Despite going without a trophy since 2012, times are good for Liverpool supporters. A European Cup final last season in just their second appearance in the competition this decade was followed by a strengthening of the squad in the summer. Acquiring Naby Keita, Alisson Becker, Fabinho and Xherdan Shaqiri adds depth and quality to a squad that’s changed rapidly for the better in recent years, while the losses of Emre Can and Ragnar Klavan are barely felt.
It’s a far cry from the losses of Luis Suarez in 2014 or Xabi Alonso in 2009 that saw the club fall off the rails, and the acceptance of second best it instilled, leading to the departures of Raheem Sterling, Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano.
Manchester City’s title defence still looks strong despite falling behind Liverpool, while a tough draw meant they only just crept through the group in the Champions League, however, for the first time since Rafael Benitez was in charge, they look ready to sit at European football’s top table, and that’s mainly been down to Jurgen Klopp.
The German popularised the counter-pressing style that’s taken hold in his homeland and looks to continue that work on Merseyside: “I believe in a playing philosophy that is very emotional, very fast and very strong. My teams must play at full throttle and take it to the limit every single game. It is important to have a playing philosophy that reflects your own mentality, reflects the club and gives you a clear direction to follow. Tactical of course but tactical with a big heart.”
Liverpool have traditionally played a more patient pass-and-move game, but fans were easily won over to his “heavy metal” style, not least because, despite his playing style being odds with Liverpool’s history, he perfectly fits the manager-as-cult-leader ideal that started with Bill Shankly and dripped down through the Bootroom – how many other clubs fly flags with the faces of their managers replacing those of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin or parade pictures of their manager through cities?
Whereas Brendan Rodgers and the transfer committee seemed to always be at odds, the confidence in Klopp means a squad has been built according to his demands – quick, dynamic and willing to run. Only Loris Karius has been an obvious failure, while cheap signings Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan weren’t quite up to standard. Since those early transfers, it’s been pretty much universal success: Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Andy Robertson, Virgil van Dijk, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Georginio Wijnaldum are key players, this summer’s signings have started well, and Dominic Solanke simply doesn’t get a look in because of the talent ahead of him in the pecking order.
With everyone involved pulling in the same direction, Liverpool have assimilated to Klopp’s ideas to the extent that some visiting teams have looked scared to pass the ball out from the back, with the threat of Liverpool pouncing on any mistake spooking the opposition before a ball has even been kicked.
“The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it,” says Klopp. “The opponent is still looking for orientation where to pass the ball. He will have taken his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception and he will have expended energy. Both make him vulnerable.”
“If you win the ball back high up the pitch and you are close to the goal, it is only one pass away a really good opportunity most of the time. No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation.”
On its most basic level, counter-pressing is simply seeking to immediately win the ball back after the ball is lost. That’s not exactly something new – anytime a coach has told a child to go and win the ball back after a mispaced pass, atoning for their mistake rather than standing around sulking, they are encouraging counter-pressing.
What makes the work of Klopp and other managers significant is their attempts to systemise it. It’s one thing to have a player close down the opposition after losing the ball and another to structure a team so that there are multiple players in positions to win back the ball and block any passes out after one misplaces a pass – it’s the latter that Klopp seeks.
The most basic things a counter-pressing team needs is a compact set-up and a certain mentality. Players can’t be expected to press if they are miles away from where the ball is, while they also need to have it in their heads that they must press immediately, as if they wait to see how play unfolds the opposition have more time on the ball.
Liverpool on Klopp’s debut: ultra-aggressive in flooding area around ball, but lacking structure for clean regain. pic.twitter.com/62HHcftKze
— ㅤ (@edAfootball) June 14, 2016
Klopp at first used a 4-3-2-1, flooding the middle with players to make it easy for the players to stay close to one another, while they each sprinted a lot when the ball was lost. With the players taking on these basic principles, the team has developed into a 4-3-3 shape, while they have better control when pressing.
Klopp outlined this set-up in conversation with Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football: “We have to attack with at least six players… at least, it can be seven. A cross from left side, if [there’s] only one guy in the box can lead to a goal, it’s not really likely, so having a second one makes more sense, makes already three. Having then the three players around the box to protect the situation, getting the second balls – we are at six. And then you have to protect the deeper spaces so that means two center-halves in and around the number nine of the opponent, if they gamble a little bit you need to know where is the other one, so one full-back probably is in the situation, and one midfield player needs to be in the centre”.
The players most relevant to counter-pressing are those “three around the box to protect the situation”. If that cross from the left is cut out or headed away, they are there to immediately pressure whoever now has the ball or win the loose ball, stopping the opponents from breaking forward and immediately putting Liverpool back on the attack.
A common problem early in Klopp’s tenure would be that too many players would flood the box. Wijnaldum and Can in particular would push up in line with the attackers, leaving no one to receive the ball in midfield and forcing a long ball forward. These balls were relatively easy to head away and when the opposition did so, there was often no Liverpool players on hand to press the second ball due to Wijnaldum and Can moving ahead of the ball, allowing the opposition to mount an attack.
Today there is much greater positional discipline, with the attackers, midfielders and full-backs all recognising that they need to hold back if there are already enough players in the middle.
