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.