IDENTITY. It’s a word which is often tossed around when speaking about football clubs and football managers — and it’s something Liverpool were totally devoid of by the time Brendan Rodgers came to the end of his tenure at the club. No-one really knew what kind of football we were trying to play, what we were trying to achieve and, most importantly, how we were going to go about doing it.
So, when people ask what Jürgen Klopp has achieved in his 10 months at Liverpool, it is very clear that he has — above all — given the club a new identity. There is now a clear sense of purpose — the manager knows what he wants to achieve here and he has a plan of how he will accomplish that.
Upon joining Liverpool, Klopp promised “heavy-metal football”. Not exactly a technical term, but it serves as a useful description for the style of football he likes his teams to play. Intensity, energy and pace in abundance. Pressing the opposition into making mistakes. It’s not something that is easy to coach in any short space of time, as we saw last season.
In the wake of Liverpool’s 4-0 drubbing of Barcelona, much has been made of the fact it was “only pre-season” and not too much should be read into that result given Barcelona were well behind Liverpool in their pre-season preparations at the time. It’s a fair point.
However, Barcelona don’t get beaten 4-0. It just doesn’t happen. What Liverpool produced at Wembley in front of nearly 90,000 fans was the absolute embodiment of what Klopp has been trying to instil in his players. Call it what you like — heavy-metal football, Jürgen Klopp football, whatever, the La Liga champions could not cope.
The fact that every single Liverpool goal came directly from a player pressing the opposition and regaining possession high up the field is massive. Klopp’s players implemented their game plan against the world’s best and scored four times as a direct result of doing so. That alone should serve has huge encouragement for the season ahead.
The degree of cohesion with which Liverpool played was outstanding. Each player knew their role, ready to anticipate the next phase of play. When Adam Lallana pressed to win the ball in the build-up to the first goal, Roberto Firmino was already making a bursting run into space. Divock Origi showed similar anticipation when Kevin Stewart stole the ball off Sergio Busquets in the second half.
The right players operating effectively in the right system. That has been the mantra for Klopp this summer. He doesn’t care who other clubs have signed, he has said as much. And that’s already had the added bonus of getting up the nose of Jose Mourinho. Klopp has bought players with the physical and mental attributes to fit into what he is trying to do. Nothing else matters.
The system we have seen used for virtually every pre-season game under Klopp has not been the 4-2-3-1 most might have expected. It has been a 4-3-3, and it would seem as though this system will become Klopp’s tactical blueprint this season — especially given the £25million outlay on Gini Wijnaldum — a strong indicator that Klopp will look to play predominantly with a three-man midfield (although not necessarily in every single game).
This is how Klopp’s 4-3-3 system appears on paper.
The personnel will change on a game-to-game basis, of course, depending on fitness levels, injuries and opposition. I expect the above line-up, however, will be pretty close to the starting 11 to face Arsenal in the opening game on Sunday.
It’s more of a 4-3-2-1 in reality, as both Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane like to drift infield and neither are out-and-out wingers as such. It’s also worth noting that with Firmino as the central “striker” in this system, he likes to drift out wide and drop deep at times, while Mane has shown a tendency to occupy a more central role.
It is fluid and flexible, with the likes of Lallana and Wijnaldum taking it in turns to break forward and get bodies into the box — something Klopp has emphasised as a crucial factor for Liverpool this season. The constant interchanging of Liverpool’s front line makes it difficult for opposition defences to know who to mark and creates pockets of space for Liverpool’s attackers to exploit.
As football fans, we are often so emotionally involved in watching our team play that the smaller tactical details on the game pass us by. I was at Wembley for the Barcelona game, and from high up in the stands, it was interesting to observe Liverpool’s team shape. What we might think is a 4-3-3 formation often does not resemble that at all.
The way Liverpool play under Klopp in this system, it is the polar opposite of the tactical straight-jacket football of Louis van Gaal, for instance. The team shape evolves throughout the game in phases. It doesn’t change at random, though — there are two quite clear variations from this initial 4-3-3 structure.
The first appears to be more of a 4-5-1 or 4-1-4-1 shape, which Liverpool adopt when out of possession, as illustrated below:
When Barcelona had the ball, it was clear to see that Mane and Coutinho knew they had to drop back and help out their full-backs and temporarily vacate their more advanced positions. The spaces between the back line and the midfield were minimal, with a bank of four and then five players restricting Barcelona’s time and space on the ball. As a result, the threats of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez were almost totally neutralised.
The key to Klopp’s style of football is speed in transition, and when Liverpool regained possession, the speed with which they countered was devastating at times — Mane and Wijnaldum impressing in particular — and both were brought in for that exact purpose.
When Liverpool had the ball, the second alteration of their system took more of a 3-4-2-1 shape — as illustrated below:
When in possession, Emre Can dropped off deep — almost forming a back-three — to spray passes out wide to the full-backs who pushed forward into very advanced positions. The two centre-backs, Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan, split very wide in order to receive the ball from Mignolet and could choose to pass either to Can or the full-backs.
Further forward, Mane and Coutinho tucked slightly infield, creating acres of space for Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner (and later Alberto Moreno) to bomb on and join the attack. Clyne, in particular, had plenty of joy in the first-half getting in behind Barcelona’s back line with his pace and boundless energy.
While Lallana impressed in a central midfield role with his ability to turn in tight spaces and carry the ball forward, Klopp also has the option of playing a more physical midfielder there — perhaps Jordan Henderson or Marko Grujic. An orthodox defensive midfielder isn’t a necessity, with greater emphasis on a collective effort from a dynamic midfield trio and the wide forwards dropping deep to protect the back four.
Origi showed what he can offer as a central striker, while Daniel Sturridge would also be well suited to this system which means he has bodies close around him at all times and avoids getting isolated. There are options aplenty in this squad, and Klopp has created a situation whereby he has players he can trust to come in and do a job without a significant fall in quality if a key player gets injured.
If Liverpool can repeat that kind of performance against Barcelona on a regular basis, a lot of sides will struggle to cope with that level of intensity and organisation this season. This was an indicator of what this Liverpool side is capable of at full-tilt; the Mainz game less than 24 hours later was the exact opposite — the reasons for that are fairly obvious.
What Liverpool have is a clear tactical plan with a strong team ethic and a manager who knows how to implement his ideas and motivate his squad. That is how Klopp wants to do things — not by paying big bucks for star names.
Whether that can bring us a top-four spot, a domestic trophy, or, dare I say, league title number 19, remains to be seen — but we have a definite plan. And I, for one, can’t wait to see how it pans out. Bring on the new season.
For podcasts on pre-season, Liverpool past and present, transfer gossip, the lowdown on new signings and more, subscribe to TAW Player for just £5 per month. Minimum sign-up is just one month. If it’s not for you, all you’ve shelled out is a fiver! More information here.
If you listen to the free shows and are wondering whether to subscribe, here is one of our old subscriber shows that we’ve just put out for free – an in-depth chat with Jamie Carragher on defending: