AN ODE TO JURGEN KLOPP AND HIS JOURNEY WITH LIVERPOOL SO FAR
October 8th: a little over a year ago. Liverpool announced appointing Jurgen Klopp as their manager to replace the much maligned Brendan Rodgers, who had lost his way since the departure of the talismanic forward Suarez. The Reds were devoid of any style, purpose and the players visibly looked lacking any confidence. Klopp had his task cut out; to get back the team to winning ways and wake up the sleeping giant. Although the jury is still out on the latter; it is safe to say that Klopp has done his reputation no harm in the way Liverpool has played over the course of last year.
Klopp: “No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter pressing situation.”
Over the past year, Liverpool has developed their own distinct brand of playing a high intensity football and the players are getting moulded into fitting the system. The much hyphed heavy metal football that characterized the Dortmund team was expected to be replicated at Anfield too. They now play a high intensity pressing game where the emphasis is on winning the ball higher off the pitch and initiate lightning fast counter attacks.
Putting the first pre-season at his disposal to good use, Klopp has organised a unit which could implement the “Gegenpressing” style of play, which means a spontaneous and organised press by a group of players to regain possession moments after losing it when the ball is lost higher up the pitch. The front 3 with the most advanced midfielder swarming around the opposition defenders pressing them tirelessly, cutting off passing channels and springing moves whenever possession is gained. Liverpool as a team has covered the most distance in the ground in the premier league and tops the table on the number of sprints made. They also top the table when it comes to possession and number of chances created. The Hull game showed how this Liverpool outfit is mastering the art of counter-pressing and how well they can smother their opponents with incessant pressing.
Although it was believed Klopp would employ his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation this season, he has moved on to a 4-3-3 system. In this system, the fluid front three constantly interchange amongst themselves. The midfield consists of 2 box to box midfielders and a holding midfielder who sits between the center backs and gets the ball from the back. The fullbacks are responsible of providing width in the attack and the Centre backs are capable of playing from the back. Although the defense still looks suspect and the weakness from set pieces still persists, the problem might disappear once the center back pairing of Lovren and Matip gel together and strike a partnership.
Overall, Klopp has organised a well drilled team where every player has a clear cut role and is an essential cog in the machine. It is a system where everyone attacks and everyone defends with not a great deal of emphasis placed on positional rigidity. It is a system which was developed by acquiring players who will fit into the system and it will only get better over the months.
SHREWD TRANSFER MARKET BUSINESSES
“I wait for the day when the transfer window is closed. I can’t believe how obsessed you all are with this.” Said Klopp.
It felt great to see a manager, who for a change, believes that the best way to improve a team is not to break the bank in a transfer market, but by training. In an era where transfers are seen as a sure shot way for success, he believes in transferring his idea into the players in the training sessions and looking at the squad rather than splashing cash at every opportunity which is supported by how he converted James into a left back rather than spending 15 million on a specialist left back.
The summer saw the arrival of seven faces to bolster the squad and the signings were made promptly with minimum fuss before the end of pre-season. Marko Grujic and Joel Matip were acquired long before the transfer window opened. Goalkeeper Loris Karius and Ragnar Klavan were signed from Bundesliga clubs and veteran Goal Keeper Alex Manninger was signed to be the third choice keeper. The two high profile and big money signings were Sadio Mane and Georgino Wijnaldum and the transfers were not met with universal adulations from the fan simply because they were signed from Southampton and New Castle.
However, going by the recent performances of Mane and Matip and how they have strengthened the team, they look like a steal. Mane with his frightening pace and final third wizardry, Matip with his ball playing ability and aerial prowess, Wijnaldum in his box to box role have looked a bargain so far. All the newcomers are substantial improvements on the players they are replacing and finally, the club can boast of a strong bench.
