Gegenpressing Will Be Jurgen Klopp's Template, but He Must Show Flexibility

Jonathan Wilson@@jonawilsFeatured ColumnistOctober 15, 2015

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 09:  Jurgen Klopp is unveiled as the new manager of Liverpool FC during a press conference at Anfield on October 9, 2015 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Jurgen Klopp’s introductory press-conference as Liverpool manager was, by general consent, the most impressive a new manager had given in the Premier League since Jose Mourinho arrived at Chelsea the first time around.

There were dissenters from that view, but only those who thought it was the most impressive since Arsene Wenger—frowning behind his big, round glasses—turned up at Arsenal.

It may be that it was an impromptu performance, that he is capable of that level of wit and charm without preparation, but the suspicion was that it was a carefully calculated performance. He needed to seem relaxed, to make jokes, to lift Liverpool from the gloom into which it has sunk over the past few months—and he also needed to differentiate himself from the manager who had gone before.

There was—pointedly, it felt—no talk of philosophy or projects; he gave little away about exactly how he intended to play.

When Brendan Rodgers arrived at Anfield from Swansea City, he was preaching a doctrine of possession, something he took so seriously that he immediately offloaded Andy Carroll at a significant loss.

In retrospect, that may have undermined him in the end because the following season, when Liverpool came as close as they have in the Premier League era to winning the title, it was with a very different style. This style was rooted in getting the ball forward quickly and using the pace of the front three of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling.

Andy Carroll was shown the door at Liverpool by Brendan Rodgers.
Andy Carroll was shown the door at Liverpool by Brendan Rodgers.Tim Hales/Associated Press

It may not have been entirely fair, for all managers adapt to circumstance, but the perception from that moment was of a manager who had rejected his own philosophy. The following season, with Suarez sold and Sturridge injured, as he fiddled with new shapes and styles, it was easy to portray Rodgers as confused.

The assumption is that Klopp will turn up and try to replicate the sort of football he played at Borussia Dortmund. The term "gegenpressing" has been used again and again in the past few days, and it is a mode of play he pioneered, even at Mainz.

Essentially, it looks to counter the counter-attack by pressing hard the moment possession is lost. The underlying assumption is that a player is at his most vulnerable when he has just won possession, as he may be off balance, he may have just expended a sudden burst of energy and he’s unlikely to have a clear idea of where his team-mates are.

Teams have always, of course, sought to win the ball back, but what gegenpressing does is to systematise that process. Rodgers, presumably, had a scheme for something similar, but it may still take time for Klopp to impose his method, his way of achieving a coordinated system of pressing.

The key is getting sufficient men to the ball quickly enough—either blocking off angles or picking up potential passing options—without leaving huge gaps elsewhere that even a fairly aimless punt by the player suddenly being placed under pressure could exploit.

Gegenpressing was Klopp's favoured style of play at Dortmund.
Gegenpressing was Klopp's favoured style of play at Dortmund.Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

If the ball wasn’t won swiftly, Klopp’s Dortmund side would drop back, the 4-2-3-1 becoming a 4-4-1-1. As Roy Hodgson pointed out after the Champions League final in 2013, the basic principle of denying space with two banks of four, once the initial surge to the ball is over, is no different to that which has sustained English football for years.

Yet, what’s notable looking at his Bundesliga stats is how much Klopp changed in his time at Dortmund.

According to WhoScored.com, in 2010-11 the season Dortmund won their first title under Klopp, their pass success rate was 75.1 per cent, only the eighth-highest in the league, and they had 51.4 per cent possession, the fifth-highest in the league.

They were a team that played with great verticality, pouring forward whenever they could and prioritising speed over finesse.

By 2012-13, the season they reached the Champions League final but finished second in the league, possession had climbed to 54.4 per cent and pass success rate to 80.9 per cent, the second-highest figure in the league.

The emergence of Marco Reus, Ilkay Gundogan and Robert Lewandowski made Dortmund a classier team, which—allied to a recognition that his players were becoming exhausted by the relentlessness of their play—led Klopp to amend his approach.

For the sake of comparison, Liverpool’s pass success rate this season has been 81.4 per cent (sixth-best in the Premier League) and their possession 51.7 per cent (eighth-best). In essence, those figures don’t need to change, but there perhaps needs to be more direction to the passing (or, to put it another way, waywardness is not a virtue, but it may be forgivable if it is a corollary of an energetic, high-risk targeting).

The two metrics where this Liverpool differ greatly from Dortmund of 2010-11 is the number of tackles they make—22.3 per game as opposed to 25.4—and the number of aerial duels won—19 per game as opposed to 7.9.

It’s fair to assume Klopp will demand a more proactive approach to regaining the ball, but the aerials figure is harder to judge: After Lewandowski had replaced Lucas Barrios, Dortmund’s aerials won per game more than doubled.

Clint Hughes/Associated Press

The suspicion is that Klopp will prefer Daniel Sturridge (when fit) to Christian Benteke, but then he’s never had a Benteke-type player before. It may be that he, just as Pep Guardiola has at Bayern, finds himself adapting. It may be that he uses Sturridge on the flank, cutting in, with width coming from Adam Lallana, Jordon Ibe or—possibly—James Milner.

Klopp at Dortmund tended to prefer at least one of his wide men to be industrious rather than flashy—Kevin Grosskreutz—who eventually yielded to Marco Reus—and Jakub Blaszczykowski were both hard-working and reliable.

Milner has made clear his preference for playing centrally, and until Klopp can begin to mould the squad in January—and certainly after Jordan Henderson returns to fitness—Milner may find himself used as a deep-lying passer with Emre Can preferred at the back of midfield.

But perhaps the key is not to expect Klopp to simply try to replicate what he did at Dortmund. The best managers adapt to circumstances, the players available and the evolution of the game.

Gegenpressing will probably underlie what he does at Liverpool, but if he is as good a coach as is widely believed, he will not simply be looking to squeeze Liverpool through the Dortmund template.