WHILE still managing Borussia Dortmund, Jürgen Klopp spoke of how he wanted his teams to play “heavy-metal football” — a catchy soundbite summing up the full-throttle style he likes to impose on players he takes control of. Yet this much-referenced phrase has conjured up a generalised, media-fuelled image of Klopp’s managerial style that hardly scratches the surface of the sophisticated tactical elements behind the Liverpool team we are seeing evolve into the most potent attacking force in the country.
To those who do not regularly watch Liverpool play, there seems to be this idea that Klopp’s success hinges upon transmitting hunger, energy and desire to his players on the pitch. He does possess all these traits but Klopp’s vision as a manager is so much more than simply asking his players to charge around a football field like madmen through gegenpressing — another term which is so often grossly simplified by the British media.
There were early signs of Liverpool’s progress under Klopp throughout last season, as shown by Liverpool’s extraordinary Europa League campaign and several high profile victories over the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City. A raft of individuals showed remarkable individual improvements and a clear identity had begun to emerge.
Liverpool finished eighth in the league but to use this as a means of underplaying Klopp’s impact is to ignore the fairly blatant mitigating circumstances affecting his first part-season at the helm. Inheriting a group of underperforming players, low on confidence with the busiest fixture list in Europe while coping with a crippling injury crisis meant Klopp’s task of implementing his footballing philosophy was littered with significant obstacles from the get-go.
Now, with a full pre-season to engrain his methods and a summer transfer window to shift those players deemed surplus to requirements and recruit those with the qualities needed to enhance the current squad, while also maintaining a stable core of last season’s side, we are beginning to see the extent to which Klopp has been able to transform Liverpool’s way of playing.
Broadly speaking, Liverpool’s start to the season has been excellent. Seven points have been taken from trips to London with Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea all outplayed for large periods in each game. The reigning champions came to Anfield and left feeling fortunate not to have conceded more than just four goals — and even more fortunate to have grabbed one themselves.
However, Saturday’s 5-1 demolition job over Hull was perhaps the most impressive of the lot, precisely because of the relatively meagre quality of opposition. The 2-0 defeat away to Burnley has largely been used as undisputed evidence that Liverpool struggle against lesser sides whose game plan is to sit deep in numbers and play on the counter — the continuation of a long-term habit.
Hull came to Anfield with the intention of “parking the bus” and were comprehensively annihilated. At one point in the first half it looked as though a double-figure scoreline could conceivably be within Liverpool’s capabilities, should they have been that way inclined. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the intensity levels dropped off as the result became a formality and Liverpool were quite content to knock the ball around without expending much unnecessary energy.
This was arguably the finest display to date of the Jürgen Klopp blueprint, in terms of the way Liverpool relentlessly suffocated Hull into submission. Off the ball, the team hunted with astonishing cohesion and energy. As soon as one player went it triggered the others to close off all the angles, so that Hull simply had to resort to booting the ball out of play in a state of panic on countless occasions.
In possession, the degree of fluidity in Liverpool’s attacking movement was breathtaking at times. The chief conductor in all this was Roberto Firmino who is rapidly establishing himself one of the most dangerous and complete attackers in the Premier League. Despite not scoring or assisting any of the goals, the Brazilian’s selfless and intelligent diagonal runs, as well as his superb link-up play was integral to everything Liverpool did well.
While Firmino might set the tone, he is by no means alone in what he does. There are no standout performers in this Liverpool team. That work ethic, attitude and intelligent movement is something every player buys into — and that is the key to Liverpool’s success so far this season.
During his appearance on Monday Night Football, Jurgen Klopp was questioned about the functioning of the system Liverpool are playing this season — generally acknowledged to be a 4-3-3 shape. Yet it was noticeable that Klopp was disinterested in the idea of set formations. Rather than slotting players into a regimented, pre-designed system, Klopp said his job is to find a way to get all his best players on the pitch in a way which gets the most out of their abilities.
Klopp explained how it does not matter precisely which position is occupied by a certain individual as long as every player understands their role in the side and is able to fulfil their duties both defensively and offensively. For instance, Sadio Mane is widely viewed as primarily a right-winger, while Adam Lallana plays as an advanced central midfielder these days.
Both Mane and Lallana scored against Hull from almost an identical position, where one might expect to find an orthodox centre-forward. Getting players into the box is crucial for Klopp. Therefore, regardless of their nominal starting positions on the pre-match team sheets, it is the fluidity of Liverpool’s attacking play which makes them such a formidable force.
The same idea applies in defensive positions as well, as exemplified perfectly by Georginio Wijnaldum’s automatic instinct to drop in and cover the left-back position once he’d spotted James Milner bombing forward on the outside. The role of Milner and Nathaniel Clyne cannot be understated, in this performance in particular, with Klopp highlighting on MNF that an essential job of his full-backs is to provide an option for a pass whenever possible.
Having the right-footed Milner at left-back is an understated attacking weapon as he is able to pick out precise, diagonal infield passes that a left-footer like Moreno would not naturally be able to provide. Clyne, meanwhile, has created more chances than any other full-back in the Premier League this season and offers yet another effective attacking option from out wide.
Integral to the overall setup is Jordan Henderson who is flourishing in the “number six” role, where many expected he might struggle. Henderson is able to dictate the play from a deeper position and has more time to pick out incisive, vertical passes — often dropping between Ragnar Klavan and Joel Matip, two comfortable ball-playing defenders, to form the axis upon which Liverpool’s play is built.
For the first time in ages, it looks as though every new signing is contributing significantly, from Mane’s explosiveness to Wijnaldum’s efficiency and intelligence, and Matip’s Hyypia-esque composure. Klopp identified these players as having the necessary attributes to fit into his Liverpool team and the evidence so far shows they are flourishing.
Meanwhile, Klopp’s faith has been rewarded by Milner’s outstanding performances as an auxiliary left-back, Henderson’s seamless transition into a controller — to the extent that Emre Can faces a fight to regain his place — and Lallana’s emergence as an all-action central midfielder, now with the goals and assists to complement his exceptional work rate.
This is by no means the end product and imperfections do remain in this Liverpool side — and Klopp has openly spoken of his desire for further improvements. But with 24 goals scored in eight games, this is Liverpool’s highest scoring start to a season in 121 years and no team has scored more league goals (71) since Klopp’s arrival.
There is no guarantee that they can keep this up, yet there is a growing feeling that something special is brewing under Klopp. This is a Liverpool side who strike fear into the opposition and are a nightmare to play against — Hull’s Curtis Davies has openly admitted as much.
This is a special kind of football which very few sides are capable of producing and it’s a genuine pleasure to watch. There need not be any fixed positions or any star man, for this is a team built on a selflessness and a collective understanding of the manager’s principals and the ability to implement that vision on the pitch.