It’s equally important to get rid of your dead weight as incoming transfers. As predicted, Liverpool’s first summer transfer window saw the exodus of 13 players, including some big names such as Christian Benteke, Kolo Toure, Joe Allen and Martin Skrtel. Klopp was ruthless to show doors to the player who did not fit into his system after treating last season as a screening phase. However, Liverpool managed to recuperate a fairly good amount of money on majority of these transfers by adopting a hardball approach and the club was smart to insert buy back clauses in case of transfers of promising young players.
Best deal though? 6 years contract to Klopp.
At one point, Lallana used to be hauled off regularly at the hour mark because he didn’t possess the engine to operate for 90 minutes. Dejan Lovren looked like a Sunday league defender. Robert Firmino seemed like another 30 million quids down the drain. Origi gave you the impression he was not ready for Premier League.
But what a remarkable turnaround it has been for these players. Lallana covers 12 kms of the ground in a match for fun, Lovren looks like the defender he was at Southampton and Firmino is the first name on the score sheet. All this is down to Klopp’s excellent man managing skills and his unwavering backing of his players. He is constantly there at the touch line, encouraging his players, celebrates the odd goals with the players and hugs his players after a win. He is careful never to publicly criticise his players before the press and the players reciprocate by owing complete loyalty to the gaffer. He has given debuts to a good number of players from the youth set up and has sent the message that if you are good enough you can definitely play for the first team. Klopp is excellent at motivating his players and stretching their limits which brings out the best from the squad.
LIVERPOOL: A MUCH MORE RESILIENT UNIT
Sadly, for Rodger’s ridiculous obsession with “character” of the team, it was one department where the team lacked severely. One goal down and you lose all hope of three points. Leading by 2 goals till the 70th minute, capitulate and lose points. This has become a far too common sight. Liverpool was a team of boys, far too brittle, which went down with a fight.
Last season, Liverpool lost the most number of points from winning positions, losing healthy leads against Southhampton, New Castle and Sunderland. Liverpool’s inability to launch a comeback and to see out a game cost them a place in Europe. At the same time, Liverpool’s incredible comeback against Dortmund, a number of stoppage time goals to salvage a point indicated that the team was on an upward curve. One more worrying sign was Liverpool’s abysmal record against the other big boys of the Premier League.
Fast forward one year and Liverpool is not the same frail team that it was for so many years. However, if recent results against Arsenal, Chelsea and Swansea are anything to go by, the team has taken giant strides. The match is not over till the referee blows the whistle at full time and the team looks far more immune to capitulations now. Manchester city were dispatched in a convincing double last year, Chelsea was thrashed at the Bridge, Manchester United was shown the doors in Europa League and 4 goals were scored past Arsenal at Emirates. The team has much more grit and is an intimidating opposition for any team.
MAKING ANFIELD GREAT AGAIN
“We have to change from doubter to believer.”- Klopp, at his first press interview.
The fabled Anfield atmosphere famous for being a cauldron of noise capable of underwhelming any opposition was becoming a myth. The once roaring Anfield atmosphere was is doldrums and away fans used to chant that the Anfield resembles a library.
Klopp knew Liverpool is a special club and he never shied away from engaging with the fan. He publicly expressed his disappointment over fans heading out for an early exit when Liverpool was trailing to Crystal Palace in a November game and appealed the fans to get behind the team. Return of European football reminded us of the special European nights at Anfield which the new generation of Liverpool fans hasn’t got to witness at all.
The fans were at their best during the home leg of Europa matches against Man United, Dortmund and Villareal with flags, mosaics and pyros and were the 12th man in those games. How else do you explain a bang average Liverpool team scoring 4 goals after conceding two in the first 10 minutes against a Dortmund team which was scoring for fun? There is a lot more positive atmosphere which is prevailing in Anfield and having the fans are onboard, Anfield atmosphere is slowly returning to its very best.
The past year has been stern test of ability of Klopp to manage in a different league and he has certainly come out with flying colors. Remember, there is a football revolution happening behind the screen at Melwood. The fans have to get onboard and enjoy the ride. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Keep calm and trust Kaiser Klopp.
(I am a law student and a passionate Reds fan from Bangalore. Didn’t witness the glory days, but they will be back soon anyway.)