Finally, an English team will break the reign of the Spanish CL rulers. It is possible to break the combination and possession play that dominated European football for so long. In the 2005/06 season, the CL became a chess game on grass. In the four semi final matches, only 2 goals were scored. The average that season, was 2,3 goals per game which is the lowest since 1992/393. The success of the Italian clubs and conservative coaches like Benitez and Mourinho led a new trend. The best way to win something in Europe, was the thought, is to build a strong defensive organisational unit and hope for a counter attack.
Twelve years later and offensive football is victorious. A trend that started with Barcelona. Between 2006 and 2015 they win the most important prize in club football four times! And with dazzling attacking play. And now, this style is being followed, obviously by Pep Guardiola himself, as he brings Bayern Munich and now Man City to the level of his Barca teams. When Barca wins the trophy in 2011, they are one of the few teams to pass 500+ times per match. In this season’s CL tournament, there are 10 clubs that manage this.
To stop the Barcelonas and Bayern Munichs of dominating, the “park the bus” tactics were used, and with success too! Mourinho with Inter Milan, Chelsea under Di Matteo. Atletico’s Diego Simeone turns it into an art form, by playing a solid 4-4-2 with very tight space between the players in a zonal defensive system.
But it’s a German coach who plants the seed in 2013 as a response to the Spanish combinationdomination. And that seed will result and has already resulted in the spectacle in the Champions League we saw this season…
It’s Borussia Dortmund vs Bayern Munich. Both teams have a football approach that starts with possession of the opponent, but with a thrust of pressure forward. A way of thinking reminiscent of the famous AC Milan team of the late 80s, early 90s under Arrigo Sacchi. Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp: “My teams are modelled on the AC Milan team of Sacchi. He was my mentor. I actually never met him but my former assistant coach Wolfgang Frank, who did work with him.”
Exactly like Milan, Klopp’s teams are trained to re-possess the ball in areas and in moments where losing the ball will bring the opponent immediately into trouble. The opponent is unorganised and Klopp’s team will pounce. In 2013, Dortmund beats Malaga and Real Madrid, while Bayern humiliates Barca by winning 7-0 on aggregate!
It doesn’t result in a new German era of success, but it does bring about the new trend of zonal marking, aggressive forward pressure and immediate pressing when the ball is lost. This is how AS Monaco beats Man City in the CL season last year. And this is how PSG beat Barca 4-0 at home. Sadly, the Parisians lose their cool in the Camp Nou and resort back to their defensive, park-the-bus tactics and actually lose on aggregate…
The UEFA’s annual technical report is quite clear, in the 2016/17 season. More than 20% of all goals are scored from a fast transition in open play from defence to attack. And this is even without all the free kicks and penalty kicks that derive from this. The number of passes to create a goal is decreasing as well. As is the average time it takes to win the ball back and score. And almost half of the goals are the result of possession turnaround high on the pitch, in the final third.
That season, Liverpool isn’t in the CL otherwise the stats would have been even more prolific. In the EPL, Klopp is still faced with teams that are happy to use the long ball and by pass the whole build up. And in the EPL, Liverpool does lose too many points against those opponents. In the CL however, teams like to build up, to pass the ball, have possession and break down an opponent. In the CL, it helps if you can play out from the back with incisive and risky passing, and it helps if you can re-possess the ball swiftly and set up a lethal attack at the same time. Liverpool can do both.
This Liverpool is not the best organised lot. Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Juventus, Man City and Tottenham come to mind as being much better. But Liverpool is the King of Chaos. With the Reds, it is all about the turn around. When the opponent is just off the pace for seconds. When half the team of the opponent is still in forward motion and the other half breaks down to move back. Whenever Liverpool have the ball, they are prepared for when they lose the ball. When Liverpool are without the ball, they are preparing for the counter attack that will come, when they re-claim the ball. And, when Liverpool does start their turn-around move, they’re sheer unstoppable.
Ready for the press!
Klopp summarized it once as such, when asked what the difference was between Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and his Liverpool. “Wenger loves to have the ball and loves to play from foot to foot. They’re well structured and balanced. Like an orchestra. They play lovely harmonies. I prefer heavy metal. I like noise. I like chaos.”
The Liverpool Stats on their way to the CL finals are stunning. Out of the 33 goals they scored, 28 goals were set up with less than four passes. No other team has scored or shot on target as often from the turnaround as Liverpool have…
Klopp organises his teams in such a way that winning the ball back equates becoming a threat immediately. This is how it’s done. The Liverpool team will veer with the opponents movement. The pace goes down a bit, every player protecting his zone. The team on the ball will actually believe they get a moment to breath and build up nicely. But Liverpool players are taught to recognise when the opponent gets into trouble. For instance, a pass on a midfielder with his face towards his own goal. Or a square pass to a back who is with his back to the line and has less options. Or a pass lacking the pace. A stray pass. Anything. And when that happens, it’s like Liverpool turns from kittens into leopards. They suddenly increase the intensity and hunt for the ball. Klopp’s team is like a predator, allowing the pray to think they’re safe. Until they’re not anymore.
