It is interesting how we — as the wider football commentariat — talk about managers and coaches compared to players.
Players can have good runs of form or bad runs of form. For managers, it’s more linear: They are good or bad.
But that seems wrong. Good managers — great managers, even — can have poor runs of form. Often, it shows up in one game: It can be Pep Guardiola overthinking a team selection or a manager failing to countenance the strengths of the opposition, betting that if his team plays their normal game they will win no matter what.
The only time you really hear of a manager losing form is when they’re hit with the immortal line “the game has passed them by.” Yet even that Mourinho-laden refrain is laced with a linear thought. He was good. Now he’s bad.
That brings us to Jurgen Klopp, a manager who is undeniably one of the finest in world football.
Klopp is in bad form. And he has been for a decent chunk of this season. A lot of what has happened during Liverpool’s disappointing campaign has been out of the manager’s control: The never-ending injuries; the sheer volume of football over the past four years; the mental fatigue; no fans in the stands; a global pandemic; personal tragedies.
Under those circumstances, it would be impossible for any manager to meet the expectations that were placed on Klopp and his side prior to the start of the season. But that doesn’t give the boss a complete pass: Klopp has had a poor season. He has, in essence, been in a poor run of form — just like Sadio Mané. And it should be discussed as such.
One issue this season has been overthinking. Klopp and his staff have moved further and further away from the style that delivered so much success in recent years. I’m not talking about the side’s shift from a transition/counter-attack-based team into a possession-oriented one (that already happened prior to last season’s barnstorming run to the title). I’m talking about the coaching staff’s outlook on games.
Over the past couple of years, Liverpool have, essentially, started games with a similar setup. Again, we’re not just talking formations or personnel or shape here. We’re talking about the mechanics of how the group builds the play. Once the creative burden was shifted to Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, Liverpool slipped into the same style of choreography each and every game.
One of the great illusions of so-called KloppBall is that it looks freewheelin’, energy-based, and instinctive. Instead, KloppBall amounts to a series of carefully crafted structures. It sounds less artistic and appealing, but it doesn’t make it any less effective or mesmerising.
Liverpool rep a set of pre-ordained patterns. At the outset of the century, when what is known as ‘tactical periodisation’ made an appearance in the game, it was about the mechanics of moving the ball from the front-to-back, about giving the attacking side the same level of structure and organisation as the defensive side. Proponents like José Mourinho decided they would build well-crafted routines into the build-up phase that players would rep as much as their defensive structure. The plans of attack would shift the ball in a variety of patterns from the back to the final-third. From there, it was over to the players. “My job is to get the players to the final third with options,” Pep Guardiola said in the seminal book Pep Confidential.
KloppBall took that to a new extreme. Sure, there was plenty of intuitive stuff going on in the final third, just as with Pep’s Barcelona and Mourinho’s Internazionale. But there was also a series of pre-planned moves in order to attack specific weakness — underlaps, overloads, you-go-here-I’ll-go-there stuff. It was a 4D mapping of the pitch; when an opening emerged, Liverpool’s players would jump into the pre-ordained packages without thinking. It’s why so many of the team’s goals look the same.
Part of the brilliance of Klopp and his coaching staff is that they could figure out on-the-fly which build-up moves were working and which would not. Peter Krawietz, the staff’s video analysis expert, would gather video clips prior to half-time, jog along to the dressing room, show the holes the opposition had left exposed in the first half, and then initiate a new plan in the second half. We’re moving from these patterns we set pre-match to these ones.
And often the switch isn’t delivered so mechanically. It can still sound like old-timey football speak. Let’s get after their left-back. Only that ‘get after’ is laced with the thousands of inter-play reps between Sadio Mané and Andy Robertson, each knowing where to go based on the body shape of the other and the positioning of the opposition. It’s part of why Liverpool were so ruthless in the second half of games in 2019/20 after stalling in the first half — Liverpool finished with 45 expected goals in the second half of league games last season; this season they’re currently on 29 with eight league games to go.
There has been a shift this season. The league campaign started with Liverpool slotting into the regiments of old, even with new additions to the side. But as the injuries mounted, Klopp looked for more detail-oriented solutions. Whereas in the past the manager has switched structures over the span of five or ten games — and often due to an injury forcing a switch — Klopp started to make wholesale switches to the mechanics of the team’s build-up play on a match-to-match basis.
It’s a very Guardiola-at-City style. Guardiola’s positional grid and overall ethos are well known, but he is equally as well known for switching up the mechanics of the build-up play depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. Yes, two players are always holding the width of the field, but in any given match that could be the wingers of fullbacks or a drifting striker. The pre-set patterns in the final third are often the same, but how City move the ball from back-to-front changes in 10–15 minute increments — sometimes it’s a 3–1–6, sometimes it’s 3–2–5, sometimes there are inverted fullbacks playing as central midfielders, sometimes the fullbacks are playing as wingers.
Once Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez went down this season and a whole bunch of Liverpool’s traditional structures were ripped out of the team, Klopp tried to echo parts of the Guardiola ideology. Liverpool would shift the mechanics on a match-to-match basis. And they’d also re-switch during the game in short increments.
Across a month or so, Klopp went with a six-man, one-vs-one attack against West Brom (an ‘our athletes will be your athletes’ set-up), a 3–2–5 structure against Sheffield United and Chelsea (with Trent Alexander-Arnold given a free role to play as a central defender, midfielder, and forward), and a 3–3–4 look against Arsenal that had Roberto Firmino consistently playing as an honest-to-goodness central midfielder rather than as a dropping forward.
It has been a lot of change. And it has been about targeting specific things the manager and his staff have seen pre-match. Only rather than it coming with minor tweaks to the specifics of the play within the same structure, it’s been about changing the structure entirely. It has been that way for the bulk of the season.
So far, Klopp and co. have proven to be, umm, not good at it — or at least not able to do it as effectively without Van Dijk and Gomez in the lineup to provide the perfect base or without the scale of options that are at Guardiola’s disposal. Over the past month, the team’s form has steadily increased now that Klopp has two centre-backs to work with. But for long stretches, the team has still felt like it’s stuck in the mud. The once fluid build-up play has looked ponderous and robotic.
Add that to issues of one-off selections (Keita in for the Madrid game after sitting and watching for the better part of two months) and a string of iffy substitutions and it paints a fairly grim picture.
Jurgen Klopp and his staff have been dealt the roughest of cards this season. But there is still all-manner of talent in Liverpool’s squad. The reality is that one of the game’s greatest coaches has simply been in bad form, drawing up so-so plans, making questionable substitutions and failing to land on a concrete mode of playing that can get the best out of the players that are available to him.
It’s noticeable that Klopp’s mood has steadily ticked up in recent weeks. When the manager slips into happy, jokey mode it’s typically because he’s uber-confident in his team. The disappointing defeat away to Real Madrid — the manner of it more than the result — may have eroded some of that, but Klopp should still feel confident about Liverpool’s chances of reaching the Champions League places given the sides run-in.
But to do so, the team will need its manager to regain his own form. Part of that will be about the manager getting out of the way, of not overthinking, of allowing a rhythm and flow to foster from the same coherent set-up.
Like Mané, Klopp is likely in need of a break. It has been a draining set of years. The last year, in particular, has been filled with even more pressure and personal pain. The club and the supporter base will bet on Mané to re-discover his mojo after an extended post-season break. The manager will need to re-discover his form, too.
Originally published at https://www.liverpool.com on April 8, 2021.