Klopp’s not the only coach in the league to utilise counter-pressing, but his reasoning does make him different. This difference is best explained by his famous quote: “No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation.”
Mauricio Pochettino has a player close down the man on the ball, while the rest of the team will mark the short passing options, whereas Pep Guardiola has a player close down the man on the ball, while the rest of the team looks to block passing lanes into his teammates. Pochettino’s man-orientated approach is simpler to set up, but requires defensively strong physical players so that Tottenham win the ball if a pass out is made to a marked player, whereas Guardiola’s method looks to cut out the ball before it reaches the teammate, allowing him to play lots of physically weak technical players.
Although the specific techniques may differ, both are fundamentally defensive: they aim to encourage the opposition into playing a long pass so they can collect the ball and start their attack again. If the player on the ball takes too long or does attempt a risky pass, they can win the ball high up the pitch, but this is more of a happy by-product than an explicit purpose.
Klopp on the other hand sees counter-pressing as an opportunity to create – it is a playmaker. If we think of a playmaker as the kind of player who’s going to be able to spot and play passes through gaps in the defence to assist a goal, then the opponent having the ball can work in a similar way by creating those gaps in the first place.
Say, for example, a defender cuts out a pass – more than likely he has to alter his position to do so, taking him out of the defensive line, but even in the event of a bad pass that comes straight into his feet, he realistically has to alter his body shape to face forward and make a pass or maybe even take a step or two to get it out of his feet. If the opposition can get at him in these brief moments, then the gap that he had previously filled, enabling him to win the ball in the first place, is now open for them to attack if they win back the ball.
Liverpool don’t really want to force a long ball like Tottenham or Manchester City, they want to win the ball back close to goal, so they counter-press more aggressively. Rather than just using one man to close down the man on the ball, Liverpool will often swarm him from multiple sides, with those closing him down blocking off passing lanes to teammates and the players further away pushing up to mark them.
Those pressing also tend to continue to sprint at the player regardless of what he does, sometimes curving their runs but rarely checking them. This means a neat turn by an opposing player can see them escape but it also puts a lot more pressure on them to get it right, as they have little time to think before a Liverpool player is on top of them.
This is riskier defensively as if the opposition to manage to evade the press, many of Liverpool’s players have all converged in one spot, leaving large spaces elsewhere, but it also makes them far more likely to win the ball back.
This swarming isn’t always in the initial press though. Frequently Liverpool will press with just one player and look to funnel the opposition wide, making them more predictable as they either have to go down the line or back inside. Liverpool then set a trap, leaving a free man inside for the opposition to pass into, only to then be swarmed from multiple sides. As Klopp says: “Give him the opportunity to pass the ball, but not a real opportunity, it’s more an imagination of something”.
Unsurprisingly Liverpool’s intense defensive style extends to their normal pressing as well as their counter-pressing, although it’s taken a notable dip this season.
First of all, we will look at the more aggressive form common last year, which has still appeared in spells this season.
In this more aggressive set-up, Liverpool’s frontline in the 4-3-3 pushes high up the pitch close to the opposition defence, while the two midfielders behind them will take up man-marking duties on the midfielders, sticking very tight to them to discourage passes into them, while the holding midfielder acts as a spare man. With short passes to the centre-backs likely to get immediately closed down by Roberto Firmino, Mane and Salah and the central midfielders closely marked, the ball is usually played out to the free men on the wings.
From there Liverpool’s outside midfielders will sprint out to apply pressure to them, while the holding midfielder moves across to ensure the central midfielder that the outside midfielder has had to leave is covered, while the forwards ahead of them look to cut off the pass backwards. The players on the opposite flank to where the ball was played also tuck in to support the centre defensively.
The holding midfielder having to cover for the outside midfielder moving wide means some space is left in front of the defence for an attacking midfielder or a pass into the striker, but generally the wide player has few options and has to think quickly under pressure, making it likely he will be forced into a mistake and Liverpool can win the ball back.
If the opposition do opt to risk playing it out to the centre-backs, the forwards will put pressure on the player on the ball and his passing options, while the wingers will curve their runs so that the ball can’t be played out to the full-backs and the outside midfielders’ continue their situational man-marking, sticking very close to the opposition central midfielders to deny the man on the ball a passing option.
The result is largely the same as a ball out to the flanks: the player on the ball has few passing options and has limited time to think, making it likely Liverpool can win the ball back.
Pressing in a mid-block
Liverpool have avoided pushing up quite so high all the time this season though. This was noted by observers early on and really caught attention in the surprisingly muted draw with Manchester City, with Gary Neville saying Liverpool “weren’t right” and “lacked intensity”.
Much of the speculation as to why this was focused on fatigue: that either Liverpool’s players were tired or that Klopp was holding them back to ensure they would still be fighting at the end of the season, however Klopp explained it was more of a reaction to the opposition:
“It’s more the case that usually against us teams don’t play. They over-play our pressing with long balls, which makes sense. In a lot of games our counter-press has been really good which is much more important in terms of losing the ball and winning it back.
“In terms of high pressure, it depends on the style of play of the other team. You can’t do it if they don’t play. It’s not that we don’t want to do it any more. If they play then we should be there.
“You always have to adapt. Now we have to be focused much more on winning second balls. It’s not that they shoot a lot of long balls but they chip it over the lines.
