Monday 23 April 2018

Aidan O'Hara: Counter-puncher Klopp can’t land a blow if other teams don’t want to fight

Liverpool struggle to break down 'weaker' teams but Chelsea clash provides chance to come off the ropes

Klopp: “To get the number 10 or playmaker in a position where he can make the decision for a genius pass you have to play a few passes, channel-balls or whatever but the counter-pressing brings exactly the same (position).” Photo: Getty Images
Klopp: “To get the number 10 or playmaker in a position where he can make the decision for a genius pass you have to play a few passes, channel-balls or whatever but the counter-pressing brings exactly the same (position).” Photo: Getty Images
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

In an engaging and informative 30-minute appearance on 'Monday Night Football' earlier in the season, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp elaborated on his belief that pressing opponents in possession is the best playmaker that a team can have.

Counter-pressing, or gegenpress if you must, isn't a form of wheel re-invention but when his teams are at their best, it makes every opposition player feel as though they are being hounded and forces them into making mistakes.

"To get the number 10 or playmaker in a position where he can make the decision for a genius pass you have to play a few passes, channel-balls or whatever but the counter-pressing brings exactly the same (position)," Klopp said on Sky.

"So you win the ball back high on the pitch and you are close to the goals so it's only one pass away from a really good opportunity most of the time. That's why I said no playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-press situation."

All of which makes perfect sense but, as is increasingly becoming the case against Liverpool, the problem is that it literally requires the opposition to play ball.


In boxing, good counter-punchers can be lethal because their defence is usually so good that they can capitalise on an opponent's aggression, leaving them battered and bruised even if they are the ones, theoretically, on the attack. The issue with being a counter-puncher is that it relies on the other person throwing a punch in the first place.

After the defeat to Swansea, Alan Shearer questioned Liverpool's attitude in the process of a run which has seen them win just once in eight games since the turn of the year.

"They've not been beaten by any of their title rivals but they have been beaten by Bournemouth, Swansea, Burnley and drawn with Sunderland which tells you they have a problem with attitude and application," Shearer claimed. "You can't just turn up in any game and expect to win."

'Match of the Day' usually has a minute or two to discuss potential problems facing a team which makes it easier to come out with such generic soundbites that can't really be disproved rather than, perhaps, seeing if there's a pattern developing. Throw in a few diagrams of players passing in a triangle, a couple of arrows of where a pass went and a dotted line tracking the player's run - all of which the viewers can see for themselves - and move on to the next game.

We have, thankfully, moved away from the Barca-isation era of lending enormous amounts of weight to possession statistics but, the one common thread to the four games which Shearer mentioned was that Liverpool dominated the ball.

Against Burnley, they had 81pc possession, at Bournemouth it was 60pc, Sunderland was 71 and Swansea 74, meaning they averaged 70pc possession across four games and only managed to pick up a point.

The defeat against Bournemouth was freakish but was the fourth time under Klopp that Liverpool had led by two goals in the league and failed to win, suggesting a team who have plenty of players who can set a tempo, but not necessarily ones which can control it.

The likes of Sunderland or Burnley accept their limitations and set-up accordingly which means Liverpool have to be proactive in creating with the ball, rather than reactive in pouncing on the chaos caused by pressurising teams into mistakes.

On the 'Monday Night Football' appearance, Jamie Carragher and Klopp analysed the relentless pressure which Liverpool had applied to Hull on the previous weekend with Klopp praising Hull's attempts to keep possession

"They played really well in a lot of situations. Hull are a football-playing side but they always felt the pressure," he said. Against a team who wanted to play but whose mindset was writing cheques that their ability couldn't cash, Liverpool won 5-1.

In six games against the top six this season,Liverpool have 12 points, with seven of them coming away to Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea where possession was more or less shared 50-50. They could easily have won at Old Trafford with just 44pc of the ball, the same amounts as they had in defeating Manchester City 1-0 at home in what was arguably their best performance of the season.

Against United at Anfield, it's possible that the statistician fell asleep like the rest of us but while Jose Mourinho took much of the blame or credit for the result depending on your outlook, the sterile domination Liverpool had with 65pc possession that night is indicative of why they struggle to break teams down.

James Milner has played far better than anybody could have expected at left-back but, in a team dominated by right-footed players, he can't provide the width that Liverpool need to prise open a defence.


If Arsenal, for example, break with Alexis Sanchez and Nacho Monreal, the opposition right-back has a catch-22 situation of either allowing Sanchez inside to shoot or, if he tries to block that, creates space for an easy pass to an over-lapping full-back.

Monreal isn't the best crosser in the world but, were the same scenario to occur for Liverpool, the opponent would always allow the ball to be passed to the full-back - Milner - because it's unlikely a left-footed cross from a right-footed player will be effective.

Chelsea won't fear that scenario tomorrow night and will probably set up in much the same way as those teams who have caused Liverpool problems and trust that Diego Costa, Pedro and Eden Hazard will win the game for them on the sort of breakaways which Southampton and Wolves exploited.

Given that the owners sacked Kenny Dalglish weeks after winning the League Cup and losing in the FA Cup final it's unlikely they will be overly concerned about elimination from both competitions in the last week but the manner of the defeats can't have gone unnoticed.

Under pressure, most managers go back to basics, meaning Klopp will probably demand even more running from his players - an uber-gegenpress if you will - which could be enough to beat Chelsea and get Liverpool's season off the ropes. How they land punches against teams who don't want to fight, however, is a problem that Klopp will still have to figure out.

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