October 9, 2015 at 1:14 pm

A Giant Awakens

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Supporters of Liverpool’s greatest foes have long labelled Kopites a deluded, sentimental breed stuck in the past and unable to come to terms with the club’s long, gruelling decline. We cling to our history, convincing ourselves that our past glories make us a special club, but fans of our rivals helpfully remind us – without a hint of envy – that this perception is ours and ours alone.

Perhaps we do go overboard with our own mythology at times. When you’ve gone from dominating Europe for two decades to over 25 years without a league title it’s hard not to glance back to the past in the hope that it may still echo into the future. But arguably the most sought after and popular manager in world football has just said on his arrival at Anfield, “It’s a great place …. the most special place I’ve been… this is the most historical place”, and all of a sudden all that pride in our past seems vindicated. We’re not imagining it. You don’t have to be Scouse. We’re a huge, special club with a bordering on mystical appeal which has just snagged us a manager peerless in his popularity.

Most Liverpool fans know full well how far we have fallen but the hope has always been that, in a paradoxical way, being a shadow of the juggernaut that Liverpool FC once was would someday attract a unique talent, more inspired by resurrecting a sleeping giant than delivering almost guaranteed success at a financial behemoth like Chelsea or Man City. Apparently it has taken a normal man to recognise a special opportunity. “Maybe this is the biggest challenge at the moment in world football, but I was never a guy for the easy way,” said Klopp in his first interview as Liverpool manager. If it wasn’t clear before, it was now obvious that this was a match made in heaven.

Comparing new Liverpool managers is cliched, perhaps even crass, but for a club built by a man who insisted it was about more than mere life or death, it is also compulsory. “It’s our job to let them forget their problems for 90 minutes” said Klopp. “We have to entertain them. We have to make life better”. Words that could easily be mistaken for Shankly’s, were it not for the German accent and big goofy smile. If he holds some of the great man’s values, he shares nothing of his earnest, deadpan demeanour.

Without any of the desperate effort Brendan Rodgers made to say the right things in an effort to endear himself to the club’s fans, Klopp made it clear that he understood how the past two and a half decades had left the fan base feeling, “The LFC family is a little bit too nervous, a little bit too pessimistic, a little too much in doubt” he observed, keenly aware that after the cruel disappointment of 2013/2014 and punishing 2014/2015 season, the club’s supporters have been left emotional wrecks who dared not hope again.

It’s natural for a new manager to look at his inheritance positively at first. Knocking the confidence of players you have to work with for at least three months makes no sense, but Klopp was convincing when he insisted that he takes over a team in a healthy state. “We have speed, we have technical skills… we have good defenders, good strikers, some wingers” he insisted, also claiming less convincingly “The goalkeeper is really good”.

In time he may wish to revise those assessments, but for now at least it seems Klopp thinks he has enough to work with to be competitive right away. Quizzed on whether it would take time to impose a style of play he described as “a wild one”, Klopp gave an answer that will please both fans keen to hit the ground running and those who want to see a long-term, sustainable strategy put in place, “You need a lot of time to end, but not to start .. You need a stable defence, that’s the first thing.”

 

Klopp’s Dortmund

It’s often said that Klopp’s playing style with Dortmund was ‘direct’, but direct usually means shifting the ball from a deep defensive position to attack in just a couple of passes – not by playing aimless long balls in the air, but by hitting the strikers as early as possible, often by bypassing the midfield.

This is not anything like the way Klopp’s sides play, and if it were, he wouldn’t have emphasised the importance of smart midfielders like Sahin, Bender and Gundogan who are technically competent, adept passers of the ball.

Klopp does like to get the ball to his forwards in threatening positions as early as possible, but the aim is to win possession as high up the pitch as possible with surgical creative players who can quickly thread a pass through to a striker anticipating the opportunity, not to loft it forward from the defence.

The most recognisable characteristic of Klopp’s teams is of course the gegenpressing he developed and popularised. Whereas a more standard pressing system might kick in on the halfway line, two thirds up the pitch or via certain triggers like a defender turning back towards goal, gegenpressing is a relentless mutation that requires players to press at full pelt in packs almost all over the pitch. It’s not an unsophisticated ‘everyone chase the ball’ approach, though. The idea is to hound players on the ball while others cut off his passing angles rather than simply positioning to close down the next teammate the harassed opponent passes to.

And the high-octane style doesn’t cease when possession is won. So often last season Liverpool’s attacks were conducted at a walking pace, shifting the ball from one player to the next waiting for something to happen, allowing defences to drop into shape and pack the space in front of their goal. Even for players like Sterling and Coutinho who can beat a couple of players, there was too little space and too many men between them and their target to do any real damage.

Klopp’s Liverpool will instead drive at opponents full pelt before they have time to organise. They will pass the ball plenty, sometimes even sideways or backwards, but it will be with the intention of shifting the space to find players who are bombing on. A typical transition of play at Dortmund under Klopp would be a midfielder in a central position playing a pass forward on the floor to a more advanced attacking midfielder (one of Klopp’s ‘3’ behind the striker) with his back to goal, who would lay it back off to the player who gave it to him or sideways to another making a run forward. That might sound like nothing special, but the combination of lateral and horizontal passes to find players making forward runs is exactly the kind of dynamic movement Liverpool have been sorely lacking against dogged defences at Anfield.

And we need not worry about isolated strikers anymore. Despite preferring to play with one lone forward, Klopp’s attack revolves around runners supporting him, and not just one but two, three or even four – all at once. It can look almost bizarre at times the way three or four yellow shirts would charge forward towards and beyond a striker poised to steer the ball into one of their paths. Expect a glut of high-tempo one-twos and lay-offs to overlapping wide players in the final third, as well as supersonic breakaways when teams are caught out committing players forward.

