Joseph Kavaloski discusses how Klopp’s tactics affect his lineup.
Many Liverpool fans have been clamoring for a defensive midfielder and a new left back, and yet Jurgen Klopp has been operating with a totally different strategy in mind. Everyone is well aware of his gegenpressing system which forces his players to tirelessly press the ball whenever it is at the feet of the opposition.
Having a strong backline is obviously important, Klopp signed Matip and Klavan for a reason, but it is clear that the former Borussia Dortmund boss is hoping to keep as many attack-minded players on the pitch as possible, rather than focusing on closing up defensive holes. This tactic stems from his strategy in which defending from the front through constant pressing will prevent the opposition from having enough time on the ball to expose Liverpool’s defensive insecurities.
Throughout the time leading up to the beginning of the season, it was clear that Liverpool was not going to be a defensive stalwart. Signing Georginio Wijnaldum to a central midfielder, when he is far more attack minded than defense minded, while not bringing in a more level headed replacement for Alberto Moreno were two clear signs of this.
Now that four matches have been completed, the prediction from pre-season has certainly rung true. The Reds have allowed the most goals in the league (6) and have only kept one clean sheet in a match against lower level opposition Burton Albion in the EFL Cup. Deadline day has passed without another defensive signing for the Reds meaning that fans will have to get used to the squad that is currently under Klopp’s tutelage.
The manner in which Klopp has been choosing his lineup for each match is very telling as to what he wants his team to do in terms of defending. With Emre Can struggling to reach full fitness, Jordan Henderson has been the man playing at the base of the Reds’ midfield. This is far from Henderson’s best position as his best attribute is a tireless work ethic that is best utilized in a box to box role. It is no surprise that our captain has struggled in that position as he is forced to stay more positionally aware while not venturing into the final third with his
It is no surprise that our captain has struggled as he is forced to stay more positionally aware while not venturing into the final third with his lung-busting runs. Not only does this limit Henderson’s capabilities, but it leaves the backline woefully exposed in certain situations.
Henderson, though energetic, is not known for the defensive capabilities that are vital in the holding midfield role. His tackling numbers have been solid throughout his career, but he is far from the defensive midfielder other top clubs employ. As we saw against Burnley for Andre Gray’s goal, Henderson is prone to missing tackles that normal defensive midfielders would make. Alongside Henderson, in the midfield three is Georginio Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana, two players that are always looking to score rather than defend.
Wijnaldum has played the central midfield position in the past for PSV Eindhoven, but his impressive goal tallies over the course of his career indicate his natural inclination on the pitch. Lallana is similar as he has primarily been an attacking midfielder throughout his time at Anfield and previously with Southampton.
Deploying two attacking midfielders in a central midfield role would typically require a strong defensive midfielder in the squad. However, Klopp has persisted with a central midfielder playing out of position due to his belief that the press can mask these deficiencies.
Klopp has deployed a strategy of pressing rather than eliminating a central or attacking midfield player from the squad. In the German’s new favored 4-3-3 formation, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, and Adam Lallana have been the key players that are vital to the system’s success due to their work off the ball.
Rather than playing the Reds’ best striker, Daniel Sturridge, Klopp has consistently chosen Firmino to play in the central striker role. Mane, thanks to his scintillating pace, is ruthless in closing down the ball and is a terror to deal with thanks to his dynamic pace and strength combination. Lallana is another player that is constantly pressuring the opposition and his work rate is even more important now that he is playing in central midfield rather than in attack.
Instead of purchasing a defensive midfielder or consistently playing Sturridge as the team’s number nine, Klopp is relying on the three aforementioned players to defend from the front and mask the team’s defensive deficiencies. The entire team is expected to ruthlessly press the opposition throughout the match, but those three players carry the highest burden and it is no surprise that each of them have been mainstays in the starting eleven to begin the season.
Preventing the opposition from gaining enough time on the ball to pick apart the Reds’ defense is paramount, but that strategy is hard to sustain over a full 90 minutes. Plus, relying on Henderson to play a vital role in which he is not suited is a risky strategy, especially when it carries the huge burden of protecting a defence that is often left exposed on the counter by Lallana and Wijnaldum.
As the season progresses and the players become more familiar with their positioning in different situations, it is reasonable to expect fewer goals conceded. However, it is difficult to envision Sturridge becoming a regular member of the starting eleven unless he can press the ball at a similar rate to that of Firmino and Divock Origi.
Firmino is often the spearhead of the press and in a 4-3-3, the Brazilian forms a relentless pressing combination with Mane and Coutinho. This position is vital as it sets the tone for the rest of the team, and Klopp has chosen Firmino over Sturridge in this position primarily due to his ability to excel in carrying out his defensive duties.
Once Can returns and competition for places reaches maximum levels on the training ground, Klopp’s team selection may change. In the meantime, it is reasonable to expect Firmino, Mane, and Lallana to continue as key members of the starting eleven.
When Can reaches full fitness, he will likely slide into the holding role, pushing Henderson back into central midfield. Though few would question Wijnaldum’s attacking nous, Henderson’s work rate is exceptional and could see him start over the Dutchman in central midfield.
Klopp is determined to build his team through the press which will leave certain fans exasperated at the lack of importance placed on selecting true defensive players. As the team continues to grow accustomed to the strategy throughout the season, this tactic may prove to be genius as the Reds should have no problem putting the ball in the net. Whether or not the team can prevent the opposition from doing the same is currently an unanswered question and may continue to be for the foreseeable future.