To look at Jurgen Klopp bouncing around on the touchline, in a tracksuit and floppy hair, you wouldn’t think of a chess player. Just by looking at the man, the mind doesn’t immediately jump to comparisons with the great tacticians of footballing history.
The mind jumps more to a Martin O’Neill or someone like that. A good manager, for sure, but more of a motivator, a man-manager who makes his teams look like more than the sum of their parts.
And although Klopp does know how to care for his players, there’s a lot more of the cerebral around the man.
He has a bit of a reputation as a manager who out-thinks his opposite numbers. Dortmund upset the odds by winning the Bundesliga twice in a row, and were able to compete with the behemoths that are Bayern Munich for years in the most unlikely of circumstances – even reaching a Champions League final where they narrowly lost out to their domestic nemesis.
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The idea that teams work hard and try to win the ball back when they lose it is nothing new, of course.
The fact that Klopp – this ultra-popular proponent of hipster football – is implementing a pressing game at Liverpool has been mocked by those who point out that gegenpressing is what English clubs at all levels have been doing for years. They just don’t have a fancy name for it.
The cliches of the ‘honest and hardworking’ player are exemplified by that sort of style. The player who will run around and work hard is the kind of player who presses the opposition and chases lost causes.
But Klopp’s thoughts aren’t all about hard work. They’re about the opposition too. They’re about how likely the opposition are to try to counter attack or try to dominate the game.
Gegenpressing comes in many different forms. Maybe you press the opponents just after they win the ball back – it’s hard to launch a counter attack if you’re under severe pressure already. Maybe you press the man on the ball and force him into a mistake. Or maybe you press the ball itself and try to intercept it? Or maybe you press the players who could receive the pass – especially useful against a team like Manchester United who are slow in possession and like to build up from the back.
Liverpool under Klopp look like a more traditionally English team, but they’re a much more thoughtful team than they were under Rodgers. Their intensity is much higher, but that doesn’t mean you cut down on the intellectual side of the game, it just mean you think with intensity too. The players must come off the pitch mentally and physically drained.
Do you ever play a game of FIFA against that one mate with whom you’re so equally matched. The game is intense, you press mercilessly, your players are pulling up with hamstring injuries by the end of extra time, but it’s still 0-0 because you’ve been so focused on keeping your centre backs in position and not giving your mate a chance to cut you open with a through ball. It’s mentally and physically exhausting, it’s super intense, and yet it’s only a game of FIFA!
Liverpool’s players go through the real-life manifestation of that every game. But they know what they’re doing. They’re prepared for it and they’re braced for it. Poor Manchester City last weekend – they weren’t braced for how mentally tough that game was going to be.
Liverpool just looked better. They tore City apart. But that’s not because Liverpool have better players than City – they don’t – but because City weren’t ready for how mentally tough it would be to play against Liverpool. They may not have come off the pitch as physically drained as they might have expected, but mentally it must have been a different story. They were rattled right from the off with Mangala scoring a comical own goal, and from then on City weren’t on Liverpool’s level.
This is the new Liverpool under Klopp. His team is an old-fashioned English side modified for the modern game. The modern game of pristine pitches, soft fouls and mind-numbing tactical overload. Klopp is peak 70s physicality for a gentrified game – designer stubble and thick-rim glasses, not pornstar moustache and ultra-short shorts.
And until the rest of the league understands him, they’ll find it hard to beat him.