Jurgen Klopp has guided Liverpool to the top of the Premier League and significant unbeaten run, ended only by Watford (And a serious belting by the former champs), in the season after the side won the Champions League. Liverpool are an excellent example of the alchemy required to put together a really successful side: a club that understands recruitment and support staff, acquires excellent players, and blends them together under a coach with a philosophy that he is adept enough to shift on a match-by-match basis without losing sight of the overall intention. Klopp himself is, of course, a big part of this. Having developed his coaching approach and philosophy first at Mainz, and then at Borussia Dortmund, he favours a direct approach played with intensity and pace, and a style born of pressing and counter-pressing, what he has described the best play-maker in football. Klopp has brought in coaches to give his team an edge, perhaps most notably using Thomas Gronnemark as a specialist thrown-in coach. He is also a charismatic presence, capable of inspiring the kind of selfless collective effort required for his intense style of football.
He’s good at adapting his tactics to mitigate weaknesses: lacking the sort of creative passers he had at Dortmund, he has instead developed his full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold into playmaking full-backs; he’s adjusted the pressing intensity of the side in key matches to pace the team’s trajectory through the season; and he’s honed a front three that is the equal of the top sides in world football. Behind the scenes, Michael Edwards and his transfer committee have harnessed the use of data and analytics as well as anyone and, arguably, achieved buy-in for those ideas within the club, and its owners Fenway Sports Group, better than any other analytics team in the Premier League. Good data-driven recruitment only works if the benefits can be communicated to a receptive manager, coaching staff, and ownership structure, but Edwards has achieved this. His many successes, including Roberto Firmino, Andy Robertson, and Virgil van Dijk, outweigh his less successful purchases, and even players like Dominic Solanke could still prove to be excellent having been sold for a profit to Bournemouth. It’s no surprise, then, that recruitment has worked well for Liverpool, as has, to a lesser degree, the pipeline to the first team – although much of Liverpool’s senior squad have also been available for most games, and so the use of reserves has been limited. the bulk of the squad has been put together over the last three seasons. Looking at players who have started 20 or more games for Liverpool this season, and it’s possible to see that while a few have been around since before 2016/17, from then on, two or three key figures were brought in each year. Add to this the resurgent Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, signed from Arsenal for just under £35 million, Fabinho, the Monaco utility player turned defensive midfielder, who cost £40 million, and even James Milner and Joel Matip, snapped up for free from Manchester City and Schalke in 2015 and 2016 respectively – Liverpool have made astute buys and signings that add to the squad in key areas.
They haven’t splurged and brought in too many players in key roles in one go. Where they have spent serious money, it has been on players like van Dijk and Alisson, arguably in the top three in their positions in the world. The age profile and experience of the squad is good, too – five players had Premier League experience before joining, in some instances relatively inexpensively from relegated teams, and the others came from top five European leagues and with exposure to Champions League football; the exception is Alexander-Arnold, but as a Liverpool youth player he fitted seamlessly into the squad and system. The system is, of course, what makes Liverpool tick on the pitch. A great group of players without a plan is useless, just as a great plan without the players is. Liverpool have recruited with Klopp’s style and requirements in mind. Liverpool generally play a 4-3-3, although Klopp has, at times, used a 4-2-3-1, generally to help doubling up defensively in the wide areas.
Generally, Liverpool play with a narrow, compact midfield line and forward line, with the progressive, attacking full-backs Robertson and Alexander-Arnold providing width and thrust. Firmino will drop off, while if Naby Keita or Oxlade-Chamberlain are available, they do push up between the lines to augment the Liverpool attack. Liverpool’s pressing system is well understood and it’s still a very effective means of attacking or counter-attacking from winning possession back. But Liverpool have, this season, also blended this rather modern approach with a more direct, functional style of football that could almost be considered old-fashioned. With the addition of van Dijk, and the extreme competence of Alisson’s passing from the goal-keeping position, Liverpool have added even more directness to their game. This results in several interesting facets of play. Firstly, Liverpool play quite a lot of long diagonal passes to the wide areas, either looking for one of the two wide players pulling wide, the full back pushing on, or even a runner from midfield. Van Dijk to Salah is a frequent route, but Liverpool will try various options. Liverpool’s third goal against Southampton this season at home was a fine example. Alisson stroked a clearance out to the right-hand side of Liverpool’s attack.
Firmino, running back, pulled a Southampton defender with him, which allowed Jordan Henderson to collect the ball in space. He then angled a pass inside to the run of Salah, who finished tidily. . Liverpool also like to open up the opposing wide area, switching the play with long, cross-field passes, rather than shuttling the ball across as would be more often the case in a possession-based side. These passes often go from full-back to full-back, pinged long across the pitch in the air into space that the opposite full-back can attack, and it again relies a lot on pace and the directness of the approach catching teams out – they cannot shuffle across as you might defend a series of passes into space – and the sudden opening of the opposite flank creates space inside for runners to attack the cross. Lastly, Liverpool will also hit long balls forwards, especially towards Firmino dropping in, and then mop up the second ball or win it back with intense pressing. This fits morewith Klopp’s gegen-pressing style, but the use of long balls to create opportunities to win turnovers from pressing is an interesting mix of a more old-fashioned, direct approachand Liverpool’s high energy, very modern, pressing game: it’s something Ralph Hasenhuttl and Roger Schmidt have also used effectively.
The development of the two young full-backs has largely created these options, too: the long cross-field passes and the diagonal balls from the back, also facilitated by van Dijk and Alisson joining the club, are functions of how good Alexander-Arnold and Robertson are in their roles. Wijnaldum’s slightly more attacking role also works because Alexander-Arnold can push up and tuck in to cover; this frees the Dutch midfielder to attack the box withlate runs and has resulted in a number of goals in recent months. Liverpool do still play a lot like they have done under Klopp up to this season: Firmino dropping off to feed runs inside from Salah and Mane, pressing, and a relatively functional midfield. Indeed, Liverpool would likely play between the lines more if and when Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain can regularly play, but in their absence, Klopp’s decisions make sense. But they have added additional approaches, some very direct, while retaining their identity and Klopp’s philosophy. And this is what makes Liverpool great: a squad assembled with thought and skill working under a coach who retains his overall approach but is flexible enough to adapt, all supported by a number of smart decision-makers off the pitch and progressive coaches. It’s a blend that other clubs would do well to emulate.