Liverpool’s recent success has been built on the citadel of the gegenpress – a style where a team loses possession but immediately wins the ball back through some lung-bursting and tactically astute closing down. Usually, this counter-pressure is applied in the final third of the pitch with the belief that winning the ball in that part of the field allows the ‘gegenpress to become the best playmaker in the team’ – Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp’s own words.
For Liverpool’s success, this has meant some earth-shaking effort. It has required their team to run and chase their opponents. It has required sacrifices – such as Roberto Firmino, who as striker focuses less on goals and more on closing down the passing lanes of the defensive midfielder tasked to stop him. It has required the squad to be of a smaller kind – one in their intensity and quality – but also together in injuries, hard miles and the wear-and-tear of their way of life.
The result – the Reds have chased success across Europe, finding it in a Champions League title. They have, under their German manager, taken every trophy that could be won domestically – key of all the English Premier League, a title that came after 30 years of wait and weight.
“80% of modern football teams press. We don’t press. We chase. Our idea of pressing is not to force them one way. Our idea of pressing is not to force bad passes. Our idea of pressing is to steal the ball. Steal the ball to attack – steal the ball to create. It’s all about the last two metres. We go there to steal the ball.” This is Liverpool assistant coach Pep Lijnders talking to The Coaches’ Voice, specifically describing the English club’s mentality when they beat Barcelona 4-0 at Anfield – arguably the greatest affirmation from the footballing gods that their ways and means were bringing the success they were training for.
But the year is 2022 and Klopp has been at Liverpool for the last six and a crack or two have started to make their appearance known. Chief among them, the very aspect of football that makes them great, their relentless gegenpress has endured a breakdown of sorts. The breakdown, simply put, is they aren’t pressing enough anymore.
The magic number is 148. That was the number of presses per game that Liverpool achieved in their EPL title winning season in 2019-2020, as per the website FBRef. Last season, that number was at 141. The start of this season has seen a sharp decline to 113 presses per game – the least of which came when they had 85 in their loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Liverpool usually employs a 4-4-3 and, in this system, their three forwards are vital to all computer systems being a go. But the summer’s protracted contract negotiations came with some stingy decisions, chief among them being that the club chose to not break their salary structure and sold left winger Sadio Mane to Bayern Munich and ended up keeping Mohammad Salah.
Mane, a player who stood bang middle in the three-way intersection of being a relentless ball-chaser, a prolific finisher and excellent in his link-up play, was considered the lesser of the two losses. But such is the way that the Reds are built that bringing in a replacement – irrespective of the 100-million-pound cost – was not going to fill the hole left by their Senegalese forward.
Darwin Nunez, fresh from Benfica, has attempted 10 presses in the final third of the pitch in nine games – a terrible statistic for a team that is heavily reliant on its forwards to put in defensive work. This isn’t to say that Nunez will not become the player that Klopp wants him to be. But just that the price tag no longer guarantees a finished product and time and training will have to take precedence in this scenario.
The lack of volume pressing at the top is directly responsible for Liverpool’s high defensive line becoming an open sale. When opposition teams can escape Liverpool’s forward line with ease, the time and space allowed can be fatal. Case in point, Manchester United instructed David de Gea to attempt long kicks forward, especially towards his left to target Trent Alexander Arnold. Completely bypassing a midfield and forward line that isn’t putting as many miles in, and pitting a fast forward line against one of the highest defensive lines in the league, United coasted to a win that would have been a lot tougher under different circumstances last year.
The other factor to Liverpool’s dismal start this season has been the injury to Thiago. If Jordan Henderson is the engine to the gegenpress then Thiago is the answer to life after it. The Brazilian-Spanish player lives up to his ancestry – being in the 99th percentile for progressive passes, the 97th percentile for progressive carries and the 93rd percentile for passes completed. A midfielder that can carry, pass and keep the ball moving forward at an accurate tick.
Missing the genius of Thiago has forced Liverpool into multiple midfield iterations, mostly involving Henderson, James Milner and Harvey Elliot. None of them have been able to effectively transition the ball from the second half of the pitch to the final at a regular pace.
Signs of life
Despite warnings of Liverpool’s gegenpress fading, Klopp and staff already seemed to have found a solution that could be worked upon. Thiago has returned from injury but more importantly, a front three of Salah, Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz clicked against Ajax in the Champions League last weel. The trio combined for 43 presses in the final third of the pitch – 22 of them coming from Diaz, who replaced Nunez. Liverpool in total conducted 160 pressures on Ajax.
The intensity of Diaz in pressing, coupled with the return of Thiago, gives Klopp and his coaching staff some breathing space. It allows the team time to tinker and analyse which option works best. Against Ajax, Jota showed enough in tandem with his strike partners to dislodge Firmino from the shadow striker spot.
The signs of life are in at a crucial time for the Reds. Their next three Premier League games are all at home to Brighton (currently fourth in the EPL), Arsenal and Manchester City – three teams that are in peak form at the moment. Judging by the way the recent Premier League title run-ins have tended to go, teams rarely have any room to give at the beginning of the season. One loss can end a season and a draw could draw doubt. The new forward line experiment could pull Liverpool from a miserable start or hand the keys of the car to Manchester City for yet another year.