It has so far largely been a successful pre-season for Liverpool. They have signed Mohamed Salah, who has made a great start in life at his new club and scored four goals, and young English striker Dominic Solanke who has also settled in well.
Jurgen Klopp’s men have beaten Premier League opposition in the Premier League Asia Trophy as well as dismantling German giants Bayern Munich in the Audi Cup.
They have a frightening attack, utilising Salah and Sadio Mane’s speed and directness out wide, and look primed and ready to terrorise defences in the new season. However, they are yet to address the one thing that has been holding them back since Klopp took the reigns at Anfield.
The need for a Plan B
Klopp is known for getting his sides to play a high tempo, aggressive and fluid style of football using a ball-orientated pressing system. It leads to exciting and attacking football where Liverpool pen the opposition in their own half and don’t allow them to get out. On its day, it’s glorious to watch.
However, Liverpool are yet to develop an alternate style and system for those scenarios in which their Plan A isn’t working, namely against sides that deploy a low block defensive scheme.
To be a Premier League champion, you need more strings to your tactical bow. A Plan B, C, and D. Liverpool currently don’t have one, or even look like developing one.
The flaws of gegenpressing
It was clear in their Audi Cup final loss to Atletico Madrid. Granted, you can’t read into pre-season results too much, but it was perhaps more than just a coincidence that the one opponent they’ve struggled most against this pre-season play the style that saw Liverpool come unstuck quite often last season.
A compact and low defensive block is the kryptonite to Liverpool’s attacking flair. They require space in behind the defence for their rapid and ruthless attackers to work in and expose. Those sides who don’t gift it to them often get the better of the Reds.
Jurgen Klopp has previously stated how his ‘gegenpressing‘ system is a better playmaker than any player can be. Of course this can ring true, however, it requires the opposition to fall into his trap.
If the opposition are reluctant to play out from the back, choosing to go long and direct, then Klopp’s pressing can become redundant as the opposition simply pass over the top of the press. His ‘playmaker’ has failed.
Reflected in results
It shows in the results. Liverpool came top of the mini-league last season involving all of the teams that finished in the top six, with three wins and three draws. The simple reason is that these sides played into Liverpool’s hands. The high line and insistence on playing out from the back meant Liverpool could employ their ‘gegenpressing‘ to win the ball back high.
The space the big sides left in behind their defence meant Liverpool’s frightening attacking force had space to work in. The only side that finished in the top six last season who Liverpool didn’t beat at least once was Manchester United, the only team not to fall into Liverpool’s Venus fly trap.
They were compact, low block and direct. Liverpool struggled to find and create space and it led to a frustrating amount of, in the end, pointless possession.
This weakness of Liverpool saw them drop points against sides they simply shouldn’t have on a regular basis. Liverpool lost to sides such as Burnley, Swansea, Hull City and Crystal Palace, as well as bow out in the FA Cup at home to Championship side Wolverhampton Wanderers.
They dominated possession in each of these matches, but couldn’t break down and create space against these teams. They were vulnerable in defence, often leaving a lot of space in front of their backline due to pushing a high number of players up the pitch to press and try to retain the ball, a further weakness to Klopp’s ‘gegenpressing‘.
Systems win trophies
Of course, the Liverpool squad have several players who can produce the magic when they can’t find a breakthrough. Philippe Coutinho, for example, is a magician and specialises in strikes from outside the box, ideal for when teams drop deep and don’t afford you space in behind.
However, moments of magic and world class strikes, although can win games, can’t be relied on to win leagues. The systems win leagues, with the players performing their roles to their optimum within said system.
If Liverpool don’t develop new ways of playing, it will be another season without a Premier League trophy for the English giants.
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