Andrew Beasley: Klopp’s Liverpool Transformation Fueled by Intense Pressing

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Klopp’s Counter-Pressing Philosophy: Deja Vu

Jürgen Klopp once said that “no playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation,” and his team proved the point in their 5-2 victory over Norwich City in the FA Cup on Sunday. What will have pleased the (sadly soon to be ex-) Liverpool manager is that so many of his players got in on the act.

Photo: IMAGO

High Turnovers: Liverpool’s Key to Dominance

According to @markrstats, the Reds made 18 high turnovers – possession regains within a 40m radius of the opposition goal – with seven of them the starting point for sequences which led to a shot. The productive septet included ball recoveries by Cody Gakpo, Ryan Gravenberch, Curtis Jones, Diogo Jota, James McConnell, Darwin Núñez and Dominik Szoboszlai, which was the entire starting front six and one of the two substitutes in their positions.

The first of them led to the Reds’ opening goal attempt of the match, from Joe “shooooooot” Gomez, the second resulted in the effort from which Núñez hit the Anfield Road end goalpost. Gravenberch recovered the ball in the box for a big chance, and there were further shots for Trent Alexander-Arnold, Gakpo, Núñez and Szoboszlai. When you consider that Liverpool have averaged 1.4 high turnovers leading to shots in the Premier League this season, with a maximum of four (in the home game against Newcastle), it is clear that Norwich were out of their depth.

That they were raises an interesting point about pressing and measuring it. Did Liverpool press well or did the Canaries play into their hands? There is no doubt some truth in both claims, and we must also acknowledge that Norwich will not face such coordinated and sustained pressure in the Championship. It felt like David Wagner’s tactics – or at the very least his side’s execution of them – did his best mate a favour though.

Pressing is such a key tenet of Klopp’s football philosophy that it will be fascinating to see how the next Liverpool manager approaches the art of regaining possession. There’s reason to think the Reds are back to something like their best on this front. It would be a shame to waste the years of hard work that have gone into the Liverpool counter press once Klopp leaves.

Analysing Pressing Intensity: PPDA and Liverpool’s Progression

The progression through 2023/24 has been remarkable. Opta carries a metric called PPDA, which is defined as: “the number of opposition passes allowed outside of the pressing team’s own defensive third, divided by the number of defensive actions by the pressing team outside of their own defensive third.” The lower the number, the more intense the defending.

Ahead of the midweek fixtures, Liverpool sit top of the Premier League with a PPDA of 9.2, ahead of Tottenham (9.5) and Arsenal (9.9). Look across France, Germany, Italy and Spain and you’ll only find Monaco (8.6), Paris Saint-Germain (8.7) and Real Sociedad (9.0) ahead of the Reds.

Image: IMAGO

Their figure is impressive on two levels. Liverpool’s PPDA was 10.4 last season, and while that was a generally poor campaign, it was 9.9 the year before when Klopp’s side came agonisingly close to securing a quadruple of trophies. This metric may beautifully highlight what difference regenerating a midfield with fresh legs can make.

But it’s also fascinating to see the development through the campaign. After the infamous defeat at Tottenham Hotspur, the Reds’ PPDA stood at 11.4, with the four red cards collected to that point hampering any chance of improved pressing. However, across the 14 league matches since the average has been just 8.1, with Liverpool dragging their PPDA down almost every week. This brings to mind a recent tweet from Statsbomb, which highlighted the progression in counter press which the side delivered in 2015/16, Klopp’s first part-season in charge. Liverpool 2.0 are simply doing what his 1.0 side did eight years ago, improving their pressing the longer they play together.

PPDA: A Nine-Season Review and Liverpool’s Pressing Mastery

For a closer look at the last nine seasons, we must defer to Understat, whose definition of PPDA relates to “passes allowed per defensive action in the opposition half.” As such, the figures differ to those taken from Opta, with the Reds again top of the division but with an 8.05 score, ahead of Tottenham (8.21) and Chelsea (8.88).

That would be encouraging enough, but consider that three of Liverpool’s six lowest PPDA figures from Klopp’s 317 Premier League matches have occurred within the last 13 games and five of the top six have been recorded since mid-April. The current crop of Reds appear to be pressing with a greater intensity than peak Liverpool.

This raises the same question as the Norwich match though. The most impressive PPDA outputs in 2023/24 have occurred against Everton, Sheffield United and Crystal Palace, teams who would rather get rid of the ball then accumulate passes for the sake of it in their own half of the pitch. The Reds would get a halfway decent pressing figure against them by this measure almost by default.

While that might be true, the Reds can still press teams more fiercely than others would. On average, Liverpool’s PPDA has been 2.98 lower than the opposition mark for the teams they have faced this season, and 5.12 since the Tottenham match. Whether sides are deliberately trying to clear the ball as soon as they can or not, the Reds are not letting them. Chelsea and Arsenal might be about to face a thunder storm of pressing which few teams from the last decade could have offered.

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