08 October 2015

On Jürgen Klopp

I still can't believe Jürgen Klopp is about to become Liverpool's manager, with a press conference scheduled for 10AM BST on Friday.

This feels different. And not just because it's the first time that we've seen overwhelming optimism from the fan base for the first time since 2013-14 ended. The last year has been dreary and dire. Jürgen Klopp does not do dreary nor dire.

Jürgen Klopp comes with a reputation. He is a winner. His teams are fun to watch. He is iconoclastic and idiosyncratic: an oversized, outgoing, quote machine personality who should immediately mesh with Liverpool's base.

In retrospect, the thought process which led to Brendan Rodgers named manager was similar to that which led to the signings of Origi, Luis Alberto, Ilori, Can, Markovic, etc. All those "committee" signings. A high-risk, high-reward youngster. They've never proven it at the highest level, they're comparatively inexperienced, but there's room for growth. If it works out, Liverpool exploited an inefficiency in the market. If it doesn't, well, at least they didn't waste an egregious amount of resources, I guess.

Jürgen Klopp is an actual proven commodity, an innovator, one of the top 10 managers in the world. Two-time Bundesliga winner, three-time German Supercup winner, Pokal Cup winner, Champions League runner-up. And those trophies came at a club that had underwhelmed and underperformed prior to his arrival, winning despite a rival with much, much deeper pockets. It's a résumé that reminds of Rafa Benitez.

Let's be honest: Liverpool are incredibly lucky to get him. It took a series of unlikely circumstances for this to fall in place. It took Dortmund falling apart at the exact time that Liverpool did, a necessary end for Klopp's seven-year run. It took Liverpool unable to progress from last season's nadir, made worse by the difficult start to the season. It took a dearth of other attractive jobs, at least for the moment, at least to an "incurable romantic" such as Klopp. It took Klopp wanting a sabbatical over the summer, wanting to manage in the Premier League, and wanting a "project" rather than waltzing into an already set situation. It's a similar series of circumstances which led to the signing of Luis Suarez: the kind of talent Liverpool would love to deal in on a regular basis, but one not possible the majority of the time.

He's never done it in the Premier League? Neither did Benitez or Houllier. But they came with renown, with honest-to-goodness European pedigree. You know who had managed in the Premier League? Hodgson and Rodgers. I apologize for putting Brendan in the same sentence as Roy, but experience in England is obviously not a guarantee for success, with managers or transfer deals.

There's no guarantee of success here either – if you can ever guarantee success, please immediately call Ian Ayre or John Henry – but still, it's seemingly Suarez or Torres rather than Carroll or Benteke. It's Benitez, it's Houllier; it's not Hodgson or Rodgers. Liverpool, by hook or by crook, are shopping in a store they can't usually afford.

In their heyday, Klopp's Dortmund were the football hipster's darlings. Gegenpressing – literally, "counter pressing" – became a word that English speakers actually know, and not just because compound German words are more fun. You'll want to read this, from Spielverlagerung. There are, unsurprisingly, a number of outstanding articles about Klopp's Dortmund, articulating his tactics far better than I can. Just searching Klopp's name on Spielverlagerung is a good start. So are these:

• Two interviews in The Guardian, from May 2013 and November 2013
This video from BBC Football Focus
Searching Zonal Marking for old Dortmund match reviews
We Are Hooligans: Analyzing Jurgen Klopp's Tactics At Borussia Dortmund
Michael Caley on how gegenpressing made the Bundesliga the fastest league in the world

Curiously, Klopp's preferred formation while at Dortmund – at least for the majority of his tenure, at least with his best sides – was 4-2-3-1. Otherwise known as the formation that Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool struggled the most with.

What's most important isn't the formation. It's the ability to counter-press; it's quick, vertical attacking transitions; it's getting the best players on the field. Klopp isn't dogmatic about the 4-2-3-1 – Spielverlagerung's tactical analysis of last season's Pokal semifinal against Bayern highlights Dortmund's use of a 4-3-3/4-Diamond-2 hybrid, a formation seen a fair amount last season because of the respective talents of Reus, Aubamenyang, and Kagawa – but it's still his favored deployment.

I have two questions. Well, more than two, but two big ones: the striker situation and the composition of the midfield.

When everyone's available, Liverpool's squad seemingly demands two strikers, whether it's Sturridge, Benteke, or Ings. Does that mean one of Sturridge or Ings will play from the flank? In the hole? Will Benteke be the odd man out in a heavy pressing system? Or will Klopp change: 4-4-2. 4-2-2-2, 4-Diamond-2? Klopp's Dortmund used those formations at times, mostly in his last two seasons, albeit not on a regular basis.

