Liverpool’s pressing machine is stuck in the mud

Back in the summer of 2018, Peter Krawietz sat down with author Christoph Biermann to outline his vision of football. The Liverpool assistant manager was in a reflective mood, switching between stories and ideas of how to construct a great team and the things that undo sides that are already at the top.

It came back to the basics, Krawietz articulated, cautious at first. It was about running. It was about passing to the right person at the right time. Football, it turned out, was no more or less complex at the highest level than at the lowest. And then the discussion shifted to the now notorious concept of the ‘counter-press’, the staple of which the Jurgen Klopp-Krawietz-led revolutions took hold at both Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool.

Krawietz was trying to find an answer for how things had gone so right for Liverpool in the duo’s early days and so wrong Dortmund at the very end of the management team’s tenure.

A lot of things clouded the end in Dortmund for Klopp and co. but the thing that Krawietz kept returning to was the decline in pressing and how that corresponded with the flow each game. Klopp had promised before the disastrous final season with Borussia that he would “rebuild the pressing monster”. It didn’t happen. The intelligent, explosive pressing game flat-lined. The foundation upon which all of Dortmund’s success was built evaporated. It wasn’t just a sense that the management staff had either; the impact was tangible.

Passing Plays Per Defensive Action (PPDA) is used as a loose-ish measurement of how much a team presses. It measures how many passes a side completes before the opposition attempts a tackle, challenge (a failed tackle), interception or foul. In essence: How much freedom is the opponent given to knock the ball around before the defensive unit gets up in their face. The higher the press, the lower the PPDA — someone races right up to try to win the ball back high up the pitch.

For a long time, Dortmund were the darlings of PPDA. As time moved on, Krawietz and Klopp saw the core number rise and rise. Their team was less aggressive and less effective in the press. Less pressing meant less counter-pressing, which in turn meant fewer chances created, fewer goals scored, fewer points, and a full-blown crisis.

Part of that was by design, a tactical shift away from the fire-breathing style. A bunch of it was not.

Krawietz, Klopp and the rest of Liverpool’s coaching staff could be forgiven for sensing a tinge of déjà vu about the team’s performances this year. So much of Liverpool’s success has come thanks to the counter-pressing style. “Gegenpressing,” Klopp infamously quipped, “is more effective than any playmaker in the world.”

It makes sense. You win the ball high, close to the opponent’s goal, and you’re able to make hay amid matchup chaos, crafting openings, close to the goal, before the opponent can reset.

Throughout Klopp’s tenure, Liverpool have ranked among the top PPDA sides in the Premier League. Alongside the fellow high priests of the counter-pressing church — Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino, Brendan Rodgers, and Ralph Hasenhüttl — Klopp has built his reputation atop the idea of quickly turning pressing into attacking opportunities. Even as Klopp’s side evolved into more of a possession-oriented group, away from the fire-breathing brand of 2017/18, a style in which PPDA’s can naturally tick higher up as the team conserves some energy, Klopp’s group continued to stay the course. If anything, they became even more effective in the press, even more intense; they would rest on the ball and then use up those energy reserves without it. It was a delightful marriage: patient, careful, well-crafted build-up play; a blur of without the ball, the team working as a unit to win the ball back ASAP.

That has all-but vanished now.

Sift through the rubble and you will still find some encouraging numbers. Look, you might say, the 2020/21 metrics matches up with the 2018/19 number. Is the drop from eight to nine that significant?

It is! The drop-off is made all the more troublesome once you factor in the so-called ‘game-state.’ That’s how Klopp’s coaching team prefers to analyse their own pressing numbers. If the team is leading for a large percentage of its minutes, it’s natural for a team to sag off, not press as intently, and sit on the ball for long stretches of play. Rather than charge around, they’re more calculated. That was on show last season, when Klopp’s team would toggle between a controlled, patient, possession-oriented style and then burst into a frenzy once the ball was lost. They led a lot and they pressed a lot, one amplifying the other.

That is working in reverse this season. Liverpool’s PPDA has dropped by one, a small but significant total. When taken with the minimal amount of time Liverpool have led this season, it’s damning. When the team should be upping the oomph in the press, it’s not there. By leading less, the team’s PPDA should drop. They should be pressing more. Instead, they’re pressing less even while trailing games at a much higher clip. At the very point they should be pressing, they’re not; it’s the same pattern that troubled Krawietz when reflecting back on the troubling spells in Dortmund in the summer of 2018.

This season represents the first time in the Klopp era that Liverpool have dropped out of the top two in the Premier League in PPDA, though Marcelo Bielsa’s brand of KamikazeBall muddies the numbers — Leeds average 6.71 PPDA (!) the lowest total in the history of stat being tracked. But it’s also the first time that their ‘leading’ figures have been anywhere near the 20s.

Why? It’s difficult to say. If anything, opponents have been camped deep in their own halves this season, actively encouraging a quick-twitch reaction from Liverpool players once they have lost the ball. Against opponents like West Brom, Newcastle, et al., those who’ve rocked up to a game with the sole purpose of digging in and counter-attacking, the pressing figures should be through the roof, with the defensive side of the game bringing some urgency to the attacking side — the defensive work opening up spaces and opening to do damage in transition. Given the style of the hit-in-and-counter opponents Liverpool have faced for much of the season, their own pressing numbers should organically be at a record high (or low, if we’re looking at PPDA).

It’s possible that Klopp has backed off on a counter-pressing style in order to preserve the legs of his players throughout the season. But even that is an incomplete answer. Given the state of Liverpool’s campaign, would it not make sense to, say, stop doing that at the point a dip became a crisis?

Counter-pressing, of course, is not a switch you can flip. It’s an ingrained, intuitive understanding that can take years and years to harness. By ramping down at the back-end of last season and sleep-walking into the start of the new campaign, did Liverpool’s forward line and midfield area lose some of its muscle memory?

Certainly, the non-step, ever-growing loss of centre-backs has been a ding. It’s taken Jordan Henderson and Fabinho out of the midfield block for long spells of the season. But that would cover the team’s success rate, not the effort. And if anything, pressing higher, selling out to win the ball up the pitch would be preferable to slipping into a mid-block and allowing opponents to target certain elements of a rickety centre-back partnership.

One other potential cause is the want of the forward line and the midfielders. Crucial members — Roberto Firmino, Mo Salah, Sadio Mané, Gini Wijnaldum, Thiago Alcantara — are all approaching 30-years-old. Pressing so high, at such a clip, for the fourth season in a row is demanding. It’s one of the issues the Borussia dressing room said wound up costing the team at the end of the Klopp run.

Perhaps Krawietz and Klopp tried to get ahead of those Dortmund-like issues by evolving the side before the pressing natural started to lag. Whatever the explanation, it has not worked. When Liverpool have needed to press most, when they have needed to engage the very thing that has so often been the staple of their success, it has gone missing.

Originally published at https://www.liverpool.com on March 2, 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.