THERE has been no shortage of praise and admiration for the manner in which Liverpool have started the new season. Despite being unfancied by many outside Anfield at the start of the campaign, Jürgen’s Reds have laid waste to a potentially tricky start to find themselves perched at the summit of the Premier League table going into the latest international break, writes CRAIG RIMMER.
Nevertheless, there has also been an audible tendency amongst many pundits to dampen the early season optimism emanating from Anfield. A growing consensus that this season may not have quite the glorious finale many of us are just beginning to dream it might. Surely they can’t sustain this kind of form over the course of the season. Surely they can’t win the league with that defence.
And that’s fair enough. As things stand, we’re just happy riding the crest of the wave, enjoying the development of what is still a team in its formative stage, and not overly concerning ourselves with where it may, or may not, end.
The defence may be less than watertight, the squad short of experience, or the team unable to sustain such a high intensity style of play over the course of a nine-month season. Some, or all, of these reservations may, or may not, prove to hold true between now and May. The fact is we just can’t be sure either way.
But it’s the last of these contentions, the one about playing style, which I want to take issue with.
By now we’re all familiar with the lazy, and now widely accepted, consensus. It argues that Klopp’s Liverpool are all about hard work and a high intensity pressing game, and little else. They question whether Liverpool can sustain such a frantic, hard running and energy intensive approach over the course of a 38-game campaign. I’ve even heard some Liverpool fans buy into the same ideas.
The immediate defence has been to counter that the Reds absence from European football allows them ample time for rest, recuperation and preparation in between league games in order to cope with the apparent demands that Klopp’s style places on them.
But this is a massive over-simplification of how this team plays. Another example of pundits repeating and self-perpetuating basic opinions with little interest in what is actually happening in front of them.
There is no doubt that the much-lauded gegenpressing is a key element of Liverpool under Klopp, in terms of both defence and attack. However, in reality Liverpool have averaged an impressive 61% possession over the 11 league games played to date (according to Opta). Whilst on only one occasion since the opening day have the Reds enjoyed less of the ball than the opposition (Chelsea away).
it’s widely agreed logic that retaining possession conserves more energy and induces less fatigue than trying to win it back. And that rings even truer in the context of this current Liverpool team. You would undoubtedly rather be playing with them than chasing them around a footie pitch for 90 minutes.
Beyond simple possession stats, though. This is a team which has developed almost beyond recognition over the past 12 months under the new management. There were times in the early stages (Spurs away being an example) when lots of hard running and relentless pressing was indeed the order of the day. In hindsight, that was Klopp’s period of adjustment to the demands of a new league, and it made sense to prioritise imposing some of his core principles on a new group of players.
However, given 12 months to grow together, a full pre-season and a few useful additions, this is now a much more tactically intelligent and diverse team. From an attacking perspective, as good as any we have seen grace Anfield. At Swansea away we saw an ability to win in a different fashion. While goals in the first half-hour against Hull and Watford afforded them the breathing space to relax to a degree, they can hardly be accused of taking their foot of the pedal in either game.
This is a team which plays in bursts, presses in bursts and blows teams away in short, concentrated spells of intense and fluid attacking football. A team which waits for the trigger, and chooses its moment to exert itself on the opposition, both with and without the ball. But one which is equally able to rest within games and conserve energy for the next onslaught.
It has also been noticeable that, against the inclination of most fans (myself included), Liverpool have started most games this season slowly, and have not looked to blow teams away from the first whistle. They look to conserve energy, feel themselves into the game, and maybe even lull the opposition into a false sense of security.
The key to this season could well prove to be how well they survive December and January. How they handle the demands of a more congested fixture list around the Christmas period, and the loss of Sadio Mane to the African Cup of Nations, and still maintain the current level of performance.
But I genuinely believe the squad is also flexible enough in this regard to cope with the increased demands. The likes of Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi, both of whom have played little football thus far, still have big roles to play this season, and will have learnt a lot watching on from the sidelines. Both will have been left in little doubt about what is demanded of them by the manager both on and off the ball, and both have a personal point to prove.
Then there is Gini Wijnaldum. A player who featured regularly as the link man in midfield in the early weeks of the season, but has featured less following the return to form and fitness of Emre Can. Wijnaldum’s appearances off the bench of late have been notable for being in much more advanced roles, and he played often as a forward-cum-winger for Newcastle last season. Could Klopp be looking at the Dutchman as cover in the front three, perhaps for Mane, in the months ahead? Adaptability and flexibility again being the order of the day for the manager.
Ignore the lazy punditry. This is a team, squad and manager which are about far more than basic hard work and counter-pressing, as much as the manager clearly, and rightly, values those principles. This is a team which has developed hugely over the past 12 months, and one which will only continue to improve this season and beyond.
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