Unsurprisingly, the appointment of Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool has prompted a wall of noise about the new man. About his personality and charisma, about the fact that he’s so different from your average manager, about his hipster qualities married with his man-of-the-people charm, and a lot about his style of play too.
At some point the charm and the cult of personality will wear off. At some point, the impossible-to-please English media will see through the designer stubble and the stylish glasses, the ‘cool’ hair transplant and the shining smile and look at the way Klopp’s Liverpool conduct themselves on the pitch.
After only one look at the man and his new team, the pressing was obvious. They didn’t manage a goal, nor did they manage any sumptuous football.
But then again, that’s not what we should have been expecting from a team who have had just three days to work with their new coach. The one thing that was most obviously missing though, especially given all of the media build-up, was the counter attack.
The buzzword of the day is already gegenpressing, and comparisons abound already with the Brendan Rodgers, Luis Suarez-inspired side who finished second in the Premier League two seasons ago. A team famous for its high pressing, but also for its counter-attacking ability.
Yet, what isn’t mentioned enough is that gegenpressing isn’t really about counter-attacking. Although Klopp is a thoroughly modern coach, and the counter-attack is a thoroughly modern weapon, Klopp’s pressing is really more of a defensive tactic than an attacking one.
During his time at Dortmund, Bayern Munich had better and more expensive players, they had top playmakers and wingers. They were good with the ball and knew how to hurt teams. So the question for Klopp was how to build a side who could beat them, and beat the other Bundesliga teams who, when in possession, could hurt his team.
The answer was gegenpressing, press the opponent just after you lose the ball. That way he’ll be under pressure straight away, he will be off balance and he won’t have a clear idea of where his opponents are. In short, Klopp’s question was ‘how effective are these classy Bayern players when they simply have no time or space to pick a pass?’
Obviously it worked in Germany, but it wasn’t all Klopp’s work. Pep Guardiola would send his players out to press the opposition the second they lost the ball: he’d send one player to press the ball and three others to close down passing lines or potential pass receivers, thus making it difficult for the opponent to do anything other than give the ball away (either in the form of an aimless long ball or directly to a Barca attacker) or play back to the goalkeeper.
If you can win the ball back straight away, that’s even better, but the main aim of such a high press is to make sure you’re not attacked on the counter attack.
In the 2000s, when English football was at the peak of its power in Europe, the percentage of goals scored on the counter attack in the Champions League was as high as 40%, last season it was 20.6%.
The gung-ho style of English teams, the penchant that English football has for the counter-attack, changed the nature of European football. It made the counter-attack more of a weapon, but it also made teams try to defend against it.
You can even plot the tactical implications of this: from the 4-4-2 of Manchester United’s 1999 treble winning side who might have been vulnerable to counters; to the 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3 with a ‘Makelele role’ holding player who could stop counters; to the Dortmund 4-2-3-1 to facilitate the pressing to stop counters at source.
If you coordinate your pressing like Klopp and Pep do, and lots of other managers these days, if you tell your attackers and some midfielders to go and press in the final third for six seconds or so, it allows your defensive unit to get set. And once your defence is set, by definition, the counter-attack is impossible.
Football is, after all, something of a chess match. You have to think some moves ahead. If you lose the ball in the opposition’s half they still have a chance to attack from deep on the counter, so you need to be wise to what happens when you lose the ball.
If you attack with full backs and midfielders and wingers as well as attackers, all you have left are centre backs. They are horribly exposed once you lose the ball, as Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United found out to their cost many times last season.
But where football differs from chess is that there are different skills and abilities on the pitch. Klopp’s Dortmund side didn’t have the money or the players that rivals Bayern had. As manager, he had to negate the threat posed by Robben, Ribery, Muller, Schweinsteiger and others.
One way to stop them playing is to make the pitch as small as possible, give them no time on the ball, and whenever they do have it they have no time to pick a pass and everything is rushed.
That’s one reason why Saturday’s game was so attritional. There was a lot of space out wide for the full-backs of both teams, but being able to pick a pass to them is difficult when you’re being closed down so quickly.
Both teams had a pass accuracy of 75% which is well below the average in the Premier League this season, and well below the average both teams had going into the game of 81%. That gives you an idea of just how difficult it was to play an accurate pass on the White Hart Lane pitch on Saturday afternoon.
But the downside for Klopp is that the shock value of his pressing is no longer there. In fact, pressing is almost Premier League par for the course.
How many times have you watched Match of the Day and been told that a team didn’t work hard enough because they allowed the man in possession too much time and space, how many times have we been told that a team did well because they pressed the ball high up the pitch and gave their opponents no time and space?
All this means that a pure gegenpressing style won’t be enough to thrive in England simply by itself. Klopp will have to be adaptive and pragmatic in order to succeed, he’ll have to marry his gegenpressing with dominance in games, the very passing, possession-based dominance that his predecessor wanted to instil at Liverpool.
Klopp will have to waver from the heavy pressing and the full-throttle counter-attacks that come directly from winning the ball back.
We saw on Saturday that Liverpool had more possession than Spurs (just), but also that Liverpool tried their best to hang onto the ball and create things through nice interplay rather than simply drawing Spurs onto them and counter-attacking with precision once they had it.
On top of this, the Spurs game has shown even more clearly that Klopp will have to be pragmatic. He has lost Danny Ings for the season, Christian Benteke is out, and even though Daniel Sturridge may have been able to play, putting him in the side would have been a risk, and not one worth taking given his record.
Divock Origi played up front, and when Benteke is fit he’ll have to stay fit because Klopp just won’t be able to rely on Sturridge for an entire season. But in order to be successful you need to be able to change effectively.
On Saturday, Manchester City were without Sergio Aguero and David Silva, but they attacked down the channels with Jesus Navas and Raheem Sterling, trying to use the strength of Wilfried Bony, a style City aren’t used to with Aguero up front. It worked, and Sterling scored a hat trick while Bony scored twice.
Klopp should look to continue with Liverpool’s passing, because when they’re on song they can create lovely combinations and keep a high rhythm. But when they lose the ball, the pressing will make sure that their defence isn’t as leaky as it has been this season.
Finally, Liverpool are looking for a Champions League spot, and given that they’ll be seen as a big team, most sides who come to play at Anfield this season will try to defend in numbers, draw Liverpool out and counter attack themselves.
That means Klopp’s team will be forced to dominate games and try to break the opposition down, rather than counter-attacking. But it’s also where gegenpressing comes in.
If they lose it in an advanced position while they have numbers forward in attack, the gegenpressing tactic will enable them to make sure they aren’t embarrassed on the counter-attack as so often happens to the big teams in England.
Klopp’s revolution at Liverpool won’t happen overnight, though. The team will need to adapt to the new system and they’ll need a lot of work on the training ground.
The man himself will also need to adapt to a new league, and probably one where pressing and counter-attacks are much more commonplace, and one where Liverpool, as a traditionally big side, will have to come out and do most of the playing.
But the revolution is coming, and thankfully for all of us who love to watch and talk about Klopp’s coolness, both on and off the pitch, the revolution will be televised!