In part 1, I discussed the challenges facing any Liverpool manager in winning the league title. Given the challenges involved, I think all that can be realistically expected at this stage is consistently finishing in the top 4 and a concerted push to the later stages of the champions league. A league or champions league win has to be considered a bonus although they should remain the manager’s aspiration. The difficulty of either trophy is such that to expect victory in those competitions is simply unrealistic given the sheer quality of our rivals (Madrid and Barca have almost established a monopoly on Europe’s top prize).
However, all is not lost and we should not give up hope. One of the ways to overcome the financial mismatch between us and our wealthier rivals is to bridge the gap through quality coaching and a highly effective tactical approach. Klopp was lauded for his gegenpress approach in Germany which he used to devastating effect in clinching 2 Bundesliga titles and it’s a slightly different approach to those seen on British shores.
The gegenpress (or counter-press) is simply a system which is based on pressing as soon as soon as we lose the ball. This means we’re already in an attacking shape and sufficiently advanced up the pitch to stop the opposition from launching an attack of their own. It is an aggressive system that requires a coordinated team effort, compactness to enable to hunt in packs but also coverage of space to prevent an out-ball for the opponent. One of the ways in which Klopp uses this system effectively is to focus on a pressing zone such as the touchline. Focusing a press on this area blocks passing angles with the pressing team making curved runs, sometimes on the opponent’s blind side, to win back the ball and launch another swift attack.
Lallana is crucial to this action and we have missed his ability to spot the trigger for starting the press and making the pressing runs from which his teammates follow. Phil Coutinho is not as effective at this although his defensive play has improved considerably since Klopp came to the club.
The gegenpressing system requires quick, accurate and direct passing and fast transitions requiring split-second decision making and high tactical intelligence amongst the players. To coach such an effective system and translate it to effective performances on the pitch, through buying or developing the right players takes some time. It is something that needs to be refined through practice and given it is Klopp’s speciality I suspect a significant amount of training time is devoted to this approach (which means that, as much as we might sometimes like Klopp to try other options, there simply isn’t always the preparation time between matches to do so, particularly with our participation in the champions league this season). Examples being working on spacing, positioning, triggers for the press and fine-tuning as the season progresses.
Where Klopp is sometimes labelled as stubborn, I feel his stubbornness is borne out of dedication to tweak a system he believes in, rather than chopping and changing things like Brendan Rodgers did in his final years in charge of the club. Pep Guardiola has also been labelled stubborn to his vision, but I can assure you that the pundits will be singing his praises if he lands the league title and turns City into a genuine champions league contender.
One of the problems Klopp encountered once opponents in Germany wised up to his approach, they played a more defensive style to prevent leaving space for Dortmund. In his later years his 4231 system did not offer enough passing angles and his team became very predictable and easy to defend against. This was one of my main concerns over his ability to take Liverpool to the title when he was appointed. Klopp famously said the counterpress is the best playmaker. Presented with an opponent that leaves space like Arsenal and Hoffenheim we’ve seen how the system can be deployed to devastating attacking efficiency that is an absolute joy to behold. However, Klopp is already encountering a problem he faced in Germany, namely the Mourinho-coined “parked bus”. When presented with a compact and deep-lying defence Klopp’s team has struggled. It is a problem that is still yet to be addressed and is a subject that will be tackled in my final piece of this series.
What Klopp has done well is modify his approach in Germany using the players on the books at Anfield to their best strengths in a 433. The problem for Klopp has been the unbalanced squad he inherited lacking a true defensive minded midfielder (one who can ideally serve as a de facto deep lying playmaker), dominant centre-backs and an effective left back. The squad was also seriously lacking in pace, height and power. In the summer most fans would have agreed that the best business we could do by the end of the transfer window was to secure a left back, a defensive midfielder, a centre back and a speedy wide forward for the fluid 433. To be fair to Klopp he purchased a sound left back and an attacker in Salah who is currently showing elite levels of performance, even if he still hasn’t yet developed the desired ruthless streak in front of goal. But when assessing Salah let’s not forget how new he is and how many minutes he’s actually played in a totally different system and league. He’s been awesome so far and should be commended for that.