The moment Nangolain made the wrong pass…
With Mane and Salah up top, Liverpool has the speed. And they work well together with false #9 Firminho, the first station in the counter attack, he will find the pass towards the two speedy forwards. Firminho is also the man to join in and his bursts usually create space for the upcoming midfielders, like Can or Wijnaldum or Oxlade Chamberlain. The Liverpool midfielders are all built for this chaotic style of play. They can all come up with creative solutions under pressure. Klopp: “How I coach the counters? That is not hard. I start with signing players who are willing to work hard every match and who are happy to run constantly, even if they won’t get the ball.”
And Liverpool is away….
And the entertainment value of Liverpool matches is the result of all this, as Liverpool also makes mistakes in their execution. They score 5 against Roma, using their strengths and concede 2 against Roma in situations where the cohesion is gone. When the field becomes too stretched or when a defender misses the challenge, Liverpool can become really open and vulnerable. Klopp doesn’t seem to care. “As long as we score more on the other end…”
These are the 6 principles of Jurgen Klopp’s philosophy:
- Lure the Opponent in
Liverpool doesn’t need the ball. Liverpool wants to control space. They determine where the opponent can go and where they can’t. By pressing early and high, opponents can either play the long ball, and there is a fair chance The Reds will win that (Virgil van Dijk) or they play out of the back, which is a high risk game. Because if they lose the leather, the likes of Salah, Mane and Firminho will tear you apart. Liverpool will drop back a bit, giving the opponent the idea it’s safe to start building up and then – as explained above – when a certain risky situation appears, they will pounce. They will all move towards the side where the ball is and suddenly block off the next pass.
2. Direct the ball towards one side
Liverpool doesn’t mind it when the opponent has the ball as long as they have it where Liverpool wants them to have it. And they do this by not being totally in balance. It’s the smart body language and smart runs that will slowly force the opponent into a certain area. Roberto Firmino is the king of this game. He’s got the intelligence and the energy to repeatedly do this in a match. Klopp will find the weakest link in the opponents team and seemingly leave that player unmarked. Once he is played in (usually a full back) Firminho will move towards the player in such a way that the next pass is predictable. And pray for the next Liverpool player. Another element that is key is the ability of the Liverpool players to “mark” two players. Basically, the midfielders and the defenders of Liverpool are capable of putting pressure on the man with the ball but also by blocking a pass to a team mate of the opponent.
Liverpool forcing the goalie to make the risky pass into one of the central backs
3. Prepare the trap
When Liverpool is at the point where the opponent is forced to the side where Liverpool wants them, the trap will be set. Liverpool will block every pass, except the one that Liverpool likes to see used. Liverpool keeps one option open and the player under pressure will usually use that option. In some situations, four Liverpool players will be ready to immediately put pressure on the ball with intensity and pace. Once the ball is won, Liverpool can immediately attack.
4. Set the trap
Liverpool, as a result of the number of players used in the trap, will always have players available to release the ball to. There is usually always a man more situation created as a result. Obviously, Liverpool will be understaffed on other areas of the pitch and sometimes a really special player will be able to play the ball in one time in that area, but Klopp is happy to have that risk. Because when Liverpool do win the ball, they have a man more situation (at least one man more) and most of Liverpool’s goals are scored from this situation.
5. Do get the ball!
Apparently, this is the past where Klopp needed most work. Because putting pressure on the ball or actually getting the ball are different things. Klopp wants his players to go for the kill. Not complacent pseudo challenges. But go for the ball 100%. The result in the 2016/17 season: Liverpool players re-possessed the ball most out of all EPL players, and that includes creative players like Philippe Coutinho.
The last ingredient of the Klopp recipe is to actually attack. Don’t repossess the ball and recycle it with a square pass or a back pass. No. Attack! Immediately. The opponent usually is badly organised in these situations and Klopp wants to use that situation. But it does mean his players have to work ever so hard and cover so much ground. With Mane and Salah he has speed and with the likes of Firminho, Wijnaldum, Milner and Can he has the work horses to support.
With this style of play, it is easy to see why the top teams don’t like to play against Liverpool. But it also shows why it ‘s hard for Liverpool to win the EPL title. Most of the teams in the bottom half of the league will not try and dominate, or play possession and walk into the Liverpool trap. Against these teams, the long ball will be used by the opponent and Liverpool will have to find a Plan B to break these clubs down.
Winning the Champions League seems easier for Liverpool than winning the EPL title…
Thanks to VI Pro for the insights…