As we head into arguably one of the most important matches of the season, this weekend, we decided to take a look at this week’s opponent with more than just a casual eye. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are an up and down team who on their day look like world beaters but can also (like us) look devoid of any idea on how to play.
Liverpool bringing in Jurgen Klopp was one of the marquee managerial signings in the last few years. Here was a man who as he says created his heavy-metal style of play and caused waves in the Bundesliga and in Europe. He was now bringing that style to England and the league would be better off for that exciting brand of football.
Obviously the first season has to be looked at with a skeptical eye. Getting use to a new manager is hard enough, but getting used to a new style of play, especially one so physically draining is a completely other thing.
The 2015/2016 Liverpool under Klopp needed time to adjust and their results showed that. This season is a truer gauge on where Liverpool are under the German tactician and well, there is good and bad.
Gengenpress comes to England
In English the word gengenpress literally means to “press against,” and tactically it’s what Liverpool strive to do with ferocity. They are a team happy to let teams play out of the back and immediately close down all space and force errors high up the pitch to create chances.
That seems all pretty simplistic in terms of defining it after all it is a tactic that requires focus, commitment and energy. When it’s executed well, it’s deadly in it’s effectiveness.
Typically what transpires is Liverpool allow keepers to play out of the back to the center backs (typical player movement is the CBs open up at the edge of the 18 with the FBs pushed up.) Once that first pass is received, that is when Liverpool jump into action. Usually, the winger nearest the ball is the one applying that immediate pressure. The winger’s angle of approach is designed to cut off a second pass up to the opponent’s wing player.
As the winger applies that pressure on the ball, Firminho is tasked with the responsibility as the second defender to deny the pass lane to either the 6 and/or 8 who may drop in to also receive that pass from the center back.
The far side wing player then takes up a position to cut off any potential diagonal passes into the midfield and is available to become the first defender should the opposition center back try to the switch the ball to the other center back.
The first bank of 3 is followed by the midfield 3 which are working to apply pressure and close off passing lanes. Usually, we see Lallana behind a midfielder who may be playing off of Firminho’s cover. The other midfielders, typically Henderson and Wijnaldum provide cover and balance to the rest of the MF.
When you see it diagrammed out, it essentially forces play into one side of the pitch and takes away the midfield and the immediate width. The follow on pass is normally cross to center back and in some cases it forces the opposition deeper into their own defensive third where a poor pass, bad touch or just a bone-headed mistake can result in a turnover and chance by Liverpool.
The above is seen in the example below (courtesy Spielverlagerung.com)
This press is when executed right, effective and it’s been one of the biggest reasons why Liverpool find themselves once again challenging for a Champion’s League spot again.
But the system and Liverpool aren’t without their flaws.
Gegenpress requires a sustained physical effort not only over the course of a match but over the course of a season. When Liverpool where in the middle of having to play multiple games over the course of a few weeks, they stuttered. The energy level to produce Klopp’s style of play clearly looked to be sapping them.
Even without the taxing nature of midweek games, its equally as hard to sustain that physical level consistently for 90 minutes.
Watching a few of their recent matches, they’ve started pretty intense only to find themselves petering out as the match wore on. Critics of Klopp’s Dortmund would note that towards the end of the season, his teams seemed to experience drops in form. Their biggest area of critique – the team being gassed from a season of “heavy metal” football.
As we head into the Saturday tie, we shouldn’t expect that Liverpool will look as flat as they did last night versus Leicester. A few things conspired against them (including themselves) one of which was an energized LCFC who likely were playing to prove a point.
Sans that we should expect that as we head to Anfield, Liverpool will find their energy and will look to press Arsenal off the ball and out of the stadium.
So how do we play against the Gengenpress?
If you look at the image above note the position of the ball and note where Walker is. Slightly behind the pinched in Coutinho he is open. Rather than looking to play directly to nearside winger or into the midfield our first look needs to be the far side winger and looking to make that diagonal pass into space.
That pass alone bypasses at least 4 defenders and with quick speed, can result in a counterattack with a numbers up scenario. If that doesn’t present itself, then a more direct route through the middle is another option.
Last year when Klopp first faced Arsenal as Liverpool manager he lamented our direct style of play. To negate his press we played the long pass, over the top for Giroud to win. We bypassed the midfield and create attacking scenarios that were in our favor.
Now given the speedy nature of the match, this isn’t likely to be a match that favors Giroud, so hopefully Wenger gives some serious thought to starting Danny through the middle. While not as strong as Giroud up there he is still a presence in the middle and can win the ball.
If we aren’t playing direct than the passing has to be better and more concise. I’ve not been impressed with our passing ability of late. We’re simply making stupid and poor passing decisions. Additionally, something as simple as receiving the ball seems to have escaped us.
If passing and moving is the name of the game instead of the direct ball, then we need to execute or 1 and 2 touch passes a lot better than we have as late. As we mentioned poor passes executed deep in our own zone is a recipe for disaster
Finally, we can negate the press if we do as we’ve done against other teams when on the road – sit back and look to counter. Ceding possession to Liverpool takes away the press. As we sit deep we look to win the ball and quickly transition to the counter – like Leicester did last night. Liverpool have shown that they don’t do well when teams are set up deep. It’s not how they are trained to play. Take that away from them and then look to use speed up to counter them effectively.
All of it sounds easier said than done. It’s easy to be an armchair manager. And, if we’re honest we haven’t been performing on either a technical or mental level commensurate with our ability for quite a while. Beating Liverpool at Anfield is going to require us to find our DNA again and play with some purpose. If not. . . well you know the drill.