Liverpool: Klopp’s Pressing Regime Creates the Play against Manchester City

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“Gegenpressing is the best playmaker there is.”

By now, most football fans can tell you that these words were said by Jurgen Klopp. He may have made this statement during his days in Germany, while coaching Borussia Dortmund, but his philosophy has translated just as clearly to the English game.

Now managing Liverpool, Klopp has brought his signature blend of intensity and pressure to a club who were previously struggling under Brendan Rodgers. And though it took a little while for his players to fully appreciate the demands Klopp chose to place upon them, it all came together last weekend, at the imposing Etihad Stadium, as Liverpool thumped a thoroughly unimpressive Manchester City side.

The “heavy metal” football, as Klopp once termed his preferred approach, was back. This was pressing at its best, pressing characterised by a strong work ethic and the ceaseless desire to apply pressure high up the pitch. Liverpool were relentless, and because of this, Manuel Pellegrini’s City didn’t even begin to cope as they attempted to play out from defence. “What we had to do was disturb their build-up play,” Klopp said in the post-game. “Because if you let them play how they want then you have no chance, so that’s what we tried to do and these were the first steps in this game.”

They were the first steps, but also the most important steps. City regularly looked to spread their two central defenders, Martin Demichelis and Eliaquim Mangala, out wide on the night, largely to allow the one of their two central midfield players to then drop in alongside them. Theoretically, this should have helped the Sky Blues to build up from the back, as either Yaya Toure or Fernando would provide an additional presence to assist with this process.

Yet while Toure is extraordinarily capable of doing this, City, as a whole, didn’t seem to anticipate the degree to which Liverpool would press. Reds centre-forward Roberto Firmino usually picked up Toure, or Fernando if he was the man who dropped back into defence. As this happened, Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool’s two wingers, would aim to occupy City’s centre-backs.

In simple terms, this meant that City had no straightforward ball out from the back, and no easy means through which to kick-start their typically stable possession game. This could be seen throughout Liverpool’s opening 32 minute blur, a period in which their intensity forced the opposition not only to unravel but also to concede three goals. It could be seen just before the 30 minute mark, as Joe Hart held onto the ball for an eternity, seeking an option but finding none because of the pressure applied by Lallana, Coutinho and Firmino. It could be seen as Demichelis played a side-footed pass straight out of bounds and, most importantly, it could be seen in the lead-up to Liverpool’s seventh minute opener.

Again, this moment was characterised by Hart trying to find an outlet with the ball at his feet. His most immediate options were blocked off, with every member of Liverpool’s attacking trio pushed up onto Mangala and Demichelis. Hart didn’t even have Toure or Fernando to hit on this occasion, as neither player dropped back to assist in City’s efforts to cycle possession. So at this point Hart decided to loft a pass out to the back-pedalling Bacary Sagna, who was operating at right-back.

Sagna soon received the ball, but due to Coutinho’s instincts, which allowed him to anticipate Hart’s ball out towards the touchline, the Frenchman almost immediately had company. Sagna tried to hold off the energetic attacker. It didn’t work out. Coutinho nipped in, pinched possession and charged towards the 18-yard box. He then slipped a neat little pass in behind the unset City defence, finding Firmino in the process. The ex-Hoffenheim man quickly played a cutback as he approached the byline, and though it wasn’t the most dangerous pass, at least on the surface, Mangala struggled to sort his feet out.

The outcome was an unfortunate own goal, and what’s worse, it was just the start of City’s troubles. Liverpool’s pressure generated more miscommunication in the 23rd minute, this time through Firmino, as neither Mangala nor Demichelis could successfully clear the danger. Firmino then pounced, running towards the box and firing in a cross. It fell perfectly for Coutinho, and following a slick side-footed finish, the score line was 2-0.

Eventually, it finished 4-1. Klopp’s desire to disrupt the City build-up play had been crafted into a reality, and though the combinations completed between the front three were a key component of the victory, those initial moments of pressing, those “first steps” as Klopp put it, were the foundation for their success. And once again, Klopp’s maxim about pressing and its ability to be the team’s primary playmaker held up.

After all, pressing was the aspect of Liverpool’s game that allowed them to thrive, and even though the Klopp regime is only in its early days, it seems likely to remain the cornerstone of most of their future performances.