And who's going to be the central midfield pairing? This, admittedly, is a question that dogged Rodgers since the beginning of last season, because no two-man pairing as stood out. Liverpool pretty much had to play two midfielders ahead of a single holder, or a diamond, or three at the back to function. And even then, it was a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. I suspect Henderson and Allen will eventually win out. Jordan Henderson is, hands down, Liverpool's best midfielder, and almost certainly will remain captain. Joe Allen, perpetually underrated by Liverpool fans, seems to fit Klopp's style. Sure, he doesn't stand out in any area, but he can press, pass, run, and hold to decent effect; after Henderson, he's Liverpool's most well-rounded midfielder. But Emre Can should see much more time in the middle. Lucas remains Liverpool's best defensive midfielder. Your guess is as good as mine.

Also, spare a thought for James Milner, signed this summer because of Brendan Rodgers, because he wanted to play more as an orthodox central midfielder. Welp. I wouldn't be surprised if he's back to being a versatile jack-of-all-trades, mainly used as a right winger, especially once Henderson returns. Can, Allen, and Lucas all seem better suited to playing in the midfield base in whatever formation Klopp chooses, while Milner's work-rate, pressing, and crossing ability would fit on the flank opposite Coutinho, Lallana, or Firmino. Sorry about that, Jimmy.

Regardless, it'll be awhile before we see Klopp's preferred XI, with Henderson out for another six weeks, Firmino and Lovren out for another couple, and questions over Benteke and Coutinho's availability immediately after the international break.

I really wish we'd be able to see it sooner. Because Klopp's first six weeks will be a baptism by fire.

• October 17 - Tottenham (a)
• October 22 - Rubin Kazan (h)
• October 25 - Southampton (h)
• October 28 - Bournemouth (h) [League Cup]
• October 31 - Chelsea (a)
• November 5 - Rubin Kazan (a)
• November 8 - Crystal Palace (h)
• November 21 - Manchester City (a)

Eight matches in little more than a month; two matches a week until the next international break. Matches in three different competitions. Three of Klopp's first four league matches all away, against last season's 5th, 1st, and 2nd place sides, with a dangerous Southampton at home the fourth.

No one said it was gonna be easy.

Of course, Klopp's not here for six weeks. He's here for the next three years – we hope, at least. Klopp's methods, especially synchronized pressing and quick attacking transitions, take time on the training pitch, and Liverpool is not going to have a lot of training time over the next couple of months. Dortmund improved in Klopp's first season – one with a full preseason – but it was a 13th-to-6th improvement. Then fifth. Then the two consecutive Bundesliga titles.

Top 4 remains the goal this season, and this change was made early enough to ensure it's a still possible goal, but after a managerial change, anything tangible reward this season seems a bonus. And yes, Liverpool's fixture list looks a lot better starting in December, giving Liverpool more than enough time to push towards fourth in this goofy, messed up league as long as they at least survive the next month.

It's going to be an interesting ride. Buckle up, sports fans, it's about to get fun. We've been missing fun for far too long.


Apuleius said...

i've noticed in your tackle/interception charts that despite the "rogers high press" there are usually very few tackles or interceptions in the opposition half, and fewer still in the deadly final third and midfield areas. Generally, Liverpool is the one giving the ball away in those areas (sigh).

It will be interesting to see whether or how that changes - i think it'll be a tangible sign of something different happening. maybe there's a signature for gegenpressing that can be pulled from BVB data to think about what we're likely to get? you know, if you're looking for stuff to think about (hint hint).

i'm excited. maybe giddy. and i'm not the only one.

romancandle said...

Excellent work as usual, Nate. I agree with you about Milner and Allen - I hope Wee Joe gets a look. I was going to write something about he and Gongongan being similarly sized, but dude is 5"11" apparently. Maybe my TV is broken...

This side went from having not enough strikers to too many. Inevitably, at least one of them will be injured. Ings seems the best fit, at least defensively, though obviously he's not nearly as talented as Sturridge. It will be entertaining to see Benteke running after midfielders. I'm skeptical.

I'm interested to see how far Klopp implements the gegenpressing before and after Christmas. As you stated, it is a system that doesn't work overnight. Does he get some leeway from the ownership? The fans? Can LFC attain top-4 while a manager institutes a complicated (to be done correctly) system? I have no doubts that Klopp is the right man, but I have my doubts about those questions for this season.

Anonymous said...

Why is Enrique out of the depth chart? You no believe in Suso's buddy?

drew said...

I have woken up today following the appointment and people are still insisting it's something that happened in reality. Odd, that.

Anonymous said...

I think iIt would be awesome if Klopp went to an old-fashioned English 4-4-2.

a said...

Where are you Nate? I miss your commentary. Its the one thing that made all the crap football bearable the last 12 months.