s team won just twice in first two months, allowing Arsenal to catch-up, despite the latter being deducted points because of an on field brawl with Manchester United. February also brought a massive shock as Kenny Dalglish announced his resignation.
Things were getting desperate as Arsenal completed the double in early March with a narrow win at Anfield. Liverpool responded by showing their best form in months, winning three back to back matches rounding up the run with a 7-1 spanking of Derby. However, a winless streak of three matches ensured Arsenal had a 5 point gap when Liverpool travelled to Elland Road.
Relegation in early 1980s had seen Leeds spend some time in the wilderness of Second Division but Howard Wilkinson, who replaced club legend Billy Bremner, finally helped the former league champions earn promotion by winning the second tier on goal difference. The Whites made a surprisingly strong start to their season and by the end of 1990 they were fourth in the table. Much of the credit for their performance went to Lee Chapman’s goal scoring feats while veteran Gordon Strachan formed a strong midfield with youngsters Gary Speed and David Batty. Earlier that season Leeds had travelled to Anfield and was handed a comprehensive 3-0 humbling with goals from John Barnes, Ronny Rosenthal and Ian Rush.
Leeds United : Lukic; Sterland, Whitlow; Batty, Fairclough, Whyte; Strachan, Shutt, Chapman, McAllister, Speed.
Liverpool: Hooper; Hysen, Staunton; Nicol, Molby, Burrows; Beardsley, Houghton, Rush, Barnes, Speedie.
Leeds started at a blistering pace and mere seconds had passed before Shutt raced past Staunton to test Hooper with an early shot. Few minutes later the same player saw his header go wide after aggressively charging down a long throw. Leeds was also earning a number of corners in the opening exchanges as Sterland’s header after such a set-piece went beyond the far post. Liverpool was more or less battered for first ten minutes but then had their first chance as Barnes broke along the left wing before launching a pin point cross which just evaded the diving head of Speedie.
Liverpool soon took the lead, somewhat against the run of play. Rush passed towards Barnes inside the box, the winger took two touches before floating in a delicious chip for Houghton who was completely unmarked by a Leeds defence focusing on Rush and Barnes. Leeds kept pushing on and could have easily grabbed an equalizer but McAllister’s deflected shot bent kindly towards Hooper. At the quarter hour mark a free flowing Liverpool move saw Barnes pass towards Rush, who didn’t receive it but instead dummied past his marker, allowing the ball to roll towards Houghton before receiving it with only Lukic to beat. The Leeds ‘keeper had no choice but to bring Rush down and Molby didn’t make any mistakes from the spot, doubling Liverpool’s lead in a match where they had hardly done bulk of the attack.
On 20th minute Strachan had a golden chance to pull a goal back but the former Manchester United midfielder inexplicably shot over the goal when it was easier to hit the target. This was a clear sign that Leeds United players were beginning to lose their focus after dominating the first few minutes. This lack of focus was evident minutes later as Barnes sprung the Leeds’ offside trap but Speedie was judged to be offside when he finished the move. Houghton also missed a gilt edged chance when he dragged his shot wide after meeting Beardsley’s chip.
Speedie had come close on two occasions before he finally got his name on the scoresheet on 26th minute in a move which the Leeds defence did absolutely nothing to stop. Too man defenders stood ball watching as Beardsley’s over head pass was received by Barnes who roamed into the six yard box unmarked before passing across the goal towards Speedie who only had to tap in. Two minutes later Nicol tested Lukic with a header after Barnes had latched on to a Houghton backheel to cross at far post.
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John Barnes capped off his excellent first half by getting his first and Liverpool’s fourth goal just around the half hour mark in a move which showed the futility of Leeds’ offside trap. Barnes received the ball in his own half, passed to Beardsley, received it back then did another quick one two with Rush before starting a quick sprint past the high Leeds back-line, finishing his run with a perfect diagonal shot. “This is wonderful. Its slaughter here”, exclaimed Martin Tyler. There were no more goals in first half as Liverpool went into the break with a 0-4 lead.
