Jurgen Klopp’s arrival on Liverpool’s bench, as a consequence of Brendan Rodgers sacking, contributed to liven up an otherwise boring International break with everyone breathlessly awaiting to see the ex Borussia Dortmund manager debut in the Premier League. Finally on Saturday lunch-time kickoff, the Reds faced Tottenham at White Hart Lane.
English and International media took for granted the deployment of the 4-2-3-1 as Liverpool’s starting formation, the same system Klopp used to field during his time at Borussia Dortmund. But the newly-appointed Liverpool’s manager surprisingly opted for a 4-3-2-1, taking into account the amount of players unavailable. During the International break, both Joe Gomez and Danny Ings suffered a cruciate ligament injury, meaning that their first season as Liverpool’s players could be already concluded. They joined the list of long-term injured players which already included the likes of Flanagan, Henderson, Benteke, Firmino and Lovren. To make things worse Sturridge failed to make the match-day squad due to a minor knee injury.
A defensive line consisting, from right to left , of Clyne, Skrtel, Sakho and Moreno played in front of Simon Mignolet. Lucas acted as the deep-lying midfielder with Milner and Emre Can to his sides. Coutinho and Lallana played respectively as the left and right offensive midfielder, supporting lone striker Divock Origi.
On the other hand Mauricio Pochettino chose the 4-2-3-1, with a pivot duo consisting of Alli and Dembélé and with the usual Lamela-Eriksen-Chadli attacking trio behind Harry Kane. The early injured occurred to the Belgian winger saw ex-Oliympique Lyonnais Clinton N’Jie sent on after eleven minutes of play.
Pressing à la Dortmund
During the first 45 minutes Liverpool’s pressing impressed in pure Klopp-style. The 4-3-2-1 is a system that allows to block access to the centre of the pitch with relative ease and which allowed Liverpool to create a numerical advantage against Tottenham’s midfield duo. The German manager implemented a compact and ball-oriented pressing, with his team sliding horizontally or diagonally towards the position of the ball. Coutinho and Lallana were pivotal in giving balance to the entire system and in the pressing itself, acting in the half-spaces, the zones in-between the central defender and the fullback. Liverpool consistently tried to force the Spurs build-up to the flanks where they could trap fullbacks Walker and Rose.
Usually the ball-near offensive midfielder pressed the fullback with the support of the midfielder positioned on the same side and thanks to the high defensive line too, which contributed to keep the team vertically compact. Ball-near midfielder and offensive midfielder took turns in pressing the ball holder and in cover-shadowing passing lanes towards the centre of the pitch.
Liverpool’s long-awaited gegenpressing/counterpressing was very effective too, with all the players quite determined in getting the ball back as soon as they lost it. In regards of running and determination one of the stats offered by Opta is very interesting: the Reds made 50 more sprints than Spurs and they were the first team to run further than Pochettino’s team in a Premier League match this season.
As requested by their coach, Liverpool tried to play out from the defence. Ideally centre-backs Skrtel and Sakho should have received the ball from the keeper and then pass it to the deep-lying midfielder Lucas. The vertical compactness of the team during build-up contributed to establish the necessary links between defence and midfield with the support of the fullbacks and of Milner and Can, allowing to develop the play both centrally and in wider zones.
With five midfielders deployed in the centre or in the half-spaces, Liverpool’s 4-3-2-1 lacked wide players in midfield or offence. Coutinho and Lallana played narrower behind Origi, so it was Can’s and Milner’s duty to provide width. Milner was particularly comfortable in this role, combining with Lallana and especially with the rightback Clyne. The pair acted both on the flanks, with one overlapping the other or switching positions, with Clyne acting situationally in a narrower position when Milner moved wider.
Liverpool’s confidence in building-up play from the back gradually lessened with the time. Mignolet wasn’t particularly comfortable in his brand new sweeper-keeper role. The high defensive line left him to cover a bigger portion of the pitch than the penalty area alone, but the Belgian keeper was quite hesitant in rushing out from his goal, showing a lack of self-confidence. Moreover Pochettino, who was initially surprised by the Reds setup, found the right tweaks to his team’s pressing: the Spurs forced Liverpool’s centre-backs pair wider and wider in build-up and they consistently cut-out the passing lanes to Lucas, forcing Mignolet to play the long ball often.
Liverpool’s incredible intensity shown at the beginning was unlikely to last for the entire game, especially considering that the players had only a week of training sessions under their belt. Indeed Liverpool full-throttle pressing dropped after 30 minutes into the game. Spurs started to find more space in the centre of the pitch: Dembélé and Alli took control of the midfield, supported by Eriksen who dropped often deeper, with Spurs system in build-up resembling more a 4-3-3 than a 4-2-3-1.
Intense = spectacular (?)
Klopp answered back with another element of his tactical style, with Liverpool displaying good compactness inside their half, allowing almost no goal-scoring opportunities to Pochettino’s team.
For their part the Reds, if we exclude Origi’s header which hit the woodwork, had some difficulties in creating dangerous situations. They lacked a true offensive reference point, since the young Belgian forward has still to prove his suitability to play at the highest level. After Brazil World Cup exploit, the ex Lille player has yet to propose a similar level of performance: last year he was so bad that L’Equipe named him in Ligue 1 flops of the season. Considering Ings season-ending injury and Sturridge inconsistent health, Origi is likely to see decent playing time this season, but he has to provide a more significant contribution.
As confirmed by Michael Caley’s XG map of the game, the goalless draw mirrors well a game not so full of goal-scoring opportunities, which yet was a real show from the point of view of the intensity offered by both teams which, until sustained by stamina, pressed all over the pitch.
Klopp’s first match as Liverpool’s manager was not his dream debut, but even with a squad decimated by injuries, the Reds exhibited on the pitch some of the principles of play which made the German manager famous (and successful). There is still a lot of work to do, especially on the defensive phase and on the physical condition, but the players, absents included, should fit quite well in Klopp’s football philosophy. Pressing traps, gegenpressing, compactness and zonal marking in corners will become soon the routine at Melwood and Anfield. In this regard, two modern managers like Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino are exactly what the Premier League needed from a tactical point of view.
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