“If we have a high formation most of the time then you need to adjust for these situations – coming from all angles and being there to support each other.
“That’s how it’s changed. It’s not been a proper plan to sit back a little bit, but we did it after being 1-0 or 2-0 up in games.
“We did sit back a bit to not give space away – that’s true. It’s a question of maturity and that’s make absolute sense.
“With the number of games we have, it’s not about chasing a game always like crazy, you have to be smart. We try to be that without killing our nature.”
Put simply, Klopp doesn’t see the point in leaving such massive spaces between his players if the opposition are just going to hit it straight over their heads. Instead they can start off compact and have more players on hand to win the second ball.
Liverpool do this by having their attacking trio drop off closer to the midfield rather than pushing high against the opposition backline. Firmino will typically look to block the pass into the central midfielder while occasionally putting some pressure on one of the centre backs to direct them in a certain direction, while the wingers will stand between the centre midfielders in the middle and the full-backs on the flanks, making them near enough to press either if they receive a pass.
It’s very common for Mane and Salah to take up positions to curve their runs and block the pass out to the full-backs once Firmino has directed the centre-back in possession a certain way, while the one on the opposite flanks tucks inside to support the centre. The winger moving wide usually means one of the opposition midfielders becomes open for a pass, but once he receives it he usually ends up trapped: a midfielder will press him from behind, the winger from the side and Firmino from in front.
Liverpool sitting in the mid-block features many of the same principles as pressing high (most obviously leaving space out wide to guide the opposition into a smaller area of the pitch), however it is more reactive whereas the high pressure is proactive. Starting high means Liverpool intend to press regardless, while sitting back means they wait until the right opportunity arises to pounce.
So what triggers Liverpool to shift from sitting back passively to manically closing down the opposition?
The most obvious are a loose or bouncing ball, poor touch, a slow or inaccurate pass, certain body shapes from the opponent that make them unaware of their surroundings (facing their own goal or the touchline for example), a backwards pass, or them being surrounded by Liverpool players.
This more passive approach allows Liverpool to conserve energy for when they are more likely to win back the ball, but it also baits the opposition into playing out from the back – as Klopp said: “give him the opportunity to pass the ball, but not a real opportunity, it’s more an imagination of something”.
When a goalkeeper readying himself for a goal-kick sees that his defenders have Firmino, Salah and Mane close to them, he’s more likely to consider it pointless to pass short and instead hit a long ball. If those three drop off though, while Liverpool’s midfield sticks tighter to its defence so a long ball is less likely to be successful, that goalkeeper is going to be more willing to pass the ball out to his defenders. From there those defenders can move higher up the pitch and when the opportunity comes, Liverpool can pounce and attack the space they have left behind them. It requires greater patience, but it gives Liverpool a greater opportunity to win the ball close to goal than if the opposition decide playing out isn’t worth the risk and just smack it down the other end of the field.
The aggressive press has appeared in periods of Liverpool matches, such as the first ten minutes of either half when the team are fresh or against Chelsea where Klopp knew that they would attempt to play short, however they have undoubtedly been more passive this season. This means they are less entertaining and give more room for their opponents to play, so they don’t appear to constantly have their feet on their opponent’s neck as they did last season, but it may also see them less frustrated when a team shuts up shop.
“Last year, our big strength was high pressing, and then when the opponents didn’t play football, it was like, ‘sorry,'” Klopp explains. “It’s like a dog. If you don’t give him his favourite toy and throw him something else, he thinks, ‘No, I don’t want that. I want the other one. I want to play high press.’ So, that’s how you develop, step by step, doing different things. Now we have to be better in the midfield press.”
A big change for Liverpool is that they can now trust their defence enough to ease up on the pressing. Long balls over the top weren’t simply a way for opposition teams to avoid Liverpool’s press but were a good attacking strategy due to Liverpool’s complete inability to deal with them.
Ragnar Klavan seemed a fairly solid defender, albeit not up to the standard of a top team, and Joel Matip was an improvement but not enough – a good passer with an alright reading of the game, however he is also incredibly soft, very weak in the air for a 6ft 4 centre-back and a tendency to get caught flat-footed that made him a problem in Klopp’s system.
Klopp’s apparent fondness for Dejan Lovren makes sense – he’s good physically, strong and quick, solid on the ball, and very aggressive – however he’s probably been at fault for more Liverpool goals than any other defender. He’s aggressive, which is great for Klopp’s system, however his decision-making is awful, so he will fly into challenges or aerial duels he has no hope of winning.
He also has a frustrating tendency to stand square-on to attackers that make it easy to run past him and he’s quite slow to catch onto danger.
Lovren may have been responsible for the most goals conceded, although possibly only because Alberto Moreno was relegated to the bench. The former Sevilla man is pretty terrible positionally, albeit his speed sometimes allows him to recover, and he isn’t much better in one-v-ones.
James Milner was a decent stopgap replacement, but opponents realised his lack of speed meant he was easy to get behind at left-back.
Although not great going forward, Nathaniel Clyne was a good defender and athletic enough to get up and down the right flank until he was struck by injury. Natural centre-back Joe Gomez was a bit too impetuous of a replacement, frequently getting caught out going in for unnecessary challenges.
