Across the training fields of Melwood, mannequins are placed at equal distances from each other on pitches split into thirds. Here Liverpool’s players are taught the difference between high, medium, and low pressing.
Before games Jürgen Klopp will target a “pressing victim” in the opposition, if one is available, reflecting his opinion of the individual’s ability on the ball; whenever that individual receives possession, Klopp wants five or even six of his team to hunt him down.
When Liverpool pulled Manchester City’s defence apart in November it is not unreasonable to think Eliaquim Mangala was the designated victim. Ravaged by the pack, he was involved in each of Liverpool’s three goals in the opening 32 minutes, setting City on course for a 4-1 defeat that was their heaviest at home since a 5-1 thrashing by Arsenal at Maine Road 12 years before.
Roberto Firmino delivered his best performance since arriving from Hoffenheim, while Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana were ruthlessly effective: suffocating City’s deepest players to the point that the supply line was cut and Sergio Aguero’s availability in attack rendered almost irrelevant.
This is when gegenpressing works. “The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it,” Klopp has said. “The opponent is still looking for orientation where to pass. He will have taken his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception and he will have expended energy. Both make him vulnerable.”
Klopp will halt training and detail exactly where he wants each of his players to be when gegenpressing is employed, because he knows the risk is great. His team has to be compact, because if gaps are left it becomes easier for the opposition to break, leaving the defence light in numbers. If five go and one is not quite at the same level of concentration, then Liverpool are in real trouble.
This happened on a chastening afternoon at Watford before Christmas when the approach failed miserably and a 3-0 defeat followed. The experience acted as a reminder that Liverpool’s players were yet to fully appreciate when to stop closing down: frequently, the initial moment when Watford gained possession had passed, yet still Liverpool tried. Consequently, it became easier for Watford to hit long balls behind the Liverpool defence and from there, without a goalkeeper quick enough off his line, the maximum punishment was enforced three times. It could have been more.
Klopp knows Vincent Kompany will probably play in the Capital One Cup final so the opportunity to isolate one of City’s defenders, as he did last time, may not be there. Yet as he spoke in the Legends Lounge at Anfield, he was very clear about what Liverpool must do as one. Within the collective, it is imaginable that reminders of his basic demands will be read out at the team hotel before the team boards the bus to Wembley.
“We have to run maybe more than Man City,” Klopp said. “We have to close the right spaces. In the moments we have a good situation, we have to score. Sometimes it is the quality of one player who decides the game.”
For that to happen, he was prepared to place responsibility on himself. “We have to create the right plan. Man City is a great team and we will have to give more than a good performance. If we do that then we can win – and they know that too.”
Klopp revels in being cast in the role of underdog. Without prompt, he likes to refer to unlikely sporting stories.
“I love this game; it is more about the performance of the whole team,” he continued. “If you look at big titles in the past, Denmark were European champions; that is the best title I ever heard about. They met each other at McDonald’s, then they heard they had to go to the European Championship and then they won the title [in 1992]. That is cool. Greece too [in 2004]. It is not always the best team that wins. Everybody can win if you have the right idea and if you are full of trust.”
Klopp missed out on promotion twice with Mainz before finally securing what he wanted. He went to Dortmund and captured the Bundesliga title within three seasons. For the handsome fee of €3,000, the German authorities offer winners the chance to purchase a replica of the trophy, but he rejected it. “I have it in my head,” he reasons. It is memories rather than material things that keep him greedy for success.
Winning something in his first six months at Liverpool might suggest Klopp is making quicker progress than at any of his previous clubs. But he is keen to dismiss that notion because the League Cup does not exist in Germany, so the comparison does not seem quite fair. He understands, though, that Liverpool managers are judged by their success rather than their ideas. For all his tactical plans, for all the gegenpressing in the world, he admits: “If we win with a lot of luck 1-0 I would not care.”
No club is in thrall to its own past quite as much as Liverpool and earlier this week Klopp met the last surviving member of the original boot room when Ronnie Moran, whose 82nd birthday is tomorrow, dropped in at Melwood to mark the occasion, accompanied by his son, Paul.
Klopp spotted Moran scanning the complex from the balcony above the main building and broke off from his preparations to speak with the former trainer, whom he recognised as “a legend”.
Having reached an age at which it is easier to watch matches from his Blundellsands bungalow, or in nearby Waterloo, where Paul lives on a terraced street, Moran will not be at Wembley. Before retirement, he was notorious for his uncompromising and demanding approach, as both player and coach. Bruce Grobbelaar had encountered some tough men in the Rhodesian military but none was quite as ferocious as Moran, whom he called “the barking dog – the Rottweiler”.
Others, like Phil Thompson, cannot forget the sight of Moran leaping from the dugout and confronting those from other clubs who dared to contest a referee’s decision, much as Klopp’s assistant Peter Krawietz does now. Yet Thompson says Moran’s role was far more significant than many realised and, despite the staff’s peculiar Celtic insularity at the time, Moran would have been able to translate gegenpressing from supposed extraneous jargon to the notion of getting in the face of the opponent and within whiff of their breath.
When at their fluid best during the 2013-14 season, this is what Jordan Henderson did so well for Liverpool. Much focus has been on the availability of Daniel Sturridge but it will surely help Klopp that Henderson is emerging from the injury problems that began before his appointment.
A tendon in the club captain’s heel partially ruptured at Sunderland in December before snapping entirely against Manchester United. Though it sounds painful, doctors believe Henderson will soon be able to move as freely as he did before, displaying the energy levels and nous from midfield that gegenpressing really requires.