If anyone believed Jurgen Klopp would come in and instantly transform Liverpool into an unstoppable winning machine, destined for top four and potentially even a title challenge in his debut season as Liverpool manager, they vastly underestimated the scale of the task at hand. Klopp had been left with an unbalanced squad, bereft of star quality and desperately lacking in confidence. Throughout the opening month’s of the German’s tenure, the results have been erratic.
There have been some spectacular victories and some dismal defeats, with Liverpool unable to perform to their maximum ability regularly enough to progress from mid-table. Yet as we enter the final quarter of the 2015/16 season, there are strong signs of significant progress and greater consistency. Klopp’s side are finally clicking into gear, and there is a sense that for all Liverpool’s struggles, this season could yet come to an exciting finale, with an unlikely late push for the top four on the horizon. But what has Jurgen Klopp actually changed in terms of tactics in order to achieve this improvement in such a short space of time?
The circumstances in which Klopp began life as Liverpool manager were severely challenging, to the point where an injury crisis reduced his options so greatly that Klopp hardly had any choice over the players he selected. It was therefore very difficult to determine which player Klopp particularly liked in the Liverpool squad, and even more challenging to determine his favored formation. The number of injuries meant that Klopp had to chop and change his starting lineup and tactical shape on a weekly basis, unable to build any kind of stable blueprint.
Now, 5 months into the job, there are clear signs of how this Liverpool side is evolving under Klopp’s management. With virtually all of his key players fit and available, Klopp has been able to start identifying his strongest possible starting XI, analysing the players at his disposal with a view to summer transfer activity. Those who impress Klopp will be retained for his long-term future project, while those who don’t fit the bill will most likely be moved on elsewhere. In recent weeks, Liverpool have put together an excellent run of results, which has come as a result of a much more stable starting XI, allowing the players to develop a better understanding of each other as well as their individual role in the side.
It would appear that Klopp favours a 4-2-3-1 system when the right players are fit and available. With Emre Can and Jordan Henderson providing a dynamic double-pivot, taking turns to shuttle forward while the other holds a deeper position, Liverpool’s midfield has been much improved in recent weeks, as seen in the total domination of Man United on Thursday night. Further forward, the energetic trio of technically gifted playmakers provide creativity and energy, with Coutinho cutting in from the left, Lallana on the right and Roberto Firmino through the middle, with a license for each of them to fluidly interchange throughout the match. Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi have rotated as the main forward options, each providing pace and movement, with the former more technically gifted while the latter offers greater work-rate off the ball. The overlapping runs of Alberto Moreno and Nathaniel Clyne offer great width in Liverpool’s attacks, while the settled centre-back partnership of Dejan Lovren and Mamadou Sakho is improving game by game.
Although there will be several changes in personnel over the summer transfer window, we can expect the 4-2-3-1 system to be Klopp’s standard formation moving forwards. However, Klopp has already shown his tactical flexibility to adapt to certain situations. The decision to deploy Firmino as a centre forward in a ‘false nine’ role has paid dividends, allowing the Brazilian to express himself and showcase his true ability. Since Klopp’s appointment, Firmino has arguably been Liverpool’s best player and having adapted to the English game, he is now playing with a renewed sense of confidence instilled by his new manager. With 9 goals and 8 assists already this season, Firmino has a strong case as the Premier League’s most in-form player. The decision to field Firmino up front ahead of Christian Benteke, a £32.5 million striker, was a bold tactical switch which has reaped the rewards for Liverpool. Likewise, the decision to field Lucas Leiva at centre-back on several big occasions also proved a tactical masterstroke by Klopp, trusting Lucas to use his experienced and tactical understanding to excel in an unfamiliar position. Once again, it was not an obvious choice, but a risk Klopp was willing to take- and it paid off.
Aside from a settled formation and individual tactical changes, perhaps the most significant part of Klopp’s vision has been to instill his ‘gegenpressing’ philosophy. Much has been made of this term since Klopp’s arrival, but on many occasions Liverpool have failed to produce the kind of high-intensity, aggressive pressing game that Klopp desires. It takes time to coach a squad to perform such a demanding style of football, but we are starting to see signs of Klopp’s philosophy taking shape.
The recent 3-0 and 2-0 victories over Man City and Man United respectively have showcased ‘gegenpressing’ at its devastating best. When one player sprints to close down the opposition, it triggers a response in the rest of the side. In order to work effectively, team pressing must be a cohesive action. In these two performances, neither opposition could cope with the execution of Liverpool’s pressing. Van Gaal even admitted it himself. The 3rd goal in the victory over Man City came directly from Lallana stealing possession in the final third before teeing up Firmino for the finish. In the 2-0 Europa League victory over Man United, the away side could hardly progress out of their own half such was the constant pressure they were put under by the Liverpool players. The likes of Can, Lallana and Firmino are among the best at performing this role- whenever they lose possession, they sprint to try and win it back immediately.
It must be said that these are only the first pieces of the jigsaw for Jurgen Klopp. There is still much more room for improvement and the squad is still in need of several top quality additions in key areas over the summer transfer window. Despite the bitter disappointment of a penalty-shootout defeat in the League Cup final, Liverpool have one foot in the Europa League quarter-finals and a win at Southampton next weekend will put the Reds just 4 points off top 4. There is still much to play for this season with Klopp’s side gathering momentum at just the right time. This recent upturn in form is much down to the gradual implementation of Klopp’s tactical vision, in terms of a settled system, individual positional changes and the high-intensity style of play. Things are starting to take shape for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool- and this is only the beginning.