Behind them was Simon Mignolet rooted to the goalline. The Belgian wouldn’t come out to sweep up behind the high defence, communicate with them, claim crosses or kick. The only thing he could really do was stop shots and his positioning was often off for that too.
After years of poor performances, Mignolet was finally replaced by Loris Karius. High profile mistakes in the European Cup final that continued into pre-season (not helped by a complete lack of self-awareness that made it difficult to imagine he had learned anything from the experience) meant his Liverpool career was over as soon as it began, but there were question marks over whether he was good enough before then.
A willingness to sweep up behind the defence made him better than Mignolet by default, however he wasn’t exactly a safe pair of hands either. He rarely commanded his box and let in easy goals against Bournemouth and Man City. Karim Benzema’s goal in the final may have been freakish, however it was also quite typical of Karius – although never before so costly, he frequently distributed the ball too early or into poor areas, putting his teammates under unnecessary pressure.
The major upswing in Liverpool’s defending coincided with the signing of Virgil van Dijk. The Dutchman is the perfect defender for Klopp: huge, he completely dominates pretty much everyone in aerial duels, and his pace means the high line doesn’t faze him. Aside from the odd lapse leaving him flat-footed, his footwork is superb, quickly shifting his body shape to ready himself for any threat, and he’s excellent technically – his first touch is always out of his feet, he can pick out and perfectly weight short and long passes, and he can nick the ball away from attackers. Most importantly, he’s intelligent – live to the danger around him and others, he takes up good positions to block off threats or cover behind his teammates, making him a calming figure in a backline that was prone to panic prior to his arrival.
Gomez has mainly partnered Van Dijk at centre-back this season and shows many of the same qualities. Most notable is how much more composed he looks this year: previously he had often been left exposed after missing a challenge, but now he appears more willing to calmly hold his position and stand up his opponent rather than jumping straight in. This is even clearer in possession, where he looks incredibly comfortable pulling the ball out of the air or striding past an opponent under pressure, as well as having an eye for a pass. Although not nearly as dominant as Van Dijk, he’s also strong in the air and in challenges, and he has the speed to recover if the ball is played in behind.
He’s not perfect though. His anticipation is good, starting runs early and enabling him to cover his teammates, yet he can sometimes get a little too close to a certain player anticipating a pass into them, not recognising that it leaves another player open. He also has a tendency to take short little steps when preparing for a header which can leave him caught under the ball rather than confidently powering it away, while his body shape is sometimes square, making it easier for attackers to get behind him. These issues haven’t really posed problems for Liverpool though: Van Dijk can usually cover, he still wins most of his headers and his footwork is good enough to recover. He still has room to improve, however he’s looking excellent for a 21 year-old.
Lovren’s also improved a lot next to Van Dijk. Surrounded by more competent defenders, there’s less pressure on him to win every challenge, which means he doesn’t unnecessarily steam into them as much, and his teammates are often on hand to cover if he does. The mid-block also helps as there’s not quite as much space left behind him to attack.
Lovren’s job has essentially been simplified so that he mainly just has to win challenges, which he’s good at, although his claim of being “one of the best defenders in the world” is laughable. He possesses good technical and physical attributes, but none of the ability to anticipate danger like Van Dijk or even Gomez. He also has a tendency to stand square on like Gomez but doesn’t recover nearly as well.
Gomez still gets games at right-back and is solid enough there, but Trent Alexander-Arnold is the standout. The young local lad has all the physical and technical attributes to be able to get up and down the flank as is required in Klopp’s system, and although he makes the occasional mistake, most notably a tendency to not track back quick enough, he’s a talented and composed defender regardless of his age.
Andy Robertson has made the left-back spot his own. One of Liverpool’s most energetic players – which is saying a lot – he bombs up and down the wing for the full ninety minutes and ensures he gets back quickly into position or across to the winger. This ability to cover ground quickly means he will often come across and intercept the ball before an opponent, but if they do get there first he rarely tackles rashly, preferring to slow them down before making a challenge, ensuring he’s rarely caught out.
The defenders are all aided by the calming presence of Alisson Becker behind them. He’s happy to sprint out and sweep behind the backline, lessening the pressure on them, but just as importantly he’s actually a good goalkeeper, capable of saving shots, claiming crosses and talking to his defenders.
This would be enough for a team that’s gone without a dependable keeper since Pepe Reina’s downturn in form, yet Alisson goes out of his way to be a calming influence on the team. He regularly looks to catch shots and crosses rather than palm them away, killing opposition attacks dead rather than simply repelling them, and he’s brave with his feet – he doesn’t possess the ability to pick out a pass with the same technique as Ederson but he’s just as willing to receive the ball from his defenders, aiding Liverpool’s build-up and relieving pressure.
This can backfire as shown by the Leicester goal, where Alisson attempted to turn Kelechi Iheanacho under pressure rather than simply hitting the ball long. Gomez was criticised after the match for not moving to provide a passing option, but truthfully Alisson should have recognised this and simply hit it long, however his willingness to even attempt it against the odds shows how far he’s willing to go to help his backline.
He also makes better decisions with his distribution than Karius did. He’s happy to quickly launch a counter-attack if the option is available, however he’s also more willing to hold the ball and allow the team to regroup if they are facing heavy pressure, rather than simply launching it straight away.
