There will be no asterisk next to Liverpool’s name in the Premier League record books but there could yet be a footnote - to detail all the records Jurgen Klopp’s team broke on the way to their first title in 30 years.
Winning five of their final seven games will be enough to beat Manchester City’s points record and ensure the 2019/20 season completes an unprecedented two-year period in Liverpool’s history. Should they hit 101 points – and who would bet against them? – they would surely be considered the greatest club side in English football history.
Certainly from a tactical perspective nobody can match the variety and consistency of Klopp’s Liverpool. Here’s how they did it, what defined these last two years, and the lessons we can learn from those rare occasions when Liverpool have been beaten.
The tactics that make Liverpool unplayable
The most iconic feature of Klopp, the foundational tactic that will define his place in history, is the gegenpress. Liverpool’s extraordinary ability to press high and hard, to suffocate and swarm, is the main reason they are Premier League champions. Others (notably Man City) press high to keep the opposition penned into their own third, but none do so as furiously – as emotionally – as Liverpool, and inspired by the Anfield crowd it created a team identity that has driven the project from the outset.
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But once Liverpool became a dominant force in England, their ability to score goals from gegenpress scenarios (winning the ball high, with willing runners spinning off the back of a tackle) or from counter-attacks suddenly diminished. As opponents sat deep to limit Klopp’s heavy metal football, he was forced to come up with a variety of tactical plans to prise a defensive shell apart.
Roberto Firmino, in both leading the press and linking the two wide forwards, is the most important player in the Liverpool attack. His tireless work-rate allows him to operate both as a false nine and a traditional striker; he scurries into the channels, finishes chances in the box, links the midfield like a number ten, and feeds Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane in the penalty area. For a microcosmic insight into what makes the Liverpool attack so special, just watch what Firmino does. He is surely the most under-rated player in the world.
But what makes Liverpool one of the all-time greats is the sheer variety of their play. Their ability to play one-touch football at high speed is vital, with Jordan Henderson’s shuttle runs from the right side keeping the tempo up as Liverpool make diagonal switches back and forth, gradually wearing down the opposition. That swirling high-energy midfield recycles the ball better than anyone, a testament to the microscopic detail of Klopp’s coaching; these are pre-planned moves, the result of muscle memory rather than improvisation.
Once Liverpool get to the final third, via Firmino and a relentless midfield, it is the direct running and ruthless finishing of Salah and Mane that catches the eye. These two are the freest of Klopp’s team, and yet their roles will shift depending on the opposition. At times they will stay wide to isolate a full-back or make runs into the channels, but predominantly their narrowness sucks defences in, opening huge patches of grass for full-backs Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
The crossing ability and general menace of the full-backs is Klopp’s biggest innovation since arriving in England. Often Robertson and Alexander-Arnold will exchange raking long balls with each other and charge into the final third in the inside channel, essentially operating in the same half-spaces as David Silva or Kevin de Bruyne at Man City. Liverpool’s full-backs are true playmakers, in a positional sense as much as their creative output.
Stay narrow, and Liverpool’s full-backs will destroy you. Sit wider to close them down, and Salah and Mane will find an edge. Get tight to Firmino and the forwards will spin in behind. Sit deep, and Henderson and Fabinho will grind you into submission. Push up, and the gegenpress will cut through you – or Virgil van Dijk’s long balls (an increasingly prevalent tactical feature) will exploit the space in behind.
There are so many ways in which Liverpool excel that it is almost impossible to plan for them all, hence the number of games this season they have won late on by a single goal. Eventually, the pressure tells, although there are lessons to be learnt from the rare occasion things haven’t gone to plan for Klopp.
How to stop them
Watford’s 3-0 victory in February offers hope, even if they happened to catch Liverpool on a peculiarly error-prone day. Watford’s strategy was very simple: sit as deep as possible, but be brave enough to break at speed down the wings with targeted long balls. Nigel Pearson’s side sat ultra-deep with wingers Gerard Deulofeu and Ismaili Sarr essentially operating as extra full-backs in a back six, which meant squeezing out Mane and Salah while also getting tight to Alexander-Arnold and Robertson.
When they won the ball, Watford immediately hit the flanks with long passes towards Sarr in particular, the simple aim being to get in behind Liverpool’s high defensive line and attack the spaces left by their full-backs. They found Robertson’s wing to be particularly vulnerable, aligning with the joy Atletico Madrid found on that side of the pitch in their 3-2 extra-time win at Anfield and Napoli found in their 2-0 win back in September.
Watford’s victory, though richly deserved, was a freak incident in as much as Liverpool made constant unforced errors. Stopping them is as much about luck as skill. The Napoli defeat was the direct result of defensive mistakes, while up until Adrian’s error in extra-time against Atletico, Liverpool – winning 2-0 – were enjoying one of the most complete performances of the Klopp era.
However, Everton’s 0-0 draw in the first game after the restart offers a glimmer of hope to Liverpool’s rivals. Without Robertson stretching the pitch, Everton found it easier to shut down Alexander-Arnold, and without Salah’s runs in behind Liverpool struggled to build through the defensive shell. Like a grain of sand in a microchip, the sheer complexity of Klopp’s system means only minor line-up changes dramatically reduce their potency.
Eight of Liverpool’s best 11 have played in 28 of their 31 league games so far this season. Should one or two of their star players suffer long-term injuries, then a window of opportunity will open to others. That Klopp turned down the chance to sign Timo Werner on the basis he couldn’t guarantee him first-team football suggests Liverpool won’t substantially strengthen their bench.
Then again, there is a reason why Liverpool consistently avoid major injuries. What makes the club particularly special is their world-beating quality in all areas, from recruitment to fitness to community engagement to throw-in coaches. Attention to detail at every level has put Liverpool on the verge of becoming the greatest Premier League champions of all time. This is not a flash in the pan moment. Klopp is contracted until 2024. This decade could be Liverpool’s.
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