Until this year’s Champions League semifinal, Barcelona looked to have the system cracked. Press high, keep possession, pass, pass, pass. At times, it seemed, no one could touch them. Then better tactics, better players, better luck and even, perhaps, more desire, drove Bayern Munich to victory this May, as they beat Barcelona and went on to win the tournament. There is nothing like success to guarantee failure, but while the Spanish club swept all before them, it was easy to believe that we were seeing something genuinely new: a style of football based on repetition and replicability; one which rendered Plan B irrelevant because, with the players and the execution in place, Plan A was invincible. But of course, it wasn’t invincible; it never is. Even when Barcelona were at their best they got beaten from time to time. A system is not enough.
Bill Shankly, manager of Liverpool for 15 years until his retirement in 1974, knew all about systems. And David Peace, Shankly’s fictionaliser in Red or Dead, admires him for it. For Shankly, according to Peace, detail, practice and repetition were key, whether it was washing dishes or running pre-season drills