Possessing more capable personnel, Klopp’s defensive strategy now works much better. The four start high up the pitch with a holding midfielder in front and are expected to mop up the long balls forward forced by the forwards’ pressing. This can mean getting tight to a man and winning individual battles and the following loose ball, or it can mean quickly turning and picking up the ball before a forward gets to it (or in Alisson’s case coming out and collecting it) and dealing with any pressure from behind.
It’s not particularly complicated but it is very difficult as they are expected to cover a lot of space, whether that be left behind them as they push up, sprinting out to the wing or high if it’s played wide, or in front of them as the midfield pushes high. The mid-block obviously lessens this as the defensive line drops back and the midfield offers more cover, however it’s still much less than most defences.
When looking to protect a lead, Liverpool are now much happier to sit back. It’s common for them to switch to a 4-4-2 formation towards the end of a game, with Mane dropping back alongside the midfield while Salah stays forward to provide a threat on the counter.
Nearly 5000 words into this post and we only just begin to discuss the attack – anyone unfamiliar with the team would think Klopp was just innovating ways to park the bus. What’s more, there isn’t really a great deal to say about Liverpool’s attacking strategy.
This is because Liverpool’s defending is for the most part their attacking strategy – “No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation” – so it’s already been discussed above.
In their high pressing set-up they look to win the ball around the opposition box, which puts them straight through on goal when it works, and in the mid-block they seek to win the ball in midfield then break forward into the space that the opposition backline has left behind them in their build-up.
Most teams tend to sit off in two banks of four or have five men in either the midfield or defensive lines, yet Liverpool choose to keep three players in attack. Obviously this puts more pressure on the midfield when defending, as they have more ground to cover across the width of the pitch, however it also allows Liverpool to pose a deadly threat on the counter.
With most modern teams pushing their full-backs forward in attack, Liverpool can easily outnumber the opposition defence if they do so, having wingers stretching the centre-backs on either side and the third going through the middle. If the opposition opt to keep their full-backs back, all the better – that makes the job of Liverpool’s defenders much easier, while Liverpool’s midfielders, full-backs and even occasionally centre-backs are all capable of bombing forward to join the attack and overload the opposition backline.
Salah, Mane and Firmino are perfect for this: fast enough to immediately peel away from any defenders into space, technically gifted enough to dribble past them at speed and to pick out the quick one-touch passes needed to put their teammates through, and intelligent enough to make the right runs and drag away defenders.
It’s not just the forwards though, the players behind them are generally the same. Klopp clearly has a type of player in mind for his system and Liverpool have packed the squad with quick, physical technical players who cover a lot of ground. This means Liverpool’s attacking threat can come from anywhere on the pitch very suddenly.
A Liverpool player wins the ball, another retrieves the loose ball and passes it forward. The recipient either lays it off behind him for a deeper player to pass forward into space for a runner or, if he has space, he turns and runs at the defence or passes it into space for a runner.
It’s not difficult strategically – Liverpool just have to have players around the ball and others running forward into space – but it is very tasking technically. Liverpool players have to move at speed, time their passes perfectly and ensure the passes are ahead of players so that they run onto them rather than slowing down the attack. The speed of Liverpool’s attackers means they can catch up to many overhit passes though, giving them some leeway.
Nevertheless, this attacking threat does have its downsides. Many teams are simply happy to shut up shop rather than risk giving up ground behind them for Liverpool’s forwards to run into, forcing Liverpool to use a more patient style.
It’s not uncommon for Liverpool’s defenders to simply pass amongst themselves, trying to bait the opposition up the pitch, then lofting a long ball into the channels behind them. Even if Liverpool’s nippy forwards don’t get to the ball first, they will put a lot of pressure on the defender, and the location of where the ball drops means the goalkeeper can’t come out and collect the ball. The defender having to deal with the bouncing ball will usually have his back to play facing the touchline, making him easy prey for Liverpool’s pressing. As a result, most simply thump the ball out for a throw-in, but that at least allows Liverpool to move up the pitch into the opposition’s half.
When the opposition don’t give Liverpool room for direct attacks however, Liverpool can often be found lacking going forward.
For the most part, they resort to crosses from the flanks. Robertson often gets to the byline to drill a low cross across the face of goal from the left, leaving the opposition defence panicking over an easy tap-in for the forwards. Moreno is far more competent going forward than he is in defending, but he rarely plays. Left-back is probably the position that most needs adding to, as Robertson is incredible but he does so much running that he must surely fatigue at some point without a break.
Alexander-Arnold is one of the best crossers in the league, capable of bending curved balls around the back of defenders, just out of their reach, from deep, while Milner will also pull out to the right flank to drop a precise cross into the middle. Gomez struggles going forward at full-back and his crossing is more just hit-and-hope than the precision of Alexander-Arnold or Milner – he’s by no means bad there but not ideal if Liverpool are looking to break down a resolute defence. When fit, which is sadly all too rare now, Clyne has the legs to get up and down the right side and stretch the opposition defence, although his crossing also isn’t great.
Liverpool’s tendency to flood the box and the accuracy of many of the crosses mean that it’s not a terrible strategy for Liverpool, however their frontline is quite small, so the opposition defenders tend to be more likely to get it away. Liverpool then have the opportunity to press the second ball, which works more in their favour.
