Klopp must learn the lessons from his past to push Liverpool into a new future

Does Jurgen Klopp need naïve footballers to succeed?

Jürgen Klopp, as much as any top manager in world football, needs total and complete buy-in from his players. Not only in the big picture context, but day-to-day. In the granular things: The preset movement patterns in attack; understanding what, how, and why the team uses pressing triggers, and when you are the man initiate the press.

It’s lofty stuff. And it takes droning, intense preparation. “Training felt like war,” ex-Mainz and Borussia Dortmund defender, and Klopp loyalist, Neven Subotić says reflecting back on the Borussia days. “The starting lineup vs. the subs. By the middle of the week, you sort of knew the line-ups. You cannot imagine how difficult those games were. The first year was normal football. The second year, it got spicier. The third-year: Boom! We reached a new level because all twenty-five players now truly got it.”

Reflecting back on Klopp’s ill-fated final season as manager of Borussia Dortmund, where the club he had transformed from near liquidation into two-time champions of Germany and Champions League finalist spent a large bulk of the season rooted to the foot of the Bundesliga table, all-manner of theories have sprung up. You hear them repeated today, as Liverpool drift from a shoddy title defence into an honest-to-goodness disaster of a season.

Klopp’s side was burned out, one theory goes. No, it was about luck — bad luck — the data analysts said. That second point is one Klopp and his staff has clung to. They just needed a break, really. Heading into 2014/15 season, the squad had been turned over. It was a post-World Cup season, meaning there was no time to bed in the new players and not enough recuperation time for those who had played in Brazil. A bad run turned into a catastrophe. Still, the bad start was more luck than anything more dramatic or systematic.

The winter break came. The team had time to re-group. Klopp returned to his principles. Dortmund hit lift-off, turning a disastrous final season into a so-so effort — the club finished seventh in the Bundesliga after sitting in 17th with 12 league games to go.

Klopp and his staff have spent a bunch of time reflecting on that period. Every detail, big and small, was analysed in order to find a ‘why’, and in order to prevent it from happening again at their next stop — a stop that so happened to be Liverpool. What could and couldn’t they have done differently? What did the departure of Robert Lewandowski on a free transfer mean? Financially, spiritually, tactically? What impact did poor officiating decisions have? How did injuries vaporise even the best plans? Was it just about the “L” word, something Liverpool’s data analysts were at pains to point out when Klopp and co. rocked up on Merseyside?

It wasn’t systematic, right? The numbers guys say so. Borussia were actually the second-best team in the country, one hit by an unconscionable number of unfortunate events. On one side was the luck argument; on the other, a systemic and tactical flaw. Klopp and his staff nestled somewhere in the middle, closer to the luck side, according to Building the Yellow Wall. It’s why the manager decided to step away — luck was to blame, yes, but there was just enough self-doubt for him to decide he was no longer the man for the job.

A different view took hold in the Borussia dressing room. There, the team did speak of Klopp’s style. Not that the team was worn out, as pundits and public commentators were oh-so-happy to insist — “you cannot decode speed,” as Klopp famously retorted when asked if his style had been figured out. It was more that the team’s desire to play the Klopp Way had taken a tiny knock. There was still buy-in, but things had changed. The band of young men that rocked the footballing world with a slash-and-kick style had grown into fully-fledged adults. They had achieved things. Ten-hour, ten-man video game sessions were traded in for family barbeques. Call of Duty replaced by screaming babies.

Things were different. They were different. They had matured. Some were World Cup winners. Almost all of them had lifted Bundesliga titles and a domestic cup. To some it remains a mystery: The bulk of the team that ran all the way to the Champions League final returned for the season in which the club battled relegation.

Once things went bad, the team slipped into a tail-spin. The old guard tried to return to the old days, but couldn’t quite muster the same spirit or intensity. The new guys didn’t know what the old spirit was in the first place. “We started shitting ourselves,” Dortmund defender Mats Hummels said in the book Bring the Noise. “Different parts of the team were playing different systems.”

Dortmund’s stalwarts put the principal issue down to the team’s new-found maturity and the sense of self that had started to flit through the dressing room. “When you get the feeling as a player that you’ve already achieved something,” says Subotić, “you suddenly don’t want to say yes to everything anymore. I guess that’s human nature.”

What’s interesting in re-tracing that period of Klopp’s career is how many of the Borussia players hit on the same theme. They weren’t exhausted by Klopp’s demands. They welcomed them. They were high achiever; they wanted to keep winning. But they were fundamentally different. Where Klopp had worked chiefly with naive, young, energised, believers at Mainz and in those crucial years in Dortmund, he now had seasoned players who didn’t need to believe anymore. They knew. They had seen it, done it.