For a team which went on to win the league title just a season later, Leeds United was incredibly naïve in terms of tactics in first half. Sensing the lack of a proper defensive midfielder in Liverpool, Howard Wilkinson decided that his team needed a fast approach in this match and tried to take control of the midfield by asking his defenders to play a high backline and crowding out Liverpool’s midfield. Leeds started the match in blistering pace as Liverpool struggled with their approach in first few minutes. Problem is, even Leeds players themselves started to struggle after a while. They tried to play a fast paced game often barely looking up before releasing a quick one touch pass for a team-mate. Without extremely high level of technique, which this Leeds team didn’t possess, it would always be difficult to execute such a style. Indeed, Leeds soon began to lose the ball easily thanks to their frequent miss-passes. This not only destroyed the early rhythm they had hit but also allowed Liverpool to get a breather.
Leeds defence was playing a high line and with the midfield losing possession easily they were always in danger of getting caught out on counters. Enter John Barnes. Few players in his generation were as fast as Barnes with the ball at his feet. Barnes tucked inside from the left wing, targeting Leeds central defenders, especially the languid and slow Chris Whyte. With Barnes playing as a striker Ian Rush, who lacked pace, became the target man for long passes aimed over the top of Leeds’ high line. With his ability to hold off markers, Rush nodded or passed towards Barnes as the former Watford man beat Leeds offside trap over and over again. By the time Leeds had realized they were committing a tactical hara-kiri, Liverpool were up by four goals.
There was a variety of reasons why Leeds managed to make a come-back in second half. Wilkinson’s half time talk must have charged the team while Liverpool seemed content with their lead, refusing to maintain the tempo they had set in first period. Barnes looked exhausted in second half thus removing the most dangerous threat to Leeds defence. In terms of tactics, Leeds defence dropped back deeper to a more conservative line. The extremely faulty zonal marking system in first half was replaced by close man marking with Whyte having a much improved match by sticking close to Rush. With Rush barely getting enough space in second half and Barnes burnt out, Leeds defence was able to link up with the midfield properly, easing pressure on them. Leeds full-backs had barely attacked in first half given Liverpool’s fluidity along the flanks but now they were able to bomb forward and aim crosses at Chapman, who was aerially far too dominant against Liverpool central defence.
Man of the Match
Essentially a left winger, John Barnes was at the peak of his powers in his first five seasons in Liverpool – scoring 75 times in 5 seasons. Barnes was absolutely unstoppable for most of this match, assisting and scoring two times. He was constantly trying to move between the last Leeds defender to beat the offside trap and the ground he covered eventually caught up with him as he began to look battered by the hour mark. However, he still found one last injection of energy to score the eventually decisive goal. If his strikers were a bit more clinical Barnes could have easily finished off with a hattrick of assists. In this particular match he stayed true to Liverpool official site’s introductory line on his profile – “There has been no finer sight in football than John Barnes in his pomp gliding down the wing”.
With Dalglish’s departure Liverpool’s steady downslide from grace was well and truly on course. Club legend Graeme Souness took over the reins soon but even he couldn’t bring a change in fortunes as the Reds lost the league title to Arsenal with a seven point deficit. They did manage to get back into European competition by qualifying for 1991/92 UEFA Cup. The European behemoths of early 1980s had clearly lost their aura of invincibility as Icelandic featherweights Kuusysi Lahti defeated them in one of the legs in first round. Liverpool did go as far as the quarter-final but were given a rude shock as Genoa comprehensively defeated them in both legs. The scene was more bleak back home as the Reds finished a lowly 6th after winning just three away games. It was their worst table position since 1962/63 season and a free-fall for a club which had finished either as champions or runners-up in every single season since 1981/82. In 1992 the Premier League started but any hopes of a new start for Liverpool was soon crushed thanks to the league winning machine that was Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. Liverpool much publicized barren streak of league titles had just started.
The fight-back shown by Leeds in this match, especially the way their midfield played was a sign of things to come the following season. Boasting one of the finest midfields in their history and with Gordon Strachan dishing out the last great season of his career, Leeds would go on to pip bitter rivals Manchester United to the last ever First Division title, sealing it with a 3-2 win over Sheffield United in the penultimate game. This was Leeds’ third and till date last league title and their first since early 1970s. However, staying true to their historical pattern, Leeds struggled to build on that success. A mercurial French striker who struck nine times in their title winning season was sold to Manchester United. Eric Cantona. The man who would play a pivotal role in the rise of Red Devils. Just like Liverpool Leeds also has not won a league title since then. But unlike Liverpool, they have seen lowest of the lows – going into financial meltdown before getting relegated to as low as League One.