Liverpool clearly do have ways of breaking down packed defences, however it would probably be easier if they had more creativity in midfield.
Despite being captain Jordan Henderson is one of Liverpool’s most contentious players. The former Sunderland man came close to leaving the club at the start of Rodger’s tenure, yet fought back to become a key player in Liverpool’s 2013/14 title challenge and was awarded the armband when Steven Gerrard left the club. He continued in the role when Klopp arrived and is name-dropped as one of the main figures in a happy dressing room.
Henderson isn’t simply a cheerleader though. Converted from a box-to-box player who knitted play together high up to the pitch to a holding midfielder shielding the defence, Henderson’s adapted to his new role under Klopp admirably. He covers a huge amount of ground, shifting across the width of the pitch to protect his teammates, and is one of the team’s most noticeable pressers: one of the players most keenly aware of when an opposition player is vulnerable, sprinting out to confront them and possessing the technical and physical ability to win tackles.
Henderson isn’t perfect defensively. Unsurprisingly for someone who isn’t a natural holding player, he can get dragged out to the wings, leaving large spaces in the middle, and isn’t always aware of players making runs off the back of him, but he is an aggressive defender that suits Klopp’s style.
The greater issue surrounding Henderson is when Liverpool are in possession though. As we mentioned in the profile of Gareth Southgate’s England side, Henderson isn’t the ideal recipient for the first pass out of defence. He struggles to deal with pressing, preferring to play backwards than risk turning out if anyone comes near him, while he frequently takes up positions that make it difficult to advance the ball. A lot of the time, he will come very close to the defenders to pick up the ball in space, which doesn’t really advance the ball into midfield at all.
When he does have the ball facing the opposition goal, he can be very useful. Sending raking balls across the field or dropping a long ball behind the opposition defence for the forwards to run onto, however, presumably due to the risk of leaving his defence exposed if it’s cut out, he rarely attempts a pass along the ground through the middle.
Wijnaldum’s Liverpool career is quite similar to Henderson’s. He came to the club from the North East as an attacking midfielder, was converted into a centre midfielder and now semi-regularly sits in front of the defence. When playing further ahead in midfield, Wijnaldum also poses many of the same problems as Henderson: he often takes up positions that make it difficult to pass him the ball and when he receives it he almost never attempts a forward pass.
He is undoubtedly defensively disciplined though, and his time as an attacking midfielder means he’s comfortable evading opposition pressing. His unwillingness to pass the ball forward makes him a creative dead-end as an eight, but it’s less of an issue at the base of the midfield. Unlike Henderson, Wijnaldum is willing to shrug off opposition pressure and turn out when he receives the ball from the defenders – he may be unlikely to attempt a through ball, but he’s also less likely to just hit it back to his defenders and he’s happier to move forward and force the opposition to adjust their shape.
He also offers a distinctly different defensive style to Henderson. While the captain is aggressive and capable of powering the opposition off the ball but can be caught elsewhere when he’s needed, Wijnaldum is more about constricting space and blocking off passing options albeit less likely to be able to storm in and win the ball in a tackle. Both styles have their ups and downs and to a large extent the benefits depend on who else is chosen in the midfield: two aggressive ball-winners might need Wijnaldum’s more passive style to stop the defence being left exposed, yet a softer midfield two ahead might need Henderson’s steel to stop them getting bullied.
A third option, Fabinho, was signed in the summer (I’ve only watched his games at Liverpool and the later matches in Monaco’s 2015/16 Champions League run so please take my opinions on him with a pinch of salt). A lack of early playing time led to questions over whether he (and Keita) suited Liverpool, but Robertson and Oxlade-Chamberlain getting the same treatment last year should have been a clue that Klopp prefers players to adapt before becoming starters.
The Brazilian looked off the pace in his first few matches, however a run in the team since November has done him good. A natural defensive player, Fabinho has the positional sense that Henderson can sometimes lack, yet also the bulk to win tackles that Wijnaldum doesn’t, using his long legs to both intercept and steal the ball from opponents.
In addition, he looks comfortable on the ball. He takes up good positions and, while he is unlikely to dribble past anyone, seems resistant to opponents’ pressing. He also seems a more ambitious passer than the other two, as his willingness to play riskier passes led Klopp to yell at him in his early games.
The main question mark over Fabinho is his mobility. The holding player in Liverpool’s system has to cover a lot of ground behind the two outside midfielders who can end up getting stretched wide and in his first few games it didn’t look like he could handle it. This could also pose an issue in Liverpool’s pressing: Fabinho clearly has the brain to recognise positions he should take up and opportunities for tackles, but that’s no use if he doesn’t have the physical capability to get there in time.
Ideally Liverpool would have some kind of peak Sergio Busquets, capable of winning and distributing the ball while covering his teammates. Instead they have three options with big positives and their own weaknesses. Between them, they make the perfect holding player, but Klopp has to pick which set of attributes is most necessary for each opponent, and that also means having to account for whatever it is that player can’t do.
