By Jordan Chamberlain – Editor of Empire of the Kop – Follow: @Jordan_AC90
(Image courtesy of Spielverlagerung)
Despite being with the club for just over three seasons, Brendan Rodgers failed to establish a settled formation during his tenure at Liverpool.
He clearly wanted to play a 4-3-3 originally, with one anchorman, two box-to-box midfielders either side, two wingers and a forward, but it was often stale and lifeless in attack. As a result, he landed on the 4-4-2 diamond in 2013/14 and experimented with variations of the wing-back formation as well.
By the end, nothing seemed natural, and while his variety and tactical fluency was praised during his successes, it created confusion and irritation elsewhere.
As it now stands, Rodgers sold his hedonistic philosophy down the river and limped out of Liverpool winning as few matches as his first season, but in far drabber style.
But Jurgen Klopp, the man set to replace him (via BBC Sport), found a formation and style with Borussia Dortmund which worked. It won him two Bundesliga titles and saw BVB finish runner-up twice, losing to Bayern Munich in the Champions League final as well. In fact, it became dubbed gegenpressing – the idea of winning the ball high up the field in order to create a chance for a shot as quickly as possible.
The whole team would work as a unit in defence and attack, both involved in each of the two transitionary aspects of the game.
Not only did it gain results, but it won every neutral over in Europe due to its swashbuckling, exciting nature.
As Klopp once famously said – it was ‘heavy metal’ football.
And the shape and basic structure rarely changed.
With the gegenpress (a word and an idea that is going to become second-nature on Merseyside), the team lines up in a narrow 4-2-3-1 formation. Width is provided by bombarding full-backs, but the rest of the players aim to stay as close to each other as possible.
So to work in this formation, they (Reus, Goetze, Gundogan etc.) needed to be technically outstanding so as to play and create in tight areas.
Playing close to one another allowed them to hunt in packs both defensively and offensively. When Dortmund didn’t have the ball they swarmed it, so when it was won back, they outnumbered the opposition in a certain area of the pitch looking for an overload – almost akin to an attack in rugby. When a spare, unmarked man became available, created by sharp, one-twos he’d be sent through, breaking the opposition line. Often, there’d be six or seven players in a small space down one side of the field, enabling a clever pass to unleash a forward runner.
The closer to the goal and the quicker the transition from defence to attack the better.
Central midfielders purposefully crammed the middle to maximise the fullbacks’ space wide. It was space and ball manipulation, made possible because of unbelievable levels of fitness. It wouldn’t have worked unless every unit fulfilled their pressing duties and worked even harder to then create space when on the ball.
To make the pitch as small as possible and make the press easier, Klopp deployed a high defensive line too – which utilised fast defenders.
Assuming Klopp takes over at Anfield and attempts to recreate his famous and most successful style, Liverpool could take the field looking something like this if everybody is fit:
Fitting Liverpool into the 4-2-3-1…
Thankfully we have the marauding, rapid fullbacks necessary in Moreno and Clyne already. There is worries however as to the ball-playing qualities of our centre-backs (Hummels was a converted central midfielder). Sakho can pass, but lacks the German’s composure, while Skrtel and Lovren can only play the ball short consistently. Interestingly, Gomez might be perfect for the ball-playing centre-half role in the long run, as he can step out of defence excellently.
Klopp always deployed at least one midfield destroyer – a player with limited ball playing ability but excellent discipline and defensive nous. For this reason, Lucas could be a starter under Klopp, while Henderson would be the favourite to start alongside him in a midfield double pivot – absolutely perfect for the relentless press required.
Then it gets interesting. Our four best attacking players are Coutinho, Firmino, Sturridge and Benteke, and in this formation, they all fit in the XI – combining skill, pace and hard work. While Coutinho is our current central ‘no.10’, the position would actually suit Roberto Firmino better under Klopp and give the £29m signing a chance of fulfilling his price-tag. This is because Firmino is a more natural goalscorer, and Coutinho would play very centrally anyway, as close to his fellow attackers as possible due to Klopp’s style. Firmino played here in this exact formation for Hoffenheim and was one of the Bundesliga’s very best players. Coutinho naturally drifts to the left to collect possession anyway and wouldn’t be required to hug the touchline, just like Reus wasn’t under Klopp.
One issue though is that the German boss has nearly always used just one centre-forward.
He has preferred a focal point in attack and struggled without Lewandowski to call upon during his final season. A target-man with aerial ability rather than an off-the-shoulder striker. In fact, Klopp even made attempts to sign Benteke (via ESPN) in 2013, so it would make sense to award the £32.5m striker this central role. He can retain possession better than Sturridge, long enough for the three attackers behind him to get close and play off him. And it’s not as if Sturridge would be used as a winger here, although he’d likely prefer the lone centre-forward role. From an advanced, inverted spot on the right, Sturridge can cut in on his left, run beyond Benteke and transform into a genuine striker when we’ve got the ball. This does involve using our best forward slightly out of position of course, and it’ll be mighty interesting to see how Klopp decides to use Sturridge with Benteke. With their injury records much of the time he’ll only have one of them to call upon anyway.
During his final, failed season at Dortmund, Klopp did deviate from the 4-2-3-1, but primarily because the players he wanted to select in it were injured. At Liverpool, as our above graphic shows, there should be enough players, even with the current injury crisis to deploy it in true gegenpressing fashion.