Welcome to Premier League DARTS, FC Yahoo‘s weekly EPL column that will run every Monday morning. Why “DARTS”? Because Henry Bushnell will recap the weekend’s biggest games with Discussion, Analysis, Reactions, Takeaways and Superlatives. All of that is below. But first, a brief intro …
Jurgen Klopp football is not for the faint of heart. It’s not for faint-hearted fans. Not for faint-hearted opponents. Not for faint-hearted executives, and definitely not for faint-hearted players.
It requires bravery, a word often nonchalantly overused in the sport, but one that absolutely applies here. Because no version of the beautiful game works 100 percent of the time, and when Klopp’s version fails, it often fails spectacularly. It fails to the tune of 5-0, and 3-0, and 4-1. It can make fools out of the well-intentioned men who practice it. Every time it is played, it risks embarrassment.
But when it doesn’t fail, it can be a sight to behold. When, to paraphrase Klopp, skill and attitude are mixed into a stew and topped off with courage, it can achieve Herculean feats. It can topple giants.
Liverpool did just that on Sunday, and there are X’s and O’s to dissect, individual plays to scrutinize, and so on, to explain the brilliance. But none of it would have been possible in the presence of fear. Eleven red-clad players left every last ounce of it behind in the Anfield tunnel. And they sunk perfection.
1. The theory behind Liverpool’s approach
There is tactical rational behind the need for bravery. Klopp’s system is all-or-nothing. Its objective is to stifle opponents altogether. But when it doesn’t do that, gaps gape. High-quality chances ensue.
For some teams that have toyed with junior, modified versions of Klopp’s “heavy-metal football” against Manchester City, gaps have been particularly wide; big chances have been particularly plentiful. Klopp, therefore, had a decision to make – the same one 18 other Premier League managers have been faced with: To press, or not to press?
In many ways, it’s a philosophical dilemma. Many have shied away from City. Klopp, rather than avoiding the individual battles that City so often wins, instead gambled that his players could give him 90 minutes well above their mean performance levels. He bet on his guys. And he won the bet.
But Sunday’s Liverpool performance wasn’t solely about Klopp naturally sticking to his figurative guns. There was strategy to it as well. Klopp was kind enough to explain to NBC after the match.
“They play in the half-spaces all the time,” he said, referring to the second and fourth zones if the field were divided into five vertical slices. “Fernandinho gets the ball, and plays this very simple pass. Because [Kevin] De Bruyne’s always [between your midfield and defense]. [Ilkay] Gundogan more or less always [between midfield and defense]. [Sergio] Aguero in between the center halves, or between the center half and fullback. And then the wingers. So what do you want to solve first?”
The answer, for Klopp, was to solve everything at once by cutting of their supply at source. “The guy who passes the ball needs to get the pressure,” he said. “If they cannot pass the ball, they cannot make magic. So you have to take the risk.”
2. The execution of Liverpool’s press
So how, then, do you stop City at source? Not with reckless tackles or overzealous runs at players in possession. With a controlled, calculated press that directs the ball to certain zones, in certain situations.
The key, as Klopp mentioned, was Fernandinho, who Liverpool pestered into a very poor game.
Klopp’s midfield three, in their starting points, were more or less flat, with Georginio Wijnaldum to the left of Emre Can and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to the right. When City’s center backs were in possession, in the absence of pressure, Liverpool’s midfield three primarily concerned themselves with shutting off passing lanes to De Bruyne, Gundogan and Aguero.
But when the center back fed Fernandinho, the lone midfield pivot, a Liverpool midfielder, often Can, would break rank and come charging at the Brazilian:
The goal wasn’t to win the ball; it was to limit Fernandinho’s time and space. To force him into quicker decisions. To prevent him from turning, picking his head up, and quarterbacking City’s attack.
One issue that City opponents often run into, though, is that Fernadinho isn’t the only capable quarterback. Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones can both play the role.
Klopp appeared to have a twofold approach for dealing with Otamendi and Stones. It began with Roberto Firmino, the No. 9. Firmino would pick and choose his moments to initiate the press. He’d begin by splitting the center backs and creeping toward them. His initiating run would often be from the center of the pitch toward the sideline, so as to prevent the center backs from avoiding the press by simply playing between each other.
If the center back’s – let’s say Otamendi’s – response was to carry the ball forward into midfield, a Liverpool midfielder would step to meet him near the midfield stripe; Firmino could drop to Fernandinho.
The easy way out was for Otamendi to play to Fernandinho, who could then knock a simple diagonal back-pass to Stones. But if Fernandinho received the ball facing his own goal, that was – and almost always is – a press trigger. Can would come hurtling toward him. The far-side winger would converge on Stones (the center back receiving Fernandinho’s back-pass). And more often than not, the Citizens were either thrown off balance or forced into a mistake:
Taking a broader view of the game: Both teams pressed; the difference was how each dealt with the other’s pressure. City, true to form, tried to pick its way through, mostly with short passes. Liverpool, on the other hand, was content to play long.
Klopp’s victory was making the match as much about speed and physicality as possible. He knew his players couldn’t compete with Guardiola’s when it came to technical ability. So he tried to neutralize technical ability with athleticism on one side of the ball, and win with athleticism – with attacking-half 50/50 balls and transition – on the other. Liverpool did both, and held on to beat the soon-to-be champions.
3. Klopp’s Guardiola kryptonite
Klopp and Guardiola have now shared a sideline 12 times. Their record in those 12 matches: Six Klopp wins, five Guardiola wins, one draw.
The German, in fact, is the only of the seven managers who have faced Guardiola 10 or more times to boast a winning record. The next-best mark belongs to Arsene Wenger, who’s won three, drawn three and lost six.
4. So shouldn’t everybody adopt Klopp’s approach against City?
No. I hate this line of thinking. Just because Klopp wins against Guardiola with his robust, up-tempo style and gegenpressing doesn’t mean other teams and managers can.
That analysis ignores a few points. First, that Klopp teaches the style better than anybody else in the world. Second, that his players come from the top 1 percent of world football. And third, that those players have been recruited specifically because of their ability to play that style – a style, by the way, that has its own weaknesses against other types of opponents.
So yes, if every manager spent a summer with Klopp by a lake in Sweden with no electricity, then was given hundreds of millions of dollars to spend, and spent them with the primary purpose of beating Guardiola in mind, he or she should play this way against City. Otherwise, moot point.
5. We’ve got Salah, doo doo doo doo, doo doo
While we’re on the subject of Liverpool … I know some stuck-up Koppites find this song annoying, but my goodness, I love it: