Breaking Down the Sum of Liverpool’s Parts – Part 1

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This series of articles aspires to explain and detail how Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool side operate on an average basis in different areas of the pitch, scenarios, and for player(s) in different positions, i.e. being an attempt at dissecting the train of thought behind Jürgen Klopp’s philosophy and style at Liverpool FC.


Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool is many things – an attacking powerhouse, a defensive error waiting to happen, a perpetually-moving unit, a horde-like gegenpressing team – you name it. Ultimately, however, what the German has instilled within the club has, be it on purpose or not, pushed for a stamp of confidence in the team rather than the individuals; the sum of its parts is greater than its individual components, or so they call it.

Just by comparing the names of the individuals at Liverpool to others in the world of football today, hardly any of them can stand the test. “Is [insert Liverpool player’s name here] the definite best player in the world in that position?” will be enough to get a good gauge on how prolific the individuals are.

It is unlikely that someone like Sadio Mané will oust some of the absolute best in the world in the same position. It’s likewise for Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Joël Matip, or any other player in the squad – take your pick, but the odds are unlikely to be in your favour. But again, this reverts back to the point of the sum of the individual parts.

As individuals, only a handful standout among some of the best in Europe, but as a team, only a handful in Europe can stand up against this German-inspired Liverpool side.

This version of the Reds isn’t the first of its kind however – it was merely a season before this where an underrated, unexpected Leicester City side snagged a Premier League title. A constantly-rebuilding Sevilla side has claimed the Europa League trophy for three years in a row. RB Leipzig have emerged as strong contenders for the Bundesliga title despite Bayern Munich being the clear favourite yet again.

With that said, this series is an attempt at breaking down the sum of parts into smaller ones to detail out just how each of these parts function and operate in different scenarios and situations to contribute to the underlying objective that Jürgen Klopp has in mind.

Part 1: Liverpool’s Backline Base and Initial Build-Up Phase

A team cannot consistently score until the ball, while in possession, has been brought up to the final-third, but it all begins during the initial build-up phase. This covers the ball being with the goalkeeper and the back-line (be it a back-2 or a back-3) just as possession is advancing into midfield areas.

The main objectives of this initial stage of building up play are as follows:

  1. To break past opposing defensive structures higher up the pitch;
  2. To utilize the areas which aren’t covered by the opposition (e.g. overloading the midfield area if there is a numerical advantage); and
  3. To ultimately get the ball into the opponent’s half with comfortable possession of the ball.


The players typically involved in the initial phase of build-up play for Liverpool, with the RB and LB typically looking to drive up the pitch as per the yellow arrow, and the players highlighted in the yellow circle typically looking to make forward passes to players in the areas of the pitch in red.

For Liverpool, this area has been less of a concern compared to previous seasons, thanks to some tweaks made by Klopp to the structure and purpose of the back-line.

The Back-Three

The addition of another ball-playing centre-back who isn’t afraid to make daring passes forward in Joël Matip has been a treat thus far. While Liverpool fans may have been getting used to past right-sided centre-backs who kept things simple, Matip has come in to make more accurate passes between the lines. Dejan Lovren and Lucas Leiva are capable of doing so as well, albeit to a lesser extent.

Combining with the back-two is a a central-midfielder by trade: Jordan Henderson.

Deploying him in a deeper role this season is Klopp’s way of fitting him into the Liverpool side. While pinging diagonal balls into the box is what Henderson is better known for from previous seasons, the scope of his role has changed in Jürgen’s system this time around.

Utilizing his near-perpetual movement, it seems like keeping it simple is what Klopp wants out of the skipper; to move into different positions to support the back-two and use his passing – however simple and/or passive it may be – to facilitate movement of the ball.

Firstly, Dejan Lovren (or Lucas Leiva) and Joël Matip will spread horizontally across the pitch to ensure that opposing forwards have a harder time at trying to apply pressure on the back-line to win possession back. Assuming an opposing team plays with a lone striker, moving wide away from each other makes it difficult for the single striker to try and win the ball back, barring individual errors from either of the two centre-backs.

Versus Chelsea: The almost-instinctive movement by Dejan Lovren and Joël Matip to move away from each other to create a passing triangle between them and the goalkeeper (as per the yellow lines). The Chelsea players highlighted in blue were unable to cover all of the players within the triangle.

On top of that, by instructing Henderson to drop in between the two to occupy the gap created, it means that there are essentially 3 players in which the ball could be circulated between without even factoring in the goalkeeper yet. This is a similar concept to Brendan Rodgers’ 2013/14 side where Martin Škrtel and Mamadou Sakho would push wide towards the sidelines in an attempt to escape high presses from opposing forwards, with Steven Gerrard making a similar movement down the pitch as well.


Versus Leicester: The red circles indicate the two centre-backs playing far apart from each other, making it difficult for forwards to mark both of them simultaneously due to the distance between them. The yellow area highlights the space created for Jordan Henderson to eventually drop back to form the back-three.

In isolation, this gives Liverpool the numerical advantage against most teams in terms of back-line versus opposing forwards but ultimately, the objective of this back-three structure is to force opponents to commit more players farther up the pitch if they are to have a higher chance at winning the ball in this initial build-up stage of Liverpool’s. Otherwise, if say a lone striker were to try and close down all three members of the back-line, it would be like an almost-unwinnable game of monkey.

In the end, the ball can be pushed into advanced areas of the pitch and better yet, into the opposition’s half before encountering any real stumbling blocks.

