Welcome to England, Klopp!

Liverpool managed to secure a decent win against their top four rivals Tottenham Hotspur last weekend, thus ending a 10-match run during which their only win came against Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup. Having lost in the Premiership to Swansea and Hull and drawn with Sunderland, by beating Spurs Liverpool continued a tradition that has been in place at least since I started watching football in the mid-nineties: beating those at the top of the table but struggling against clubs propping up the bottom and fighting relegation.

Despite this victory over Tottenham, I don’t think Liverpool’s troubles are behind them yet. Spurs have been notoriously rubbish against “big” clubs away from home, and Jamie Carragher was on Sky Sports last night making that very point. Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool’s charismatic German manager made his name at Borussia Dortmund where he played a pressing, hassling style of football played high up the pitch that journalists call “gegenpressen”. Under Klopp, Borussia Dortmund won the Bundesliga in 2010-11 and 2011-2012 and made the Champions League final in 2012-13.

The problem with making your name in German football is one that I mentioned in my post about Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola: the competition is dominated by Bayern Munich with the occasional appearance by an also-ran. When Dortmund were managed by Klopp they had two difficult domestic fixtures per season, and they were Bayern Munich home and away. Dortmund finished the Bundesliga in 2011-12 8 points ahead of Munich, and 17 points ahead of 3rd placed Schalke 04. They won the league in 2010-11 by a tighter margin of 7 points but one can hardly call it a hard-fought campaign that went down to the wire. Klopp’s success in the Champions League, particularly when they beat Real Madrid 4-3 on aggregate in the semi-finals, was in my opinion partly due to the fact that nobody had much experience with this gegenpressen style of play outside of Germany.

But as Guardiola is rapidly finding out, the English Premier League is an altogether different arena where you have five or six big, well-funded clubs all vying for the top spots plus another ten or twelve clubs who have plenty of money (thanks to the lucrative TV deals) to employ a squad of fit, motivated, highly-professional players who are paid handsomely. The EPL also seems to have attracted some of the top managers of the era: Mourinho and Guardiola have won several leagues and Champions League trophies between them, Conte and Klopp have won the league in Italy and Germany respectively, Wenger is no idiot and nor is Pochettino and the mid-table teams have solid managers like Koeman at Everton and Ranieri at Leicester. At the risk of repeating a football pundit’s favourite cliché, no game is easy at this level.

Klopp started well at Liverpool, winning 9 of their first 13 games which included beating Arsenal and Chelsea away from home. Burnley beat them in the second game of the season and Man Utd locked them out at Anfield for a 0-0 draw, but for a while Klopp and Liverpool were looking to take the Premier League by storm.

So what happened? I reckon teams simply learned how to play against Klopp’s genenpressen style. At the beginning nobody was familiar with it, but a combination of familiarity and injuries to Liverpool has meant the Premier League’s wily and experienced managers and fit, aggressive players have learned to neutralise it. The best managers adapt their style of play to counter the opposition, and the Wenger-Ferguson head-to-head matches were brilliant for this. It was like a game of rock-paper-scissors where each manager would try to neutralise the other’s game plan and somehow find a weakness so they could get their nose in front. Mourinho is another manager who historically has been able to change his tactics to best counter the threat the opposition poses, even if this has led to him being called boring at times.

By contrast, Klopp is a manager who made his name playing a particular style that proved very effective in a weak league and against strong opposition who were not familiar with it. Now he is up against strong, well-managed opposition who have learned his style and his side is struggling (even taking into account the injuries). If Klopp wants to succeed in the Premier League he is going to have to learn a new trick or two: 38 matches of gegenpressen are not going to cut it. Like his counterpart Pep Guardiola, the rest of this season could define Klopp as a manager.

8 thoughts on “Welcome to England, Klopp!

  1. Yet City are back in contention (Liverpool, Spurs et al not so far behind), even after the Pep style got found out 10 games into the season. And despite having the worst goalkeeper ever to play in the premier league. With Chelsea and Leicester having swapped roles from last season.

    It’s tighter than it looks this year, if only because all of the major teams are a bit more mediocre than most seasons (and United continue to fade towards mid-table regularity).

  2. All the clubs in the Premier League are pretty damned well funded due to the TV deal being shared out rather more equitably than abroad. I think there are more draws in the PL compared to other leagues, with the interesting effect that the top teams (5 or 6) tend not to lose that many games, but draws hurt their chances of winning the league far more. Difficult to tell, but for me, there seems as though there might be a similar effect in the Championship this year as well.

