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Talking Tactics

How Klopp transformed Liverpool into champions

Adrian Clarke 15 Aug 2020
Jurgen Klopp

Adrian Clarke analyses the Reds' evolution under the 2019/20 Barclays Manager of the Season after they secured their first-ever Premier League title

Liverpool's Premier League title triumph is the culmination of five years of outstanding work from Jurgen Klopp, the worthy 2019/20 Barclays Manager of the Season winner.

While the German's famed use of "gegenpressen" (counter-pressing) has featured prominently throughout his spell in charge, Liverpool’s style of play has evolved smoothly season by season.

The Reds' management team have correctly identified and recruited the type of players they needed to make progress, and the quality of their football has consistently improved.

Becoming counter-attacking kings

Klopp’s side have not always been brilliant at producing lightning-fast breakaways.

During his first campaign, Klopp used a 4-2-3-1 system featuring Christian Benteke, Daniel Sturridge, Roberto Firmino, Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho.

These forwards did not have the pace or dynamism to penetrate defences with incisive runs, so Liverpool were not very dangerous on counter-attacks.

Liverpool goals from fast breaks
 Season Total PL ranking
2015/16 1 12th
2016/17 2 10th
2017/18 9 1st
2018/19 6 3rd
2019/20 9 1st

The arrivals of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah in 2016 and 2017 respectively transformed the way Liverpool attacked as they moved to a 4-3-3 formation.

Coutinho’s departure to Barcelona midway through 2017/18 paved the way for the Mane-Firmino-Salah triumvirate to flourish, and they have tormented Premier League rivals ever since.

Developing a trustworthy defence

One reason counter-attacking was not initially a top priority is that it took Klopp time to build a defence capable of withstanding pressure.

Liverpool conceded 92 goals across his first two seasons. This kept them out of title contention, so Klopp focused on defending from the front.

Their intense closing down helped protect a rather unreliable backline.

In 2015/16, Liverpool pressed ferociously, winning possession inside the final third five times per match.

It was a number they were unable to match in the following three seasons. But this campaign they have rediscovered their appetite for closing down in advanced areas.

Liverpool top the Premier League rankings, winning the ball back 6.7 times per 90 minutes inside the final third.

Liverpool goals conceded 
 Season Goals conceded (PL rank) Set-piece goals conceded (PL rank)
2015/16 50 (8th) 15 (18th)
2016/17 42 (5th) 12 (12th)
2017/18 38 (4th) 8 (7th)
2018/19 22 (1st) 8 (2nd)
2019/20 21 (1st) 5 (5th)

Between 2016 and 2018, Klopp signed Joel Matip, Andrew Robertson, Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho and goalkeeper Alisson, all highly significant acquisitions.

During that period he also introduced academy graduate Trent Alexander-Arnold, turning him into a first-team regular and a star of their starting XI.

The 21-year-old was named 2019/20 TAG Heuer Young Player of the Season and is one of several top-class defenders to have made a difference at the back.

Liverpool have conceded considerably fewer goals, and a longstanding vulnerability at set-pieces is no longer an issue.

The presence of a dominant goalkeeper in Alisson and imposing centre-back in Van Dijk has made a monumental difference.

A more rounded team

Klopp’s Liverpool always play at a relentlessly high tempo, but in the past five seasons they have continually added strands to their tactical options.

Upgrading full-backs Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno by bringing in Alexander-Arnold and Robertson was a real turning point.

Liverpool threat from out wide
 Season Open-play crosses/90 (PL rank) Long passes/90 (PL rank) Set-piece goals (PL rank)
2015/16 14.7 (9th) 62 (17th) 16 (7th)
2016/17 14.8 (7th) 68 (13th) 20 (3rd)
2017/18 14.4 (5th) 62 (15th) 13 (11th)
2018/19 12.8 (7th) 59 (15th) 29 (1st)
2019/20 18.0 (2nd) 64 (5th) 17 (1st)

Both full-backs supply quality end product from wide areas.

This allows Mane and Salah to move infield and become additional strikers, and it makes opponents wary of dropping too deep and giving them time on the ball.

In 2019/20, Liverpool have been just as threatening when they pin sides back as they are on quick transitions.

Alexander-Arnold’s outstanding set-piece deliveries have added a threat.

And the full-backs also strike long passes with unerring accuracy, meaning Liverpool can change the point of their attack quicker than in the past.

It has been a feature of the team’s development this season, and those lengthy passes also increase the side’s potency on the break.

Deserving champions

Liverpool’s progress under Klopp has been gradual but impressive.

They have developed into a sophisticated team who can successfully combine force with finesse.

It is difficult to find flaws, so it will be fascinating to see what the German has planned for the champions' title defence next season.

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