How Will Jurgen Klopp Change Liverpool?
It was telling that in Jurgen Klopp’s first game in charge of Liverpool, a merry band of fans held aloft a banner which read ‘We Believe’, and which featured an Andy Warhol-esque graphic of their new German leader.
What they believe in is unclear, although judging by their team’s performance against Spurs last Saturday similar feelings of hope and optimism have spread to the players. They put in one of their finest showings of the season to date to nullify the threat of a Tottenham side that had gone unbeaten in their preceding seven games – one that had started as strong pre-match favourites.
It is often the case that a new manager has a galvanising effect on his new employees, but there was something more to this Liverpool performance. It balanced a sense of the high octane with a more considered, technical approach; a happy marriage of English blood-and-thunder and German efficiency, perhaps.
It was clear from Klopp’s early press conferences that he intended to bring a new attitude to a club that has for so long knocked on the door of the big time but been afraid to step into the light. “We have to open our chests,” he said. “Let’s run and fight and shoot, defend together and attack together, like your best dream about what football looks like. I want to see more braveness, more fun in their eyes. I want to see they like what they do.”
If we have learned anything from that 90 minutes at White Hart Lane, it’s that his new charges are up for the scrap. They out-fought, out-muscled and out-worked their opponents; covering more ground than in any of their previous eight Premier League matches this term. In doing so, they became the first side this season to run more miles in a single game than Mauricio Pochettino’s men.
But there’s more to a good performance than stamina and endeavour of course, otherwise Mo Farah would be the captain of England. The Liverpool players hunted down their opponents like dogs, limiting their time on the ball to mere nano seconds. The midfield area in particular looked like a football match played on fast forward, and it was visible to even the most passive of spectators that the likes of Christian Eriksen and Eric Lamela were unusually uncomfortable in possession. There was method to the madness.
Gegenpressing All Over the World
The improvement in the Reds was instant, then. This can be attributed to Klopp, and in particular two facets that he brings to the managerial party. The first is a tactical nous that saw his two previous clubs – Borussia Dortmund and Mainz – punch forcibly above their weight, and the second is his unique football philosophy; his gegenpress.
First things first, he introduced a new shape to the side – and it was even one that Brendan Rodgers had failed to employ in his time at the helm of the mad Anfield tactics laboratory. A simple 4-3-2-1 saw the lone frontman, Divock Origi, run his proverbials off to prevent the Spurs back four from having any time on the ball. Behind him Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho – despite looking toothless in a creative sense – did a sterling job of closing down their direct combatants Dele Alli and Mousa Dembele. So many moves are started by defensive midfielders in world football today; rather than the days of yore when they were employed simply to kick three shades out of their opponents. Klopp is fully aware of this modern phenomenon.
Further back James Milner, Lucas and Emre Can – pressed into midfield action for the first time this campaign, covered more blades of grass than your average herd of livestock, and managed to limit the space in which Eriksen, Lamela and Nacer Chadli had to work. Harry Kane ploughed the loneliest of furrows up front.
The 0-0 scoreline was just reward for their endeavours, but within it lay a more telling tale: this was Liverpool’s first clean sheet since August, and they had restricted Spurs to just four shots on target: champions-elect Manchester City had allowed them to have eight strikes at their goal just three weeks prior.
These efficiencies have become Klopp’s trademark, and his record of winning trophies is uncanny. He led Mainz from the second tier of German football to the Europa League, while at Dortmund he won back-to-back Bundesliga titles. Prior to that, the club had lifted that particular trophy just six times in more than 50 years.
And it is this mystical gegenpress strategy – one that has become so beloved by football’s growing band of hipster pundits – that has become the focal point. You could, if you were feeling cynical, suggest that Klopp simply motivates his players to cover large distances during matches, and that there is no artistry or wisdom to its sheer notion. It’s doubtful that Sam Allardyce would have academic texts written about his unique ‘just run your bloody arse off’ stratagem, anyway.
But it is the relentless nature of the gegenpress – an approach that marries endeavour with calculated risk – that is so effective. Klopp has recognised that ‘the best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it.’
It’s a similar philosophy to the one so successfully deployed by Pep Guardiola: the ‘one and three’ method where one man closes the ball down and three others try to cut out the subsequent pass. With seven league championships, two Champions League titles and countless other pots and pans between them, perhaps there is something to be learned from it all.
How all of this manifests itself around Anfield way is yet to seen, but it is clear that Klopp is – in the crudest of terms – a man who knows what he is doing. Rome wasn’t built in a day of course, and his methods may take weeks or months to be implemented to his liking, but the early signs suggest that Liverpool have got a rather shrewd operator in their dugout.