The average age of Klopp’s starting XI the first time he won the league with Dortmund: 23. The average age the second time: 24. That team grew together, on and off the pitch. And then they achieved everything, save for getting over the line in the European Cup — a game that Klopp, his staff and the Borussia hierarchy continue to contest to this day.

There was a beauty to their play, an exuberance. Can you believe we’re this good?!?! And it was also dripping in naivety. Klopp led the way, everyone followed. Once those players started to achieve things, once they matured and found their own voice, once they started to ask ‘why?’ rather than blindly follow the footballing prophet, the atmosphere at the club and the results changed.

“The only problem with gegenpressing is that you cannot measure it as a tactical measure,” Klopp once said. “You cannot tell the players: stand here, and if this happens, run there. Instead, you have to train the impulse/ it had to be an impulse to move into a ball-winning position immediately after you lose the ball. You don’t teach situations, you teach the impulse until it becomes a natural action.”

Gegenpressing, in the Klopp telling, is not so much about the specific machinations of the ‘counter-press’. It’s about an overall ethos.

If it can be taught, can it be untaught? Can it be forgotten once the baying of the crowd and the intensity of a traditional match fades away? Take an elongated, unexpected break, say, for a global pandemic, or an extended run out of the side due to an injury, or moving to a new position because of the injuries all around you, and can you lose that the impulse that leads to natural actions?

There are echoes of the Dortmund debacle in Liverpool’s current turbulent season. The average age of Klopp’s starting 2018/19 side, which, by the fanciest of metrics, remains the best team Klopp has had during his tenure at Anfield, the one that won the Champions League and came up just short in the Premier League, but still hit 97-points: 26.4. The starting age last season: 27.8.

The average age of the starting XI this season: 28.9. It is tied for the second-highest average age for a starting lineup for the club in Premier League history, per Transfermarkt.

That’s a giant difference. Run through the average age of Liverpool’s squad and the numbers look a little different, a little younger, a little fresher. But there’s noise in those numbers thanks those players that are registered but who haven’t played a ton of minutes. The average age of the starting lineup is a more relevant figure. There, it’s clear to see the impact of ageing. From a band of mid-20s players who, James Milner aside, had won very little, to a collection of nearly 30-year-olds who have won absolutely everything.

Maybe that’s where you start having some ideas of your own. Maybe you look at that five-metre sprint, hear the barking from the sideline — “press!” — and think it’s better to conserve your energy. You’re 29-years-old, after all. It’s a strange season. And you know your body better than anybody. And so maybe you go at half speed, or 90 percent speed, or full speed, but you hesitate a little, running through the question in your mind. Because now it is a question. Press? What once felt like an order is now an invitation. “Would you like to press now? We think that would be best.”

At the very top level of sports in the modern era, star players are in collaboration with coaches as much as they are loyal servants to their doctrine.

That’s where that notion of naivety comes in. A brash band of upstarts would listen to the messianic figure first pumping on the sidelines. He has seen it all. They’ve seen nothing, and they will follow him to the promised land.

Only now they’ve seen it, too. With all of their own experiences and feelings and emotions along the way. They don’t want the say, but that would like a say — a discussion, not a command.

It’s a picture those Borussia players have painted in the years that followed Klopp leaving Dortmund. You can see the seeds of it in Liverpool, too.

Klopp has already made concessions. Liverpool’s shift from an all-action, pressing monster into a side based around a rhythmic control of possession is now into month 24 and counting. Contrary to the popular, national narrative, Klopp and his staff made the switch from a sit-and-counter side into a possession-oriented with the belief it would elevate the team from contenders to champions. Quick, back-to-front strikes were toned down. Talk of controlling the vaunted ‘game state’ was in.

It worked. Liverpool blitzed their way to the Premier League title in 2019/20 with a style of controlled chaos. They set the rhtyhm of the game. They were contained. And when they struck, it came in bursts. They rattled through the gears within a possession. Pass. Pass. Pass. The ball rattled along.

They controlled the flow of the game with a calm and a poise. The notion of ‘heavy metal; football was always more of a soundbite than a dogma, but those days were well and truly left behind. This was a symphony. A smooth, controlled rhythm interspersed with sudden crescendos.

That Liverpool were pass/possession-centric did not stop them exploding into those passy-happy Kloppgasms, though. Goals were still scored at a fast tempo. As in, once the ball moved, once they decided to attack an opening, it moved really, really fast.