We failed to land Keita but landed him for next season which was probably the best realistic outcome we could have hoped for given what Leipzig might have forced us to pay to have him this season. There remains hope that we could land him in January, albeit a long shot. But he’s seemingly downed tools already and, following his manager’s comments after his sending off in Turkey, there may be a chance that Leipzig agree he’s too much hassle to hold onto for any longer. As I said, a long shot, but an outside chance remains all the same.
We know the screw-up with Van Dijk (VVD) and it seems that Michael Edwards was culpable for this. In fact, my gut feel is that Klopp didn’t have a plan B for VVD and Keita because he was perhaps convinced we would land one, if not both. I can’t accept that we couldn’t have signed a competent centre-back who could step down as a squad player if we later signed VVD. At the same time, Klopp needs to balance a youth pipeline and offer sufficient development opportunities for the likes of Arnold and Gomez, so not signing an alternative centre back gives the option of giving the latter proper game time at centre back if Lovren loses form horribly and Clyne returns. We cannot expect Klopp to develop young players (as an alternative to an expensive transfer strategy) and not give them game time and the opportunity to learn their trade at the highest level. It’s a trade-off that cannot be avoided and Spurs have used such an approach to great success thus far. Their approach has led to them being, for me, pound for pound the best league team over the past 2 seasons.
Overall the failure to land both VVD and Keita this summer was so disappointing and wasn’t the best business overall given our biggest priority was making the team a more secure, powerful and pacy physical unit. I feel Klopp viewed the 2 as a package rather than signings in isolation, so while the window was disappointing overall I’m not convinced that signing one of these players in isolation would have been enough to give the team the required defensive and attacking stability. Rather I feel that the synergy of having the pair alongside the existing players would have resulted in a more balanced and fearsome first XI with far better strength in depth. VVD would have allowed us to play a high defensive line with the recovery pace to deal with counter attacks, plus the deep playmaking ability of a Mats Hummels. Keita would have allowed Hendo to play a more conservative role that suits his safety first passing and given us enough pace and power in our midfield, to give us dynamism and movement into the opposition box.
I feel if we could land VVD and Keita, or even just VVD, in January it would give us a head start for next season in terms of transition to Klopp’s methods. If that were to happen we’d still need to wait until next season to see the full upgrade effect of these two players, but it would be a good place to be. On the flip side, of course, any transfer is a 50-50 gamble. So even had we brought in alternatives this summer, there’s no guarantee they would have been a success. I still feel not buying a centre-back was criminal considering we were willing to pay 35m for the Ox. Seeing Lovren flapping every week drives me mad!
Despite the positive qualities of the gegenpress, it is nevertheless an intensive and draining approach. It leads to many injuries and I feel our injury record last season has led to Klopp toning down the press, allowing the opposition to come out of their shell to leave more space in behind (to allow us to capitalise on the pace of Mane and Salah down both flanks). I also believe some of the early season fatigue is due to the fitness of the squad being staggered more carefully, perhaps peaking later this year when the games come thick and fast around the Xmas/new year period. My opinion is that our dominant form at the start of last season was down mainly to extra fitness compared with our opponents. It gave us that extra yard against the parked bus but a combination of the loss of Mane, fatigue and injuries derailed our attacking performance in the new year and Klopp must be given credit for securing top 4 with a more pragmatic approach. But none of us want to see this pragmatic approach for too long and I suspect Klopp wants true heavy-metal, enthralling, attacking football as the blueprint for future success. That’s not to say he shouldn’t exercise pragmatism when the circumstances dictate and he’s capable of doing that. But there is still work to do to improve our patterns of play and our ruthlessness in front of goal. Much of the issue is down to balance and it’s not easy to force teams to come out of their defensive shell.
Every team finds it difficult against a parked bus, but it ultimately comes down to quality and experience. Composure comes with a track record and experience of knowing what to do, and what not to, in key or pressure moments. We still have a reasonably young team who, when confidence is high can perform at incredible levels, but it’s a fragile confidence undermined by really sloppy defensive play, as a unit. That can all be improved with time and I hope to continue this theme in part 3. What we need to bear in mind is that this is a phase in a medium to long-term project and no project goes smoothly, without hiccups. It’s about evolution, not revolution.