    It’s Klopp’s first full season this year (he joined us in October 2015), and Guardiola joined City only last summer of course. January for us was a definite drop off in form, but I suspect that is just down to the cup competitions be cup competitions, plus the absences through various injuries and the African Nations. We’ll see, I suppose.

    One thing though; I suspect that the gegenpress style is more robust than Guardiola’s style; it’s not that alien to Liverpool as a whole (Rush pressed the opposing defenders back in the Eighties, Fowler seemed to have picked it up from him), and we beat Real Madrid and Juventus in the Champions League under Benitez in a similar fashion. Suarez won the ball high up the pitch a hell of a lot under Dalglish and Rodgers. I suspect that it’s easier to pick up for young players coming through at age 18-19, and generally doesn’t require a highly technically skilled and tactically aware set of players to execute effectively, unlike wot Guardiola seems to be attempting to put in place at City. Time will tell.

    Liverpool do seem to have a squad that far less deep than the other top teams though, and it’s been that way for a while, and it’s not had that much breadth either since before Benitez started arguing with Hicks & Gillette publically. United seem to have a structural issue going back to when Scholes was recalled from retirement; my best guess is that Mourinho is just about the last manager you’d want to put in place to fix that.

  3. “no game is easy at this level.” No, Clive. And at this level you have to convert your chances.

    You certainly do, Barry. And at this level you have to defend set pieces properly.

    Yes, Clive. At this level it’s important to work hard too. Least you can expect from the players.

    It certainly is, Barry. And it’s important at this level not to give the ball away too easily.

    I think we’re agreed about this level, Clive. We certainly are, Barry. But enough about school football, what about the Premier League? Different league, Clive.

  4. Yet City are back in contention

    8 points adrift of Chelsea, 4 points ahead of 6th place? Hmmm.

    and United continue to fade towards mid-table regularity

    They’ve kept within touch of the top 4 though, and are looking very difficult to beat.

  5. It’s Klopp’s first full season this year (he joined us in October 2015), and Guardiola joined City only last summer of course.

    Yes, fair points. I’m not writing off either manager, far from it, I’m saying that their ability to adapt will make or break them and the rest of this season and next will show us which it is.

    One thing though; I suspect that the gegenpress style is more robust than Guardiola’s style; it’s not that alien to Liverpool as a whole (Rush pressed the opposing defenders back in the Eighties, Fowler seemed to have picked it up from him), and we beat Real Madrid and Juventus in the Champions League under Benitez in a similar fashion.

    Which is why Liverpool were always a formidable cup team but never really challenged for the league (except a couple of years ago when they had it in the bag).

    United seem to have a structural issue going back to when Scholes was recalled from retirement; my best guess is that Mourinho is just about the last manager you’d want to put in place to fix that.

    Yup. Mourinho has been hired to win trophies ASAP, not fix the deeper issues at the club.

  6. Which is why Liverpool were always a formidable cup team but never really challenged for the league

    Umm, it doesn’t hold for the playing style; Benitez only used a high pressing style sparingly, none of our other Premier League era managers seemed to give it any time at all – although it depends what Rodgers was doing the season we finished second; I’m not convinced he was fully in control of the side from about November. And Rodgers is, I think, our only manager not to win anything after three seasons.

    The whole “good cup side” thing; I’ve never bought into this, as I think that if there’s any causality at all, it runs the other way round. That is, if Liverpool are a formidable cup side, it’s because they’re a formidable league side. This also seems true for Chelsea recently and Manchester United and Arsenal since 1991. (Quick, dirty and naive hack : Liverpool have been a top quartile side for over 60% of the last 25 seasons; we’ve finished second 4 times since 89-90, top four 14 times). But; the period from 09-10 is (relatively) very poor; not finished higher than 6th, but no lower than 8th. Rodger’s 2nd place three seasons ago sticks out like a sore thumb. Our last trophy was the League Cup in 2012 with Dalglish in charge.

    At the moment, it looks as though Klopp is likely to improve Liverpool’s finishing position (over the last seven seasons) by something like 2 to 3 league places, which could put us anywhere between fifth and third; Guardiola is likely to hold City about steady, but, Manchester United or Everton could continue to do well.

  7. Ducky McDuckface,

    Fair comments: I portray Liverpool as a better cup side than a league side because they have actually won cups since I have been watching them. 😉

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