Numbers help tell the story. In 2018/19, Liverpool scored 9 ‘fast’ goals in the league, according to Understat. In 2019/20, that ballooned to 15 (!). The team was more possession-oriented, more focused on setting the flow of the game, but they still scored quick goals. This season, that total has cratered to 3. For the first time in the Klopp era, Liverpool have scored more ‘slow’ goals (moves of 15 or more passes) than fast goals.

The same verve in the press and counter-press that allowed Liverpool to zip through the final third has vanished. They faced low blocks last season, too. That’s often forgotten in this discussion. They broke them down by winning the ball back high up the pitch and moving the ball in the final third at a frightening pace. They slowed down in the first two thirds and sped up in the final third — they maintained possession and tried to score more ‘fast’ goals.

As the first XI’s average age has crept closer to 30, as the never-ending barrage of games has robbed the squad of much-needed recovery time, those fast goals have all-but vanished.

How the manager, the players, and the club adapt to this new reality is essential. This is no longer a naive squad. It is also too good to be replaced by a naive squad for naive’s sake — a plan that would be both silly and expensive.

It was always going to take time to adjust to a different profile of players. Not only those already inside the building, but new recruits. At Bayern Munich, Thiago Alcantara was given specific treatment. He has had long-standing injury concerns. And so he would manage his workload in training, knowing his body better than any medical staff.

He has tried all the methods. He knows what works. At Bayern, they came to an understanding: You get yourself in the best position to succeed and let us know how we can help. It was a decision that helped Thiagp become the creative fulcrum and chief architect for a side that ripped off nine straight league titles, all-manner of domestic doubles, and a treble in his final season with the club — his final game serving as the game that will become synonymous with his stay in Munich: Dominating the Champions League final with and without the ball.

Does that work under Klopp’s brand of collectivisation? Is that why the midfielder was held back so long after picking up an injury in the Merseyside Derby earlier in the season? Is that why it has taken him so long to integrate into the manager’s philosophy? Is the club moving towards his way or is he to move towards the coaches? The answer, as always, will be somewhere in the middle?

What about Trent Alexander-Arnold, young in normal years but having lived a football lifetime in such a condensed timeframe? How does the player and manager deal with an evolving talent who wants to take ownership of his career and style?

It’s a tricky maze to navigate. It’s why building something is fun and sustaining it is so hard.

Liverpool’s squad is not old, but the starting lineup is older than the Klopp ideal.

Some change will happen organically. Gini Wijnaldum will leave in the summer; Curtis Jones will take his place. Diogo Jota is 24-years-old, primed and ready to become an established first XI player.

Liverpool lost a bunch of great things when Jota went down with an injury: tactical flexibility; stylistic diversity; energy; depth. More than anything they’ve missed the feeling of freshness — a touch of the naive. New players bring a vibrancy to a club. They haven’t achieved what you’ve achieved before. And they’re desperate too. More than that, they’re desperate to impress. Desperate to impress Jurgen Klopp. Desperate to impress their teammates — is that Mohamed Salah! — Desperate to prove that they belong at a club that wins the biggest of trophies.

Finding players who bring that fresh feeling without disrupting the excellence that was there before is hard. You need players humble enough to take a rotational role; or someone strong enough to push the current incumbents out of the side; and a dressing room strong enough to weather either. Signings become more of an equation based around personality than raw skill. We have tons of talent here. Will this guy fit in the dressing room and help maintain the standards?

There could be more drastic alternatives, too. This is likely to be James Milner’s final season as a full-time option for the club. The depth will be churned over, the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri and Divock Origi moved on for fresh faces with something to prove. And then there’s the biggie: retooling the front three around a more traditional number nine. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s possible, likely even probable.

Liverpool, when healthy, have the talent to win the league. But Klopp’s teams have always been about more than talent. They have won in spite of any talent gap. Not the best team, but the team with the best plan. And one playing as a Team, as a collective. Things have become disparate the season, the squad torn apart by injuries, any sense of fight drained by the scourge of bad luck, bad decisions, and a bad feeling that it is only going to get worst. It has spiraled.

Klopp has been here before. Back in the Borussia days, the spiral was ultimately reasoned as being about bad luck, on and off the pitch, and in the transfer market. His Dortmund dressing room pointed to their age profile and what that represented about them and their manager.

As Klopp evaluates the issues currently plaguing his Liverpool squad, he would be wise to acknowledge both. Bad luck has decimated his team at the peak of its powers, but he should also heed the words of his former players. Moving forward, either the style must change in a tangible way, or the players must. The answer this time does not lie in the middle.

Originally published at https://www.liverpool.com on February 24, 2021.

Senior Football Analyst at Cox Media’s sports vertical’s: All-22 (NFL) and SEC Country.

Senior Football Analyst at Cox Media’s sports vertical’s: All-22 (NFL) and SEC Country.