The holding players aren’t the sole reason Liverpool struggle to play through the centre though. The three Liverpool midfielders with the most appearances this season are Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner, which also happens to be Liverpool’s least creative midfield. Henderson’s problems at holding midfield are documented above, and Wijnaldum’s aversion to passing forward turns from an oddity at the base of the midfield to a problem higher up the pitch.
Milner’s useful going forward, but his attacks don’t go through the middle. At 32, he can’t dribble past players anymore and he rarely attempts through balls. Instead, he pulls wide and looks to whip in crosses. Milner’s crossing is good and his wide position helps the attackers stretch the opposition defence, however it also added to Salah’s early season struggles.
When you look at the Egyptian’s goals from last season, they are overwhelming three types: crosses from the left, using his pace to run in behind, or using the threat of his pace to get defenders to drop off and then using the space they leave to either shoot from distance or dribble. It’s easy to understand why Milner’s wide presence interrupted the first type – Liverpool now mainly played down the right so there were less crosses coming from the left – but it’s harder to distinguish why it stopped the other types. Liverpool’s play going down the right should mean Salah sees even more of the ball, while Milner being wide should drag away defenders and open up space for him.
The problem Liverpool’s focus on attacking down the right caused for Salah is that he spent most of his time facing the touchline with his back to goal. Take another look at those goals and you can see that Salah is already facing goal when he receives the ball, meaning he is aware of what’s ahead of him and can immediately attack. At the start of this season, when he was having to do a full 180° to face goal upon receiving the ball, defenders had more time to get close to him, nick away the ball or block shots. Even when Salah managed to get a shot away, he doesn’t have the time or awareness to be able to properly pick his spot.
Many outsiders wondered what the big deal was when Philippe Coutinho was sold to Barcelona. Liverpool got a huge fee for a player that didn’t even seem all that suited to their system: Coutinho was quick and technical, but wasn’t as fast at releasing the ball as Liverpool’s other attackers and had none of the physical power.
And they were right. Coutinho could work in Klopp’s system, however he was also sort of wasted by it. The Brazilian’s main strength for Klopp’s Liverpool was that he had the ability to put his foot on the ball and be more patient when that Plan A didn’t work. Coutinho rarely raced past a defender but he could come deep to pick up the ball from his defenders, beat a man and slide a through ball up to the attackers. Without him, there were worries of what Liverpool were going to do when they came up against a team that would simply sit back and force Liverpool to break them down.
The second half of the season then went about showing we were silly to worry. Given time to acclimatise at the start of the year, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain filled Coutinho’s shoes with aplomb. Powerful and playing the game at a faster pace than the Brazilian, he was a more obvious fit for Klopp’s system, yet he brought many of the same benefits. He was forward-thinking on the ball, looking to pick out a through ball or drive straight at the heart of the opposition defence, and comfortable running with the ball or dribbling past players in midfield.
This was brilliant for the attackers. His dribbling tended to up the tempo in a way Coutinho’s didn’t, which panicked defenders, while him running straight at the opposition defence and his willingness to shoot from distance would force defenders to come out and close him down, opening up gaps for the trio which he could then send passes through.
Then the injury happened. Serious damage to his knee rules Oxlade-Chamberlain out for most of this season and the question of who was going to provide creativity from midfield in his absence pops up again.
Adam Lallana was the most obvious alternative in the existing squad, but not particularly realistic. Good at pressing, possessing an eye for a pass with either foot and the ability to twist away from opponents in small spaces, Klopp is undoubtedly a fan of the former Southampton man, however Lallana doesn’t possess the power or, frankly, the talent of Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Having endured an injury-ravaged campaign last season, depending on him to be fit also isn’t a great idea. Lallana’s made a few appearances this season, mainly as an attacker where he definitely isn’t quick enough to succeed, but has unsurprisingly looked well off-the-pace. He’s a very good squad option if he can get fit, but can’t be relied upon as a starter.
Nabil Fekir looked certain to come to Liverpool over the summer. Capable of playing in midfield or in attack, the Frenchman made perfect sense. Quick and technically gifted enough to fit into Klopp’s system, he was already the main creative force at Lyon, dragging them into the Champions League. Injury history with his knees made Liverpool unwilling to pay Jean-Michel Aulas’ asking price however and Fekir stayed in his hometown.
Liverpool had already agreed to the signing of Keita from RB Leipzig. On paper, the Guinean is the ideal Klopp player, as the man said himself: “He is young, he is full of football skills, very stable, very good in small spaces, endurance-wise fantastic, quick, good finishes, good runs in the box”. Although given more opportunity than Fabinho at the start of the season, Klopp seems to be wanting to give Keita time to settle in, with some injury problems also limiting his playing time.
Still, while he has by no means played poorly, he hasn’t lived up to his potential yet. This shouldn’t really worry anyone: Keita has played in a pressing system but it was a man-orientated one – a bit simpler to grasp than Klopp’s as he simply had to stick tight to an opponent – and while he has looked a little lightweight he managed to cut it in Germany, which is a quicker, more physical league to be coming from than say Italy or Spain. Keita has all the attributes to succeed but it makes sense why he would need some time to adapt.
“He will be a massive player in the future for LFC and he is already,” Klopp said. “He is now really fit, he looks sharp in training, but as it is at a club like ours sometimes you have to wait a bit longer for the moment. And when you get the moment, then you have to be ready. That’s how it is. He is an outstanding player and we are happy to have him.”
