Pressing and counter-attacking along with selfless players are behind Reds’ march to glory, writes Daniel Storey.
The full-back switches
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson are the best full-back pair in the world not because of what they do individually, but because of how they operate in tandem. Until recently we might have viewed the likely stablemate of the full-backs as the winger in front of him, offering overlaps and getting close to the byline. With Liverpool it’s a little different.
To some extent, this is a strategy created by the characteristics of the two players. Both Alexander-Arnold and Robertson are so comfortable surging down their respective flanks that when they receive the ball at feet the opposition naturally shuffles over to close down the space. That inevitably creates space on the opposite flank. Then comes the magic, one full-back arrowing a 60-yard pass either to feet or into an area that the other can advance into. Robertson aims to get further up the pitch and cross the ball flat across goal; Alexander-Arnold possesses a wonderful curling delivery and so crosses from deeper.
The ball always moves faster than the man. By switching the play so quickly and thus totally changing the focus of Liverpool’s attack in a matter of seconds, the opposition is left scampering to try and cut off the attack. They often arrive too late, undone by the element of surprise.
Liverpool’s general style of play has shifted under Klopp. As they have grown in strength, they have been forced to be more comfortable as a possession-based team rather than a purely counter-attacking one. Their average possession has increased in every season under Klopp’s management, learning to break teams down with short, quick passing and movement off the ball.
But, crucially, Liverpool have never lost the ability to sense a counter-attacking opportunity. With Roberto Firmino dropping deep and Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah staying high up the pitch, the full-backs push forward as soon as Liverpool turnover possession in midfield.
Despite having the second highest average possession in the Premier League, no team has scored more counter-attacking goals and only one has attempted more counters. Rather than their principle weapon, those counter attacks are now Liverpool’s latent threat. That only makes them more dangerous.
Pressing and dropping
Gegenpressing became the Premier League’s cause celebre when Klopp was appointed at Liverpool. His Dortmund side had become successful through pressing high up the pitch. Klopp’s insistence was that the best - and most dangerous - time to win back possession was immediately after losing it, exploiting an opponent that might have become momentarily complacent and be caught out of defensive position.
But Klopp’s high-intensity press has evolved at Liverpool. While the front three do press opposition defenders high up the pitch, aiming to funnel the ball into the centre of the pitch where their midfielders can swarm opponents with the ball, Liverpool are not a mad frenzy of full-pitch pressing. They are not necessarily pressing less but being more selective as to when and how they put pressure on the opposition.
That figures. The addition of a defensive leader in Virgil van Dijk means that Liverpool can also shuffle back into a strong defensive shape if the initial press is not successful. It means that Liverpool can effectively defend twice, once in the opponent’s half and once in their own.
Industry in midfield
Two years ago, it seemed unthinkable that Liverpool possessed the best pair of attacking full-backs in world football. Robertson had started the season behind Alberto Moreno in the left-back queue before stepping into the breach. Alexander-Arnold registered a single assist in 18 league starts.
But Klopp has ushered in a new era of full-back creativity. Robertson and Alexander-Arnold rank first and joint-second for league assists at Liverpool this season and first and joint-third for chances created. In terms of passes ending in the final third of the pitch, both have recorded more than 650 in this season. No other defender in the league has more than 550.
But it is all built on the industry of their midfield. While Pep Guardiola packs his midfield with creative passers and wingers -David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, Kevin de Bruyne), Klopp prefers to use worker bees.
For too long, Liverpool were exposed against teams capable of soaking up pressure and hitting them on the break; they struggled against lesser Premier League sides. The difference is the sacrifice made by Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum, covering for Robertson and Alexander-Arnold when they push on. Without them, Liverpool would be aesthetically wonderful. With them, they are doubly effective.
The selfless striker
Klopp does not have favourites; the secret of his man management lies in the creation of a familial spirit in which every first-team player feels loved and cherished. But there is a special place in Klopp’s heart for Firmino’s selfless sacrifice. In February, Klopp insisted that he had never known a player bring out the skills of his teammates so effectively.
At Hoffenheim, Firmino played as an attacking midfielder who ran towards goal. At Anfield, he is usually deployed facing away from goal, dropping to space to link play and allowing Mane and Salah to come inside. What starts as a 4-3-3 with two wide forwards often becomes a 4-3-1-2 with split strikers. In this system, Firmino pulls defenders out of position to create space for Liverpool’s two forwards centrally and thus the two full-backs out wide.
Firmino’s weakness lies in his finishing (his shot conversion rate this season ranks 14th amongst Liverpool’s players this season), but Klopp’s reported honesty to Timo Werner that he wouldn’t be a guaranteed starter at Anfield suggests that his faith in Firmino is boundless.