However, the more players deployed and pushed higher up the pitch to press Liverpool’s back-three, the less the numerical advantage holds true. If three players push up, then the back-three consisting of the two centre-backs and the dropping midfielder (Henderson, mainly) will have a harder time of advancing play forward. The way out for them would be to make passes that can bypass this high press or to beat their marker 1-v-1, both of which needs to be done consistently to be effective.


A simplified illustration of how a team who deploys three players – usually being forward players – to mark the back-three can be beaten, i.e. via short passes or dribbles to the red area, or through long-balls to the area in yellow.

While the back-three have some degree of freedom to push up with the ball, there is a heightened level of precaution necessary when attempting to do so, as stepping up and leaving the back-line also means stepping away from the defensive line. Should the ball be lost, opposing players will more than likely be at an advantage with the ball at their feet and Liverpool players playing catch-up and/or in transition to cover the gaps.

This is where another component of the defence comes into play: the full-backs.


Conventionally, both full-backs play a key role in building up play. They are the best outlet for the back-line to utilize if opposing teams congest the midfielders in the middle of the pitch with midfielders of their own which essentially cuts off the most direct access to areas higher up the pitch. Losing the ball in wide areas is also less of a threat to the team than if it was lost in the middle of the pitch.

Additionally, with full-backs typically possessing speed – albeit of varying degrees – as well as generally decent ball control, they can opt to push up one flank with the ball and commit to using one side of the pitch. Doing so forces the opposition to direct their resources to that same area too. This opens up space in the middle, and on the opposite flank, for build-up play.


Another simplified illustration of how full-backs can force opposing teams to dedicate players to one side of the pitch, as per the area in yellow. Additionally, it shows how there may be players on the opposite flank, as highlighted in red, can push up the pitch if the team is able to shift the ball to them. At the very least, they force other players aside from the forward line to abandon their positions to close them down.

However, more often than not, wingers and/or wide-players will be instructed to close the full-backs down once they get the ball. This is due to the fact that the sidelines are a double-edged sword for them; it acts as a guide for how wide/narrow they are driving up the pitch with the ball, but also a restrictor of their movements. This means that it is relatively easier to trap a full-back by closing the run forward and infield, forcing them to use the area right by the sidelines.

A video of how Manchester United were looking to press Liverpool, with moments being highlighted where the full-backs were pressed quickly and relatively easily.

As such, we tend to see a lesser degree of reliance on full-backs to help advance play up the pitch, with Jürgen Klopp instructing the Liverpool full-backs to push up off the ball and occupy spaces like a right or left-sided midfielder would in an old-school 4-4-2 formation.

 snapshot-22-1         snapshot-20-1

Both images above showing the positions of the full-backs for Liverpool – Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner – occupying spaces higher up the pitch in correlation to the back-three which are highlighted with the yellow line.

By doing so, it forces opponents – assuming they play a 4-3-3 for ease of reference – to make a choice: either to commit their forwards to Liverpool’s back-three, or split between the back-three and the full-backs who have pushed up.


The image above shows the conventional areas for the full-backs to be in. For Jürgen Klopp, however, he would instruct full-backs to push up as per the red arrows instead.

The first scenario implies that there might be less idle time on the ball for the back-line, given that there will be at least 2 opposing forwards ready to force errors and pounce on them. However, if Liverpool are composed enough and can play the ball out, it means that three players have been effectively taken out of play.

Additionally, the full-backs who would not be marked by the wide-forwards can now almost freely bring the ball up should they receive a pass from the back-three. This is of course, unless an opposing midfielder steps out wide to close a full-back down, but then again, this means that there might be a numerical advantage in midfield for Liverpool. Needless to say, a domino effect of problems could occur for the opposing team.


Conversely, if the wide players take up the full-backs as per highlighted in yellow, it means that the lone forward (#9) is available to close down the back-three bar any reinforcements from players deeper down the pitch. Again, if the back-three is able to make passes or dribble into the red area, then at least 1 forward has been taken out of play with the other two wide players being occupied with the full-backs.

The second scenario shows fewer players being deployed to press the back-line, with the wide player on either side being tasked to follow the full-back who has pushed up. This allows for a lesser degree of pressure on the back-three unless another midfielder pushes up. Likewise, if the back-line is able to play the ball out, three players would’ve been taken out of the game, with another player occupied on the sidelines, giving Liverpool a numerical advantage once more, but this time in midfield.

Ultimately, in one case or another, Klopp’s idea for Liverpool in terms of building-up play with the back-three and the functions of full-backs in it meets the aforementioned objectives:

  1. To break past opposing defensive structures higher up the pitch;
  2. To utilize the areas which aren’t covered by the opposition (e.g. overloading the midfield area if there is a numerical advantage); and
  3. To ultimately get the ball into the opponent’s half with comfortable possession of the ball.

Unless a high press combined with a man-marking system is deployed – as we saw with Watford in the first 20 minutes or with Manchester United in the first-half – Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool will almost always be able to get the ball up the pitch with at worst, minimal stumbling blocks barring individual errors. Wary of tiring out, many opposing teams will opt to defend against Liverpool a lot deeper down the pitch rather than to go out guns blazin’ and chasing each player down as the pass goes to them.

That is how Klopp wants Liverpool to structure themselves in the initial phase of build-up play, before other midfielders begin taking over the mantle of linking it to the forwards.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series of articles!

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