Jürgen Klopp felt a shiver of footballing deja vu after Liverpool were defeated by Sevilla in the Europa League final last May.
The Spanish outfit won their third successive Europa League after Coke’s quick-fire, second half brace hushed angry cries from Liverpool fans of penalties that might have been.
Hopes of the club competing in Europe had been vanquished before the Reds had the opportunity to truly envisage what the following season may entail.
However, Jürgen Klopp’s heavy involvement with heartache in football has created a man driven by passion, resolve and grit.
The overwhelming weight of the beast that is football management took its toll upon Klopp, who had fallen out of love with managing Borussia Dortmund in April last year and announced to the world his shock resignation.
So Liverpool’s appointment of Klopp the following October was surprising, given that the German had been expected to take a year’s sabbatical.
All in all, it was a very unique appointment for the Merseyside outfit to make, not just because of Klopp’s renowned fame throughout the world. Bringing with him a management style that was unrivalled, Liverpool were about to undergo an enormous albeit gradual facelift at the hands of the German.
Gegenpressing is Klopp’s stamp on each club he manages. In Germany with Mainz and Borussia Dortmund, such a transformative tactical process allowed teams to compete with larger and wealthier teams who had little nous with regard to how to counter a revolutionary strategy.
What gegenpressing is essentially defined as is quite simple on paper. A manager who deploys such a tactic will demand that his players use incredibly high intensity and have exemplary work-rate in order to constantly harass and pressurise the opposition If you lose the ball, it must be instantaneously retrieved.
A clever idea, but one that can be difficult to maintain over a ninety-minute period, let alone an entire season. That is why so few managers are masters of the style, but Klopp is.
Initially, the process took its time to become implemented at an English club. Klopp’s first game was a 0-0 draw with Tottenham at White Hart Lane, where Liverpool sparked before ultimately fizzing out in what was an alien brand of football to many players.
Ten months on, and the signs that a vibrant and fresh team have passed the first phases of Klopp’s mentality and style are evidently on display.
Defence is obviously an issue for now, but that will be remedied in the next year. In Dortmund’s 2011-12 title-winning season, just 25 goals were conceded as they romped to a consecutive Bundesliga title.
Such a goals against statistic is in stark contrast to Liverpool’s record in the Premier League throughout 2015-16. In comparison to teams in the top four – Tottenham conceded 35 goals – the Reds conceded fifteen more, and – without the constantly injured Daniel Sturridge – managed to score just 63 goals.
Such a total is not terrible by any means, but when a questionable defence is not functioning the firepower at the opposite end need to be exceeding expectations.
These teething problems are not Klopp’s fault, however. As I’m sure many managers will testify, taking charge of a team with high expectations two months into a difficult campaign is not the most attractive of offers.
Alberto Moreno and Christian Benteke, both acquisitions made under Brendan Rodgers’ tenure, have failed to impress despite the best efforts of Klopp to fine tune their game. And the choking influence of Anfield’s transfer committee hinders rather than helps Klopp in his bid to restore Liverpool amongst the greats of Europe.
Now, it seems that some control has been wrestled from the treacherous group of inept decision-makers as the club begin to land some impressive targets.
Players such as Georginio Wijnaldum and Sadio Mane have now been recruited by Klopp to lead Liverpool into a period of progress after serious regression during the era of Brendan Rodgers, one magical season thanks to Luis Suarez notwithstanding.
Over recent years it would have been difficult to locate supporters who were awe-inspired by Liverpool’s displays.
Under Klopp, that has certainly changed. The turning point occured at the Etihad last November.
After over a month of intense training drills and a return to school for many footballers as Klopp explained his varied tactics, it all clicked into place in the 4-1 win against Manchester City.
Klopp’s arrival was particularly exciting for Bundesliga enthusiasts who were aware of the staggering potential of Roberto Firmino. A keen German football fan, Klopp understood and appreciated the player in a way that his predecessor never could.
For the wealthy German club Hoffenheim, Firmino’s exchanges with partner Kevin Volland and prowess on the ball were nothing short of exquisite. Such talent was wasted on Rodgers, who quite simply, had no idea where to play him.
Firmino operated in a number of different roles at Hoffenheim, but thrived when he was granted a role to freely portray his abilities on the pitch.
Tactical Outlook Under Klopp
Firmino has a way to go until he becomes one of the Premier League’s best players, but has been one of Liverpool’s more entertaining players since Klopp’s arrival.
Coutinho’s growth has also developed nicely under Klopp and the 24-year-old is constantly one of the most prominent and threatening individuals on the pitch.
Manchester United may take to Jose Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 but often the Portuguese has a target forward to work with, for example Didier Drogba at Chelsea or, of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the coming campaign.
Therefore, it is a very specific formation suited to only certain teams, and it gave Liverpool a very limited attacking approach last season. It should please fans that Klopp has found an alternative route into the opposition’s half.
The This Is Anfield‘s graphic below shows the different options that Klopp’s shrewd summer additions provide for his team, and the general efficiency of the 4-3-3 formation.
If Liverpool revert back to the 4-2-3-1 formation, it is not out of the question to consider Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum together in midfield, but this really does suit the Dutchman.
The signing from Newcastle was allowed a more liberal role to sitting midfielder Jordan Henderson, which pushed both himself and Adam Lallana further afield when Arsenal were being heavily pressed.
The pair are Klopp’s box-to-box midfielders if Sunday’s showing is anything to go by and could become one of the top flight’s strongest partnerships. It will be intriguing to see who Can will replace should he come into the side for Saturday’s game against Burnley.
It is unlikely that the captain Henderson will be dropped in favour of the German, so perhaps a rotation system of Can, James Milner, Wijnaldum and Lallana in midfield could work for Klopp, depending on opposition.
Ideally, Henderson should have support from his wing backs. Nathaniel Clyne is utilised in a sweeping role well, but the aforementioned Alberto Moreno really is the weak link in the team. The left back struggles to be positionally aware at times and when he realises he has left gaps in the defence, tends to be overzealous in his efforts to win back the ball. We saw this with the penalty incident on Theo Walcott early in the game.
Firmino will also take time to become clinical in a position where he is the furthest forward, but the fluidity of his play alongside Mane and Coutinho was promising against Arsenal and bodes well for the club’s European aspirations.
Sturridge, meanwhile, will also soon be available so the Reds’ strength in depth, particularly in the attacking regions of the team, is exciting.
A return to Europe?
Liverpool’s fortunes and strength in depth will be key in telling whether or not they can cause a minor shock and break into the top four. It does not take a genius to decipher where the team’s issues are but with the transfer window closing at the end of the month, Klopp will have to move quickly.
Moreno’s exit from Anfield is unlikely but the Spaniard is in desperate need of strong competition. We’re unlikely to see any more activity in the market for a centre back with Augsburg’s Ragnar Klavan and Schalke’s Joel Matip already recruited from the Bundesliga.
The combination of Mane, Firmino and Coutinho could work wonders, but there will be close encounters when defences are too stubborn to be broken down with flair. Whether Sturridge’s star quality is available or not could be crucial to Klopp and his team this season in their ambitions to finish in the top four.
Regardless, we’re witnessing a new era in Merseyside, and the rest of the Premier League will have trouble keeping Klopp’s men quiet.
Callum Connolly, Pundit Arena.