WE discussed briefly on the TAW Player Review show this week one of the mysteries of watching football from the stands, when we can’t be sure whether something did or did not happen on the pitch because the players took it upon themselves to do it in the heat of battle or because the manager instructed them to do so.
We were referring to the peculiar scenario of Jordan Henderson screaming at Joe Gomez to move higher up the pitch throughout the first half, and young Joe blatantly ignoring him. Was that because Gomez didn’t understand his pre-match instructions, that his captain was getting things confused or something else stemming from their manager? Without access to behind the scenes footage or transcripts of conversations we’re unlikely to ever know the real answer.
But the conversation fitted nicely with something I’ve been pondering lately in relation to the power of players, their abilities and what they choose to do on a pitch as opposed to what their manager might want them to do, as described in the famous kids’ book “Adam Lallana and the Lost Art of Gegenpressing” (foreword by Peter Schmeichel).
Not for the first time when reading my articles, you might be thinking something along the lines of “what the fuck is he talking about now?”. Let me explain.
It’s been fascinating me all season that our manager’s much-heralded style of play has, for the most part, been conspicuous by its absence. As I’ve mentioned previously on these pages, despite many of us presuming that it was by design from the manager, following the Maribor away game and Jürgen Klopp’s delight with the pressing from his team, it became apparent that he still wants his lads to press, they’re just not doing it the way he wants them to most of the time. I found it curious in itself that an entire squad of players is failing to put in place the manager’s instructions, practically on a weekly basis.
Which led me to thinking about Lallana, a player completely absent so far this season but very rarely talked about in the same breath as Sadio Mane or Philippe Coutinho when missing from the matchday squad.
I began to wonder whether after all of the discussions around this topic in pubs, on forums and on various social media platforms around the world, is Lallana this team’s most important player? Is it possible for one player to have such an impact on a team’s style of play that his absence alone can change the way it plays at such a basic level?
While I was considering all of this, I happened to watch a repeat of a Monday Night Football on Sky in which Jamie Carragher discussed goalkeeping with Peter Schmeichel. If you haven’t watched that show I would recommend highly that you do so. If you’re too young to remember what Schmeichel Snr was like as a goalie, I’d also recommend highly that you find as much footage as you can of him on YouTube and soak in his performances. They basically show what we all really want from a Liverpool ‘keeper.
The most interesting things that I thought came out of the Schmeichel interview, though, were his comments on how he’d developed as a player and the impact he had on the Manchester United team when he arrived.
He talked about his attitude to playing in goal and his aggression, wanting to dominate centre forwards and put doubt in their minds as they approached him in a one-on-one situation. He talked about how he spent hours and hours on the training pitch practising where he was in his goal and perfecting his angles, with his coach stopping him routinely to ask him where the goal was. The most interesting thing? It was a coach before he arrived at Man United. He was like that before he got there, and wasn’t chosen because of other attributes with the intention of coaching into him what was needed.
On top of that, he explained how he liked to throw the ball out rather than kick it. That might sound nothing to write home about these days, but he laughed when telling a story about the first time he did it in training and the whole Man United squad stopped to look at him, wondering what he was doing. Goalies kicked the ball back then, but Schmeichel used to play handball so was more confident that he could throw the ball to a teammate more accurately than he could kick it, and he had the ability to bend it around the opposition players with his hands, which he couldn’t do with his feet.
Last, but not least, he talked of how his defenders knew that he was aggressive, so when an opposition forward was through on goal he would always be rushing out to meet them, meaning that, once they’d become accustomed to his style, his defenders would automatically head for the goal line in case the attacker bypassed the big goalie, buying him time to get back into position without the striker having an easy tap in.
So, Man United bought a new ‘keeper and the way he played dictated the way they played. Not the other way around. While Alex Ferguson might have identified those attributes in Schmeichel that he wanted to bring into his team, he bought them in rather than trying to coach them into another ‘keeper. As importantly, when Schmeichel retired, it took Ferguson years to find a suitable replacement, which raises again the question of coaching attributes into players rather than relying on their natural strengths.
Which brought me back to thinking about Lallana.
Could it be that his natural desire and willingness to press aggressively and to lead the press is the single biggest reason that we haven’t seen Gegenpressing this season to the extent that we’ve seen it in the past? Of course, there will be numerous other contributing factors, not least given that we did see more pressing in the Maribor away game than we’d seen previously, but can it be a coincidence that the player who many of us would associate most with Klopp’s style has been missing all season and in his absence the very essence of the team has gone missing?
Before watching the Schmeichel interview I’d have argued strongly that elite coaches should largely be able to coach their players to play in whatever style they want. Granted there will be players who are more suited to one style of play than another but, for example, surely Gini Wijnaldum can be coached to play just like Lallana when the south-coast man is missing?
Having watched that interview with one of the greatest ‘keepers I’ve watched in person, I began thinking that no matter how good a coach is, it appears that certain players just naturally fit what they want to do, and replacing them is not as easy as it looks. It explains the desire to tie Naby Keita to a contract regardless of whether we have to wait a year, because the RB Leipzig man looks to enjoy pressing in the same way that Lallana does, as well as having an abundance of ability on top.
If this theory is correct, it raises the question again of why we are so reliant on one player who has a history of injury problems. If the management team knows that we simply cannot execute the pressing game consistently without him it’s a huge gamble not to have an able deputy in the ranks to be the trigger for the rest of the team when he’s not around. It has appeared to me lately that Henderson has been tasked with leading the press from his deeper lying position in midfield, which we saw a number of times against Huddersfield on Saturday, not least when he was hunting one player after the next in the middle of the pitch to the delight of the crowd.
I find it strange that a temporary solution to Lallana’s absence wouldn’t be to play Henderson in one of the wider midfield positions to enable him to lead the press from higher up the pitch, given that of all of the players available he seems to me to be the most like Lallana for enjoying that role, and given that we have a natural replacement at the base of the midfield in Emre Can. Obviously Klopp sees his captain as the man to pivot his team around but, as far as I can see, the absence of Lallana and the failure to have anyone of a similar ilk in that role has had an impact on how the team overall has performed.
Of the other members of the squad, my view is that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain seems to have the most similar attributes to Lallana to perform that function for the team and that it would suit both him and the squad for him to focus on that position (partly on the basis that he’s unlikely to get many starts in place of Mo Salah, Mane or Coutinho in the front three), but it appears that, at least for now, that isn’t the intention.
The good news is that our dynamic midfielder should return to the fold after the international break in time for the most hectic of Christmas fixture lists and my theory will be tested.
It will be interesting to see whether our hero brings the Lost Art of Gegenpressing back to the team with a vengeance when he returns.