When Jürgen Klopp first cake to Liverpool, he stated he wanted to play ‘heavy metal football’. In the years since his arrival, the style of Liverpool’s play has changed and evolved, The Anfield Talk’s Ronan (@ronan_orourke) takes a look at the evolution…
For all the euphoria associated with Liverpool’s fantastic start to the season, there is somehow still a lingering air of dissatisfaction amongst some supporters. After all, it has been widely been acknowledged that despite the unbeaten start to the league, the swashbuckling Reds of old have essentially been nowhere to be seen which is understandably frustrating. There have been flashes no doubt, but the football on display if anything has become more so effective rather than electrifying.
I believe that we may well be missing the point here. What is perhaps most reassuring about this newly applied functional style of football is that it seems to be a matter of choice instead of the team being unwillingly stuck in low gears. As with any profession, the ability to evolve and adapt to your surroundings is going to define who are the very best in their field. You can guarantee that Pep Guardiola isn’t going to rest on his laurels, and it is the standards of his Manchester City side that we must strive for. It is for this reason why getting to the Champions League final alone was never going to be enough for Jurgen Klopp and his staff.
The return of the incredibly talented tactical mind of Pep Lijnders to coaching team has definitely played a big part in this seemingly subtle adaptation to our method of play. This is particularly true given many thought the wheels would fall off when Klopp’s longtime assistant Zeljko Buvac was not going to be resuming his sensei role this season.
What exactly is different though? The tempo in which we play is certainly lower, and less chaotic. This is particularly evident when holding a lead which used to be prime time for panic and unease on and off the pitch. There is increased tactical flexibility evident in the team this year as well. For example, against Southampton this past weekend, Klopp essentially started with four attackers with Xherdan Shaqiri handed his first start roaming in behind the big three. However, that wasn’t the final surprise for Mark Hughes’ men. Sadio Mané started on the right, with Roberto Firmino on the left, and Mo Salah was the central forward. This ability to move our most dangerous players into positions where they might be more difficult to pick up defensively is going to be a huge strength down the road especially when trying to convert draws into wins against more stubborn defensive units.
The high octane gegenpressing machine which Klopp’s teams have always been synonymous with is comparable to a super charged adrenaline rush. This being that it gives you an incredible but brief feeling of euphoria which will ultimately lead to periods of heavy crashing. In short, it is not the sort of sustainable strategy a team should be employing if they want to be challenging on all fronts. There were several occasions last year where the team started off fast and then wearily gave up late goals which could have been costly. The Man City home league match and the Champions League semi final with Roma at Anfield being notable examples.
Klopp had already starting planning ahead for the fatigue factor last season when he began what looked like unnecessary squad rotations in early December weeks before the fixtures truly became congested. This decision was essentially in reaction to the team having a January to forget the season before. It worked wonders in January but the effects of the high tempo system needed to be consistently managed for the rest of the season. This was particularly evident as a seemingly unassailable lead in the race for fourth place in the league somehow ended up going down to the wire due to the focus on the Champions League. It is a work in progress season after season.
The evolution is not simply related to style of play either. The rotation of last season will be an even bigger role in the current campaign. There is now a depth in this squad that hasn’t been present in quite some time, if ever at all. Xherdan Shaqiri was brought in to add valuable experience essentially anywhere across the front line. He, like Daniel Sturridge suffered relegation at the back end of last year which is motivation enough for both to make the most of the opportunity with a team heading the upward trajectory that Liverpool is at this moment in time.
There is now such ample quality in reserve that a big money signing like Fabinho can be eased slowly into the system with no adverse effect on the squad. The same can be said to a lesser extent of Naby Keita who has been heavily involved but is clearly also still adjusting to his new surroundings. Even a player with the ability of Adam Lallana hasn’t been missed greatly to date though he too will hopefully still play a key role in proceedings at some stage.
Up front, after Sturridge there is still fairly solid depth in Dominic Solanke and Divock Origi who both still have potential to step in when needed. That they are in these non vital roles is another testament to the strength of the squad overall.
It was also not altogether too long ago that Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren were comfortably our first choice starting centre halves. With the emergence of Joe Gomez, these two currently sit in waiting at the back. It is easy to see now why Klopp was willing to let the always reliable Ragnar Klavan depart in the summer. It also says so much about the form of Joe Gomez that a man who played a key role in both Champions League final and World Cup runs in Lovren cannot be guaranteed his place. Trent Alexander-Arnold has managed something similar on the right side of the back four, making a very good player like Nathaniel Clyne almost an after thought.
What we have seen so far this season should not be a surprise. Instead, we should start getting used to the fact that this is the new norm. The Heavy Metal Football will rear its mischievous head from time to time but more in a ‘fun uncle’ manner than the ‘trustworthy dad’ way of playing that we now should be expecting. For me, it is the perfect balance in the quest for the big prizes that we are all hoping will soon be returning to Anfield.