Jürgen Klopp has become synonymous with ‘Gegenpressing’, ‘heavy metal football’ and insisting that he is the ‘normal one’ as he beams gleefully from from ear-to-ear. He has taken over a side with defensive deficiencies, which are still present, and tried to eradicate that by making them the hardest working team in the league. In the early weeks of his arrival at the club, Klopp was surprised by just how hectic the fixture list in England gets. This brings up the question we ask here: is Liverpool’s style of play under him sustainable?
It’s no surprise to see a statistic like this one, especially when Liverpool’s press can be seen as early as from the centre forward, usually best provided by Roberto Firmino. This workman-like style has brought Liverpool success in big fixtures, perhaps most notably when they demolished Manchester City 4-1 at the Etihad last season.
What appears to be happening is Liverpool thrive on playing in the high-pressure, big game occasions against sides who like to dictate the flow of play. Since Klopp’s appointment as manager in October 2015, Liverpool have won home and away at Manchester City, away at Chelsea on two occasions, away at Arsenal and at home to Manchester United, Villarreal and Borussia Dortmund in the Europa League.
Liverpool’s results against of some of the lower-placed clubs in the league contrast sharply, as they suffered defeats to Crystal Palace, Watford, Newcastle and Swansea. The consensus is that Liverpool simply ‘fail to show up against the small sides’ and struggle to play against a deep block, the latter of which holds more substance. There are a couple of reasons which play a part, one of which might not have an effect this season.
Firstly, the fixture list in England. The Christmas period is brutal in the Premier League, and combining that with League Cup, FA Cup and Europa or Champions League, and some teams could play three matches in the space of eight or nine days. Fatigue and injury problems are bound to find their way into the side just by the quantity of fixtures alone, which occurred in abundance last season. In fact, the German manager even dubbed the word ‘hamstring’ as his least favourite word of the year after a succession of hamstring injuries crept into the side.
This next statistic shows how Liverpool’s pressing style is based on relentless and intense running. It would be interesting and informative to find out how many are happening without the ball, whether that be players sprinting to create an option, running back into position, charging down a player on the ball or cutting out a passing lane. It is quite staggering to see that Manchester City, who from the last graphic were also second for distance covered, are more than one hundred sprints behind Klopp’s side, showing just how physically demanding his style is.
What is important to note is how this style doesn’t always work against the small teams, and the results from last season (plus Burnley this year) back it up. Sides who enjoy playing long, direct, counter-attacking football, sometimes looking for the striker with the second or third pass from the defensive phase, nullifies Liverpool’s press. In those situations, Liverpool will be offering acres of space in-behind, and sides with pacey strikers offering clever movement will present all sorts of problems. Their vulnerability from set-pieces cannot be forgotten either, as we saw on the opening day against Arsenal, and upcoming fixtures against Crystal Palace and West Brom will test that.
Another issue with the style of play is how it can impact the team’s ability to control a game. In the first half against Chelsea last week, Liverpool dominated. They pressured Chelsea into errors and completely cut the supply line to Diego Costa. In the second half, though, as they seemed to sit a little deeper and more compact, nerves crept back into the side. The sharpness of play and thought was lost, and Liverpool only enjoyed brief spells of control before Chelsea would equalize to create an anxious end to the game. Ultimately, the two goals they grabbed in the first half were enough to win the game, but it will be interesting to see what happens when their high-intensity style doesn’t reward them so quickly.
A benefit to Liverpool’s season will be the lack of European competition, which will help avoid the cramped fixtures and flights all around Europe to disrupt their league campaign. Fewer fixtures will mean Klopp has more time to focus on the league, and with the new signings strengthening key areas of the squad, his style of play and year of experience in England will go a long way to Liverpool’s chances of breaking their league title drought. Klopp has been swift to dismiss his side as serious title challengers, perhaps to take some pressure away from them, and no doubt their fans would be content with a top four finish and some stability in a side that has only seen them finish inside the top four on two occasions since 2009.