That said, Liverpool could be making better use of him (although admittedly it also makes sense that Klopp might be simplifying his role to allow him to adjust). Milner pushing high and wide on the right in Keita’s early run of games meant that he was often having to hold back to cover the midfield.
In addition, Mane and Firmino’s tendency to drop off the front into positions between the lines limits Keita’s ability to move forward. Playing on the left of the midfield three, the space to run into ahead of him is usually filled by Mane or Firmino, meaning Keita doesn’t dribble forward or make runs into the box, leaving him on the periphery of games when he has the talent to be at its centre.
Klopp has come up with an alternative however, switching to a formation he used frequently at Borussia Dortmund.
The 4-2-3-1 first made an appearance at Southampton, with Henderson and Wijnaldum in the double pivot. Despite getting a comfortable win, it didn’t really work due to having two players who struggled to pass forward at its base.
It’s come into regular usage in recent months however, with Fabinho getting more gametime. The Brazilian played in a midfield two at Monaco, so it helps him to adapt to the team, while also nullifying his main weakness: with someone alongside him, he doesn’t have to cover the full width of the pitch, making his lack of mobility less of an issue. He’s mostly been partnered by Wijnaldum, who is defensively sound but offers little going forward.
In recent matches, Keita has been playing on the left side of the attacking midfielders. With Mane on the right, he has more space to move into ahead of him and opportunity to get into the box, but the role doesn’t really suit him.
Keita had previously played deep in midfield in Germany, where he would pick up the ball from his defenders and bravely stride forward with it. If Klopp is trying to give Keita plenty of breathing room to adapt, we may not see this for a while, as it puts more pressure on him not to make mistakes in his dribbling or defending, but it’s at least an option for the future.
The main beneficiary of the change is Xherdan Shaqiri. Question marks over his attitude look foolish now as he appears content in his back-up role, while he’s been superb on the pitch. Capable of playing in any of the attacking roles, Shaqiri is always looking to receive the ball on the half-turn so that he can quickly drive at or cut through the defence with a through ball. A little lump, he’s more than capable of protecting the ball and, as a proper attacker, poses more of a threat through the middle than any of the midfielders. The main issue with him is his defending, but that may well come with time through coaching.
The switch to a 4-2-3-1 does disrupt the existing frontline though.
Mane’s role doesn’t really differ – he either drops between the lines to quickly link play with those around him or he sprints in behind, more than capable of going inside or outside regardless of what flank he’s on.
Wanting to keep him high up the pitch when defending, Salah is moved into the striking role. This means his role mainly becomes about making runs in behind the opposition defence, which he suits but it also sort of wastes his ability to drop off an pick up the ball in little pockets out to the right.
Firmino is the player most affected. His typical role is as a false nine, dropping off the frontline between the lines or drifting into wide roles, causing headaches for defenders who are unsure whether or not to follow him and creating space for Mane and Salah to run into. The Brazilian was initially moved out to the left, where his movement didn’t benefit those around him quite as much but his ability to link play did, yet now finds himself in the middle.
As he would usually drop off into this space anyway, you would expect it would be a small change for Liverpool, but many of the problems Firmino caused were to the opposition centre-backs. Now with Salah as the main forward, their roles are more clearly defined and Firmino’s movement doesn’t create the same gaps. He’s also very good at linking play, him and Mane often combining with quick little lay-offs and one-touch passes, but, unlike Shaqiri, he tends to play with his back to goal – he may turn on the ball and threaten if given the opportunity but finding him between the lines doesn’t mean the opposition defence is immediately under pressure. Firmino is a very good attacking midfielder, but he’s a great false nine so the switch to a 4-2-3-1 wastes his skillset.
Another attacking option available to Klopp is Daniel Sturridge. World class at his peak, he’s had an injury-struck few years that mean he can’t really be relied upon as a starter. Klopp’s pressing game is unlikely to do his chronic muscle problems any good and he doesn’t have the same tendency to immediately press backwards when the ball is lost as Firmino, however there’s no doubt that Sturridge’s willingness to stay at Liverpool is a significant boost to the squad.
Capable of scoring incredible goals and with intelligent movement to bring others into play, he slots perfectly into Liverpool’s frontline. He also seems to have built a good partnership with Keita, as he often positioned himself to keep a line for through balls into him from the Guinean in pre-season games, which should help the new signing adjust.
The other back-up forwards are a downgrade on the starters. Danny Ings suits Klopp’s system but has been sent out on loan to Southampton after having horrific luck with injuries since his arrival on Merseyside. It was easy to forget Divock Origi wasn’t still out on loan until he popped up with the winning goal against Everton and it’s hard not to feel sorry for Dominic Solanke, who left Chelsea in search of more playing time only to barely feature. The pair look talented but raw and are unlikely to get the minutes they need to develop at Liverpool, where the players ahead of them in the pecking order are so good.
Despite topping the league unbeaten at Christmas, we are still waiting to really see the best from this Liverpool team. They don’t appear to be the dominant force that we saw late last season, but they are getting results, showing a flexibility previously missing from their game.
Maybe results will finally catch up with their relatively poor performances, or perhaps things will finally click into place in the new year and they will be deadlier than ever.