Saturday 20 January 2018

Klopp builds his case for defence on the attack

Liverpool manager admits lack of tactical discipline is a big issue after nervy victory

Shinji Okazaki forces the ball home for Leicester City’s second goal despite the efforts of Simon Mignolet. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Shinji Okazaki forces the ball home for Leicester City’s second goal despite the efforts of Simon Mignolet. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Jonathan Liew

The recent history of Liverpool can be told in its high-scoring draws. Everton 4 Liverpool 4, 1991; Liverpool 3 AC Milan 3, 2005; Liverpool 4 Arsenal 4, 2009; Crystal Palace 3 Liverpool 3, 2014.

And as Jamie Vardy stepped up to take a penalty on Saturday evening, with Leicester 3-2 down, it felt like this might be another such moment: not seminal, perhaps, but momentous.

Another thwarted advance. Another needless setback. Another slap in the face for Klopp-era Liverpool and its blood-red pretensions of majesty.

Liverpool led 2-0 and 3-1, and it was glorious: a perfect header by Mo Salah, a perfect free-kick by Philippe Coutinho, a perfect breakaway finished by Jordan Henderson.

But then, like many teams over recent years, Liverpool succumbed to the King Power madness.

The wall of noise. The pounding rhythms of Kasabian. The sugar-rush football that stiffens the touch and addles the mind.

This is what Leicester do: they get you drunk, and then they pick your pockets.

Simon Mignolet had suffered more than most - caught in possession, arguably at fault for both Leicester goals, and now the man giving away a decisive penalty.

But he had also done his homework. He knew that Vardy does not place his kicks, but smashes them down the middle.

As it happens, Vardy briefly considered placing the penalty as he ran up, but talked himself out of it.

Down the middle it went. Mignolet stood tall, and made the save.

And so Liverpool won.

That, on a day when their four title rivals also won, is the most important fact of all. Beyond the scoreline, however, lay a thicket of questions.

How did Liverpool turn a 2-0 lead into a scrap for their lives? Why can they not shut down a game? Why do they keep giving away soft goals?

And, at the root of it all, how can a team this flawed, this incomplete, this porous, possibly dream of winning the title?

Obvious

Afterwards, Jurgen Klopp ventured some answers.

"It's obvious we concede too much," he admitted.

"There's no doubt. Usually, I'm a really good defensive coach, but obviously not too good so far. The main thing for defending is tactical discipline.

"I don't know everything about football, but I could write a book in the next two hours about which space we have to defend, why, when and where you have to be. When you have to step up, push up.

"All that stuff, (over) eight, 19 years. That's no problem, but you have to do it. The last goal we conceded here (in the 2-0 League Cup defeat last Wednesday). Everything is perfect, but one player does not push up. I can't take a car and drive them out of the box."

Liverpool's 10 games this season have produced 38 goals, but it would be wrong to think of them as a sort of spiritual heir to Kevin Keegan's Newcastle: you score two, we'll score three.

"Playing attacking football doesn't necessarily mean you're giving goals away," Mignolet said. "You can combine these two."

So, what happened at 2-0 here? Klopp talked about trying to kill the game in "the wrong spaces" - essentially, taking their foot off the pedal.

"We wanted to control the game," he said. "And then we played the balls too late, and so they came up. That opens up the game a little bit. We have to want to be dominant still. Do what you can do best, as long as you can."

It takes a certain purity of vision - not to mention an almost theistic belief in your method - to emerge from a scrambling 3-2 win and argue that the problem was a lack of attacking intent.

But this, in a curious way, cuts to the very essence of Klopp-ball. For Klopp, football is a fight for territory, in which the object is to play the game as high up the pitch as possible.

His Borussia Dortmund team won successive Bundesliga titles not by dominating possession, or dominating in the air, or even being the best counter-attacking team, but simply by stopping the opposition from getting near them.

"I have faith," he said. "Not only offensively, but in our squad. I like this team. Maybe nobody else likes it. Sometimes you need a punch in the face, and we have already got a few."

But once it all clicks, Klopp believes, the fervid debates about goalkeepers and defensive errors and zonal marking at corners will melt away.

For Klopp, attack is not simply the best form of defence. Done properly, attack is defence. (© Daily Telegraph, London.)

Telegraph.co.uk

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