Thursday 18 January 2018

Klopp v Pochettino: Who will win the battle of the high press?

Mauricio Pochettino was the Premier League's main advocate of a high-intensity pressing game but Klopp has crashed the party

Alistair Tweedale

When this weekend’s early game kicks off a new era will begin, as Jurgen Klopp takes charge of his first game as Liverpool manager.

The gegenpress will make its bow in England, with its first test pitting the German against the Premier League’s foremost advocates of the high press in Tottenham.

Mauricio Pochettino has over the past 15 months built a young, exuberant Spurs team that buys into his philosophy. They work hard as a unit in a system that requires everyone to pull their weight, with Pochettino subscribing to the three-second rule; an intense direct press that aims to recover the ball within three seconds of losing it. If they do not work together holes appear and opponents will cut through them.

This approach primarily requires exceptional fitness and Pochettino’s players are fitter than most. Tottenham have covered the second-most ground in the Premier League this season, out-running their opponents in every match they have played. But they have no individual player towards the top of the individual list in terms of distance covered; this Spurs team work as a group to smoke out their opposition.

They also rank second in terms of tackles and interceptions made this season, with 325, behind only Leicester, though Claudio Ranieri’s men have had had only 40.4 per cent possession – to Tottenham’s 53.7 per cent – and therefore are forced into more defensive actions. Spurs also ranked third for tackles and interceptions last season; clearly Pochettino’s message is getting though.

In contrast, Klopp has had less than a week to instil his philosophy of gegenpressing – swarming defenders with lots of attackers as high up the pitch as possible – at Liverpool but the stats from his time at Borussia Dortmund suggest that his tutelage will eventually pay dividends.

In his first season there his Dortmund team made the second-most tackles and interceptions in the Bundesliga, improving on the previous campaign’s 13th-place finish by seven positions.

The next season they made more tackles than any Bundesliga team did in a single season in the Klopp era, with an incredible 927 – more than 24 per game. They improved again, finishing fifth.

In his third season, Klopp restored Dortmund to the summit of German football. They won the title for the first time in nearly a decade, making the second-most tackles and interceptions, behind only one team – Mainz, Klopp’s former employers.

In 2011/12 they retained the title with the second-highest tackle tally. The Bundesliga pendulum had swung and Klopp’s high press was responsible.

They continued to challenge for two more years, also reaching a Champions League final, but Bayern Munich’s financial muscle was beginning to show. Klopp lost Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski to his rivals. He tried to replace them but new players were not schooled in the Klopp philosophy. They dropped to ninth in tackles and interceptions made last season and their efficacy swiftly plummeted. They could manage no better than seventh in the league.

It will be fascinating to see how quickly Klopp is able to make his presence felt at Liverpool, and whether his players immediately portray his vision on the pitch. He usually requires a full pre-season to implement his ideology so it will be an intense few days at Melwood.

One player that could fit the bill is James Milner, who has covered more ground than any other player in the Premier League this season, clocking up nearly 100 kilometres in eight games. Incredibly, the least Milner has run in a match (12.1km vs Bournemouth) is still further than any other Liverpool player has managed in any match so far.

He appears to have the physical capabilities to play a high-pressing game, averaging 57 sprints per game; the second-most at Liverpool at Liverpool after Nathaniel Clyne, who Klopp will also be delighted to have at his disposal.

A crucial aspect of his high pressing game is forwards who stay close together and hunt in packs, leaving space on the wings that he likes his marauding full-backs to exploit. Clyne runs more than 10km per 90 minutes and will benefit hugely from Klopp’s arrival. Expect him to join attacks even more than he does already.

On initial viewing Philippe Coutinho look to fit the mould of a Klopp attacker perfectly. He is full of energy, quick, technical, likes to play in tight central areas and scores goals from midfield. His 52.2 sprints per game could be improved upon if Klopp is to get the most of him.

The new manager may also be able to get more from Roberto Firmino. He should be aware of the Brazilian from their shared time in the Bundesliga, and an average of 78 sprints per 90 minutes will be music to Klopp's ears, though it should at least in part be attributed to shorter appearances from the bench.

There is, however, still plenty of work to be done, though.

Liverpool as a whole, however, have only covered more ground than seven other Premier League teams this season, running more than 60km less than this weekend's Tottenham. They also rank only 12th in terms of tackles and interceptions made.

That was the Brendan Rodgers era, though. This is Klopp’s time.

Let the battle of the high press commence.

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