Liverpool FC- Champions Elect?
Top of the Premier League, nine points clear and champions of Europe. It has been a long time since Liverpool Football Club had such a lot to shout about, but right now they are shouting! How has Jurgen Klopp transformed what was an average squad, post Luis Suarez, under Brendan Rodgers into Premier League champions elect? Is it simply the playing squad? The tactics? Or an amalgamation of many factors which have come into fruition the past two years?
The gegenpress, roughly translated means ‘counter-press’ and is the cornerstone of Klopp’s football ideology. In Layman’s terms, high intensity running for 90 minutes, pressing high up the pitch and winning the ball back often in opposition territory before springing quick breaks into space. Obviously, it is no mean feat to imprint this onto a football squad, but the way Klopp has built his team must be commended. Firstly, his front three of Roberto Firmino, probably the best defensive pressing forward in the world, Mohamed Salah, last season’s best player in the Premier League and Sadio Mane, one of the quickest and most feared attackers from this season. A front three which has the potential to win any game in any moment, seems pretty impossible to beat?
The engine room of the gegenpress, the midfield, is not particularly glamourous in Liverpool’s case, but is might efficient. A trifecta of Fabinho, Henderson and Wijnaldum on paper does not seem the most technically proficient trio, especially for a side with title winning aspiration, but 3 powerful, mobile runners who can win the ball back, close down spaces and lay off passes for more technical players are all this side need. As Klopp himself once prophesized, ‘the best moment to win the ball back is when you have just lost it’ – a line which may seem obvious, however it delves into the mindset of the opposition player. After he has focussed solely on winning his battle, and the ball, he now needs to get up to speed with what is around him, quickly! The gegenpress aims to take away this luxury and get the ball back when the opposition player is at his most vulnerable, prior to him deciding where to turn and pass. Basically, as soon as you win the ball back from Liverpool, they hunt you down in twos or threes until they have it back – but they don’t tend to look for long spells of possession as a Manchester City would, they hit you immediately on the counter break. A very common scenario is when their opponents have the ball with the central defenders, the wide defenders push forward slightly to create space and a passing option, Liverpool’s midfield push up to squeeze the space and passing lanes into midfield and Mane, Salah and Firmino press the centre backs to win the ball. When the inevitable back pass and following launch from the goalkeeper comes, the dominating figures of Van Dijk or Fabinho win the aerial ball and suddenly the Liverpool attack is 3vs2 with the centre backs. Simple but effective.
A strange thing to point out at this stage, is that if you can nullify the 3-pronged attack and the powerful and athletic midfield, you’re not yet out of the woods against this Liverpool side. Marauding full backs Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are the two most effective attacking full backs in the Premier League, bar none. The passing ability of TAA has been likened to having Kevin De Bruyne playing at right back – crossing ability, for such a young defender provides such a unique threat that becomes easy to overlook when trying to stop Salah et al. On the other side, Andrew Robertson has contributed 15 assists for his team mates since the beginning of the 2018/19 season in the Premier League. In actual fact, it is perhaps better to stop the full backs of Liverpool in the build up and attacking phases of play, due to their technical proficiency and ability to aid the attack than it is to focus solely on the midfield and attack.
This is a big factor in the recent performances of Manchester United and Sheffield United against Liverpool this season. In both games, the opposition set up with a 3-man defence and wing backs on either side – this stopped Liverpool being able to create 3vs2 situations against centre backs and it allowed wing backs to press high against TAA and Robertson, meaning they don’t get the freedom to deliver wonder crosses into the box. It allowed the midfield to step up against Liverpool’s and stopped them getting ‘in the hole’ between defensive and midfield lines. Both games showed that when you nullify Liverpool in this way, they struggle to break teams down when in possession for most of the game – and would both have ended in draws if it wasn’t for a poor piece of goalkeeping from Dean Henderson gifting Liverpool a 1-0 win.
This season Liverpool have played the other 6 top sides already, which is obviously a very tough start to the season. In comparison to last campaign, they have bettered results against Chelsea away from home and Leicester & Man City at Anfield, all of whom they have beaten this season but only managed to draw last season. They have beaten Spurs & Arsenal so far as well as matching their result at Old Trafford from last season with a point. Their form against the big sides is frightening for the sides trying to catch them, and is showing very few signs of slowing down. Although they have conceded in all but two of their opening 12 league games, 11 wins and one draw is a mighty fine record – and with first choice goalkeeper Alisson back from injury, perhaps even the clean sheets will start to flow and this could finally be their year.