Sunday 26 May 2019

Aidan O'Hara: 'Klopp boxing clever as calculated approach gives Liverpool a better shot at going the distance'

Jurgen Klopp shows off his manager of the month award for December. Photo: Getty
Jurgen Klopp shows off his manager of the month award for December. Photo: Getty
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

In every league, in every sport, once a tactic is found to be successful, it will be copied until the opposition finds a way to cope with it.

In American Football, that commonly takes the form of double-teaming the opposition's best player and forcing them to find new ways to win the game. Until and unless they prove themselves capable of finding a different approach to success, they'll face the same scenario every week.

In cricket, a batsman deemed susceptible to short-pitched bowling will have the ball whizzing past his ear until he finds a way to dominate and so on as part of one sport's cruellest beauties where weaknesses are exposed and preyed upon until a team becomes comfortable in an uncomfortable situation.

In theory, Manchester City found a weakness in Liverpool which hadn't been exposed in the opening 20 games of the Premier League season.

It involved pouncing on an occasional lack of concentration by one of Liverpool's defenders, pressurising their possession play while having enough speed in defence to cope with one-on-one situations and playing the ball out from the back with the nerve of a tightrope walker in order to gain some control among the madness.

The problem for the rest of the league, including Brighton today, is that they're not Manchester City.

In Liverpool's 1-0 victory at Anfield in August, midway through the first half, Brighton centre-back Leon Balogun had the ball under no pressure in his own half and did what, theoretically, proper footballers are meant to do and play the ball out from the back.

As his 15-yard pass was on its way to Yves Bissouma, James Milner took a chance that Bissouma wouldn't be able to cope with the pressure and squeezed close.

Once Bissouma took a touch, he found himself in the middle of a square of Liverpool players all within five yards of him. Milner nipped in and passed to Sadio Mané, he gave it straight to Roberto Firmino, he passed to Mo Salah whose first-time shot found the bottom corner. It took four seconds from Bissouma being in possession, to Brighton being 1-0 down.

"You have to have a defensive strategy," said Hughton, earlier this week on his approach to playing against Liverpool. "I don't think there's any team that plays against them that can afford to go into a game without that, even Manchester City."

After Brighton, Liverpool face Crystal Palace, Leicester, West Ham and Bournemouth before the Champions League last-16 encounter with Bayern Munich and it would be a surprise if any of them - even Bayern - play the type of pass which Balogun gave to Bissouma.

It's a scenario with which Klopp will have to become familiar with given how Liverpool have dismantled virtually every team in their path this season which will now see teams disengage from battle from the start.

Previously, the cavalier nature of Liverpool's approach meant that teams in the bottom half of the table were happy to take their chances in a slugfest which could end in defeat or, as Bournemouth, Swansea and Hull found in the season before last, might just produce a famous victory.

Gradually, however, Klopp has added a calculated ruthlessness, an ability to win on points to go with the approach of landing a knockout blow. Where once they were Mike Tyson, they can now also be Floyd Mayweather, winning while seemingly not playing that well, but without an opponent laying a glove on them.

It's the reason why supporters should be as confident as Klopp that the January slumps they have suffered in his reign won't derail their title ambitions. Since his arrival, Liverpool have lost 11 out of 28 games in January which potentially points to the physical toll of their previous heavy metal approach. This season, however, they have added control to the chaos.

In their three away games against teams in the bottom half of the table, Liverpool have recorded an aggregate victory of 9-1 which, for opponents, means engagement in a fight will be the first step towards losing.

Instead, Hughton, like the managers of Cardiff, Huddersfield, Newcastle and Wolves in Liverpool's final four games of the season, will attempt to cover up and hope to use the pressure of expectation and almost three decades of league title drought to become a 12th man.

This afternoon, that's likely to mean clogging the middle of the pitch and gamble that Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy will be able to cope with whatever Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold can throw at them from crossing positions. If they leave the type of gaps which are created by attempting to play out from the back without the ability to do so, Liverpool will destroy them.

In the final minute of the game at Anfield, Glenn Murray had a 10-yard header saved by Alisson which gave Liverpool their third consecutive victory and put them top for the first time with a two-point cushion over Manchester City. Klopp, however, was realistic about how close they came to an ambush.

"It's the oldest law in football that you decide it when you can because, if you don't, the game is open and the other team will come," he said.

It's a philosophy that will win them the league if they can stick by it. Starting this afternoon, and every week until May, they have to prove they can answer the same question.

Irish Independent

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