By Greg Hudson
It would be unfair to say that when Steven Gerrard slipped in front of the Kop in April of 2014, Brendan Rodgers’ days as manager of Liverpool Football Club were numbered.
But the then-34-year-old captain’s untimely error which allowed Chelsea to open the scoring in a 2-0 victory over the Reds at Anfield was the beginning of a downward trend which saw the Reds miss out on their first title in over two decades in 2014, crash out of the Champions’ League in the group stage, fail to reach the final of either domestic cup after reaching the semifinal in both competitions, and finish a lowly sixth in the Premier League last season.
So the slip wasn’t the critical moment. But it was certainly a trigger for an avalanche which eventually cost Rodgers his job. After failing to impress in their first few matches of the season – a 1-1 draw against Everton on October 4 – was the final nail in the coffin, Rodgers’ contract was terminated, and the search for a new manager began.
It didn’t last long.
One name, linked with the Merseyside giants since the end of last season’s depressing campaign, immediately came to the forefront: the name of a 48-year-old German who used a combination of stalwart defense and lethal counter attacking football to lead an industrious Borussia Dortmund side to back-to-back Bundesliga titles to topple German giants Bayern Munich: Jurgen Klopp.
There are few names in European football more synonymous with excitement. Watching a Jurgen Klopp side at their best is like watching an artist paint a masterpiece. Klopp brings several core values to his side: hard work, communication, intensity and common sense.
And those are qualities this Liverpool side need desperately.
The side that took the field against Everton last week was a shadow of the team that thrashed the Toffees 4-0 at Anfield just 18 months prior. The departure of star players Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling didn’t help, but there was more at play than just a lack of starpower. The team lacked intensity, it lacked bite. The side that had cut opposing squads to ribbons looked anything but incisive, and it had a lot to do with their manager’s playing style: or lack thereof.
Brendan Rodgers blew us away during that 2013-14 league campaign by adapting his style to suit the needs of the team, whether to account for player injury or suspension, to incorporate young players into the starting lineup, or to adjust the tactics to best exploit the weakness of the opponent. No matter the game, Liverpool always seemed to look the better side: they always seized and maintained the initiative.
But a regrouping period after the departure of Suarez left Liverpool needing to break in several new players, not all of whom adapted to the existing playing style. Rodgers fell into a habit of almost constant tactical changes in a desperate attempt to improve results, and this lack of consistency resulted in a general lack of identity, not only for supporters who were left scratching their heads at the decision to leave Steven Gerrard out of the side that faced Real Madrid in the Champions’ League in Spain and the depleted side the team fielded at Wembley in the FA Cup semifinal defeat to Aston Villa.
That general lack of identity carried over into the 2015/16 campaign, as the club lost its face when Gerrard left the club to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy in MLS, and Rodgers tried in vain to throw together a squad that could consistently earn positive results. Injuries to captain Jordan Henderson and striker Daniel Sturridge didn’t help the cause, but in the end, the manager takes the fall, and after another disappointing result at Goodison Park sealed his fate.
Just days later, Klopp was announced manager, and the similarities between the two managers cannot be stressed enough: both prefer to employ a high-speed, counter attacking brand of football; both are relatively young; and both transformed underperforming teams into contenders.
The main difference between Rodgers and Klopp is mentality, the German being the more aggressive tactical leader. And this is not necessarily a bad thing, although it will almost certainly take some time to bring to full fruition.
Klopp is the champion of gegenpressing – counter pressing, in English – and it may be the key to Liverpool’s resurgence.
Gegenpressing is more than a simple counter attack, it is a full-on assault of the opponent after losing possession. It can take multiple forms: pressing high to mark all forward passing options and force the man on the ball to play the ball backwards; attacking the passing lanes to force the man on the ball to either make a run himself or play the ball backwards; or most rewarding – and most dangerous – an all-out assault on the man with the ball.
Liverpool achieved great success with a high press in the 2013/14 campaign, and Southampton used it to great effect last season. But gegenpressing goes beyond a simple high press. It is a high-intensity, physically demanding way to play football – and it doesn’t stop. Unlike the high press which is effective in short bursts especially at the beginning of a game or in its final stages, gegenpressing is a full-match tactic, require players to give 100 per cent from opening kickoff to final whistle.
And that might be a problem. Liverpool have some true grinders, players who never seem to tire out no matter how hard they run. Jordan Henderson earned the captaincy for his tireless play, and Emre Can also seems to always have something in the tank.
But for many of Liverpool’s top players, fitness is an issue. Sturridge and Benteke have had struggles with injury and high-intensity play always increases the risk of injury: ask Klopp’s former Dortmund stars Marco Reus and Ilkay Gundogan. Meanwhile Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho have consistently proven they lack the stamina to play at full capacity for 90 minutes at a time.
But that’s where the time comes in. Liverpool aren’t where they want to be, but they aren’t exactly in trouble either. They sit 10th in the Premier League, with 12 points from eight matches. But they’re just six points removed from Arsenal at the top of the league with over 75 percent of the season remaining.
That means that Klopp, who led his first training session at Melwood on Monday with a depleted side while most of the starting contingent were away on international duty, has a period of time in which to instill in his players that hard-working, counter-attacking brand of football: an identity.
It’s not likely we’ll see gegenpressing on Saturday against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. It’s not likely we’ll see it against Southampton at home a week later. It isn’t even necessarily likely that we’ll see it against Chelsea at Anfield on Halloween.
But there’s a chance we will.
That match against Chelsea will be a massive occasion for the Reds. A chance to avenge a defeat that cost them a championship 18 months ago comes at a time when Chelsea are reeling: the defending champions have endured a terrible start under Jose Mourinho, who’s now facing the same criticism levelled at Rodgers during his final season at Liverpool. A victory for Klopp’s boys – especially if it results from tactically outplaying Chelsea with gegenpressing – could well be the turning point in Liverpool’s season. And after a less that stellar start, that’s exactly what Liverpool need.