If you wanted to see how far Liverpool have come under the management of Jürgen Klopp, just look at the competitions they have won and continue to compete these days, compared to his first appointment. The German guided the team he inherited remarkably well to the League Cup and Europa League finals in 2016, but the Reds now have much more ambitious goals.
But in terms of How? ‘Or’ What they have advanced this far, there have clearly been many factors. Perhaps more importantly, the club’s recruitment has been exceptional over a long period, with players recruited who are a perfect match for the way Klopp wants his team to play.
But perhaps most vital of all has been the ability to turn what was arguably the Reds’ greatest weakness under their current manager into a strength. It takes hard work, and we’ve seen proof of that in recent wins over Everton and Villarreal.
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Much was made of Klopp’s ‘heavy metal football’ style when he was appointed and the impact of this was seen from day one. There is a famous image of Adam Lallana almost collapsing in his manager’s arms when he was substituted in Klopp’s first game in charge, a 0-0 draw at Tottenham. The Reds were now a top team and determined to prove it, whether home or away.
However, opposition managers are not stupid. How do you prevent a team that likes to win the ball up the pitch from creating goalscoring opportunities? Give them the ball and challenge them to break through your deep defense.
Liverpool were repeatedly put to that test in 2015/16, then Klopp’s first full season at the helm, and repeatedly failed. In those two campaigns, the Reds have played 10 league games in which they had at least 70% possession, and they have won just three of them. Even then, one of the wins saw Hull City shown a red card in the first half, so when playing against 11 men who had no interest in having the ball, Liverpool usually struggled.
But there’s ‘no point in having the ball’, and then there’s what Everton served at Anfield last weekend. The Reds recorded the second-highest possession figure seen in a Premier League game since 2003/04 (when records started) in the last edition of the Merseyside derby. Yet despite attempting 82.4% of total passes, Liverpool still managed to force six high turnovers.
These are defined by Opta as “streaks which start in open play and start 40m or less from the opponents’ goal”, and they give a good indication of the pressure in or just outside the final third . While the Reds’ tally of six against Everton was down from their seasonal average, it was a decent effort in light of Everton’s ‘play dead’ tactic. And more importantly, one of the high turnovers led to Liverpool’s first goal.
The Blues could not get out of the defense thanks to the great attention of several men in red, Fabinho recovered the ball and the sequence leading to the goal was started. It was the seventh time Liverpool had scored from a high turnover in the league this season, more than any other side in the division. Klopp’s men may not have been so productive attackingly pressing high against Villarreal but they still set a new benchmark for 2021/22 with their efforts.
Where once possession-averse teams confused Liverpool, they can now hold the majority of the ball while winning it back. That means it works from a defensive perspective as well as a more obvious attacking perspective, and that was very evident against Unai Emery’s side.
Villarreal just couldn’t get out of the back, they were so overrun with Liverpool players. The Spanish side made just six passes from open play in the final third all night; Trent Alexander-Arnold single-handedly managed with three more times. While they had been under pressure for much of their quarter-final with Bayern Munich, they still managed to have a blast and had a total of 16 shots in 180 minutes. At Anfield they only had one, and that from a set piece.
The tables of five years ago have well and truly been turned for Liverpool. Where they were once clueless when they had plenty of possession, their opponents are now hopeless in attack and defense when they do. Klopp once said that ‘no playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation’, but his side may have proven that no defensive midfielder can be as good the other way either.