Anfield loves creative, beautiful attacking football. Rafa Benitez’s relatively rigid and robotic approach probably took it to the limit of what Liverpool fans consider reasonable, and only then because results vindicated the style. But simply passing the ball nicely is not enough, as Rodgers found out in his first season. What really gets the Anfield crowd going is a relentless fight and determination. Think about the players who have been the real fan favourites over the last 15 years. Gerrard. Kuyt. Mascherano. Suarez. What those four all had in common was a commitment to never walk off the pitch having given anything less than 100%. The Kop appreciates a 20 yard run to close someone down or a thumping challenge as much as it does a precision pass or exquisite goal. Jurgen Klopp will give us an entire team playing like their lives depend on it. A side composed of Kuyt’s work-rate, Suarez’s tenacity, Mascherano’s aggression and Gerrard’s desire.  

Relentless out of possession, alert and surgical with it; Klopp’s Liverpool will aim to hit opponents like a whirlwind of fire; exhausting and disorientating defences while simultaneously whipping the Anfield crowd up into a frenzy. It’s a style that revolutionised the German game but may be even better suited to the Premier League. The key will be finding players who can take on and carry out his ideas, whether via the transfer market or from those he inherits.

 

Klopperation Anfield Exercise

Simon Mignolet is not a bad keeper, and when it comes to shot-stopping he is actually very good if not exceptional, but question marks on his ability to command his box and distribution have been replaced with exclamation marks, and Klopp will surely look to replace him with a more assured character in goal before long.

In defence, competence is key, so Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren’s days will surely be numbered. Mamadou Sakho should finally be given the responsibility his talent merits, though, and in Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno we may already have two full-backs Klopp deems adequate, at least for a season or two while other signings are prioritised. At Dortmund, much of the width was supplied by full-backs with the pace and stamina to dominate an entire flank. Both Moreno and Clyne have the mobility for the job, it’s just a case of whether they can prove defensively astute enough for it. Joe Gomez has all the attributes to succeed in any top team’s defence, so it’s just a case to how bigger part Klopp feels he is ready to play. Going with a Sakho-Gomez centre back partnership would be bold, but ability-wise it would also be the closest to his Dortmund pairing that the current squad has to offer.

Henderson and Allen are both players who excel at pressing, but it might be that neither are dynamic enough in possession for Klopp’s core batch of players in the long run. What comes of Jordan Henderson under the new manager is perhaps the most intriguing question. He has the stamina, work rate, desire and strong running to offer a lot in the space between midfield and attack, but it might be he lacks the poise and quality to claim one of the two deeper midfield roles longterm.

Milner and Lallana are two others that may well see less game time than they would under Rodgers, but who could still offer a lot if prepared to participate as squad players. And squad players will be far more important under Klopp than they were under Rodgers, who either relied on you or froze you out of the picture. Klopp’s full-tilt style means players use up more of their energy reserves and will need resting at times. If we can go two or three goals up in matches, Klopp may turn the dial down just to ten in order to reserve some energy, but when that can’t happen he will need to rotate to ensure the players on the pitch can carry out his tactics.

It’s no secret that Klopp wanted Roberto Firmino while at Dortmund, and the Brazilian’s tenacity off the ball and pace, creativity and finishing with it will make him ideally suited to both his gegenpressing and slick attacking moves.

In place of Shinji Kagawa pulling the strings see Philippe Coutinho, who is also a very good presser and has been at his very best for Liverpool when putting Daniel Sturridge through on goal with early, defence-splitting passes, making him a great fit if he sticks around.

With Sturridge back in the fold and already flying, Klopp inherits a healthier situation in attack than Rodgers had enjoyed since Suarez left the club, and it could well be that he sees value in Benteke’s qualities. The way Dortmund attacked often required forwards to play with their backs to goal, laying the ball off to onrushing midfielders, and that’s something Benteke is more than adept at. Whether he will be quick enough off the mark to run beyond defences when a successful gegenpress presents an opportunity is another matter, but there is certainly no question about Sturridge’s credentials there. While still very raw, Danny Ings could prove an ideal fit in attack, given his propensity to run himself into the ground after defenders and his decent burst of pace. Even Mario Balotelli could be given another chance and would surely fair better under Klopp than he did Rodgers.

Markovic, too, is a player who looked a shadow of the one who showed so much zest at Partizan and then Benfica, and although I have big doubts about his decision-making and creative intelligence at the highest level, it’s true that a player low on confidence and struggling in an unfamiliar position can suddenly lose their touch and the accuracy of their passing. Whether he or Ilori can be brought back from exile on loan this season remains to be seen.

It’s almost impossible to say how things will go in the first few months when any new manager takes over. Sometimes there’s a ‘honeymoon period’ bounce, while in other cases it can take players a while to adapt to a new manager’s system. But given Klopp’s ability to inspire, the fact that his style is just an extension of the one Rodgers tried (at first at least) to implement and the suitability of the existing squad to his ideas, there’s no reason to think things won’t improve quickly, if only steadily.

Sat just six points off the top of the league and four from the Champions League places, that means literally anything is possible for Liverpool this season.

“We have to change from doubter, to believer. Now” said Klopp when asked for his message for the Liverpool fans. “When I sit here in 4 years, I think we’ve won the title in this time. I’m pretty sure”. For one memorable season Brendan Rodgers allowed Liverpool to dream again. Now we have a manager who confidently, reassuringly tells us that we must, and that if we do, he will deliver us to glory.

There’s a long way to go and as always in football, there are no guarantees, but it feels like a juggernaut that has spent the majority of the past three decades in a deep, nightmarish slumber has finally awoken, and is ready to make up for lost time.

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