Defensive frailty the price of Jurgen Klopp high octane football

Words By Conor Kelly
August 24, 2016
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In retrospect, Jamie Carragher probably wishes he picked a different game to debut as a co-commenter for Sky. On Saturday, the Liverpool legend had the misfortune of watching his old side flounder in defeat at Turf Moor against a resolute and well-drilled Burnley. The obvious displeasure in his voice was discernible from the first 110 seconds, when the clarets pounced on some slack Liverpool passing and Sam Vokes lashed beyond Simon Mignolet. “Liverpool are getting a taste of their own medicine here.”

Things got worse when Steven Defour galloped through a half-hearted challenge from Ragnar Klavan and fed Andre Gray, who finished precisely. Liverpool have already conceded five goals in two Premier League games. Following Gray’s goal, Mignolet had failed to save all five shots the opposition had hit on target in both matches. This prompted many articles and opinion pieces specifying the need for recruitment in defensive areas.

Alberto Moreno’s rash and uncoordinated performance at Arsenal offered Liverpool fans further evidence that an academy graduate, ex-player or even any of them would do a better job at left-back than the Spaniard. In all probability, Mignolet will be exiled to the bench once Loris Karius has recovered from a broken hand. There are obvious deficiencies in the defenders at their disposal, but could Liverpool’s vulnerability at the back also be as a result of Jurgen Klopp’s approach?

It was the incomparable Brian Phillips who described Klopp’s style of football as “tiki-taka on MDMA.” When Gegenpressing works, it is utterly devastating and virtually impossible to stop. Just look at the first 15 minutes of the second-half at the Emirates, where Liverpool annihilated Arsenal with a scintillating spell of football. It was the equivalent of a few sandbags trying to fend off a tsunami.

The problem with any drug-induced high though is the comedown. Since Klopp took over from Brendan Rodgers last October, hazy peaks followed by disorientating crashes have been a recurring theme with Liverpool. Klopp’s first significant victory in England was a 3-1 defeat of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Halloween. Liverpool followed that with a 2-1 loss to Crystal Palace at Anfield. In December they thrashed Southampton 6-1 in the League Cup, only to lose 2-0 to Steve McClaren’s relegation fodder Newcastle team a few days later. After eliminating Manchester United from the Europa League, they threw away a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 against Southampton. It obviously doesn’t apply to all of their results, but you get the picture.

Klopp demands lung-bursting work off the ball, as illustrated by last season’s sprinting statistics in which only Bournemouth and Tottenham ran more on average per game than Liverpool. That works a treat when players are mentally and physically fresh, but is much harder to implement when legs are leaden and minds fried. The failure to replicate that intensity exposes their defensive weaknesses. A full pre-season was supposed to give Klopp the opportunity to sharpen his squad’s fitness, so we will in the upcoming weeks and months if more preparation time leads to results.

If Liverpool supporters are expecting a dramatic improvement in their defensive aliments, they might soon realise that Klopp isn’t the tonic. Including his first season at Liverpool and his seven years at Dortmund, Klopp team’s concede on average 35.4 goals per season. That is markedly higher than his contemporaries. From his FC Porto days until now, Jose Mourinho’s sides average 29.4 goals against a season. Antonio Conte’s Juventus (in an admittedly smaller sample size) were at 22.3 goals a season, while between Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Pep Guardiola’s team’s concede 23.8 goals a season.

A more obvious comparison can be made with Diego Simeone. His Atletico Madrid have yielded on average 24.6 goals over the course of five years at the Calderon. Klopp teams score around 15 more goals a season though and highlights that he’s very much of the “if you score three, we’ll score four” school. The exception of course is his two Bundesliga title wins at Dortmund in 2011 and 2012, where they conceded 22 and 25 goals respectively.

Dortmund’s defence at that time consisted of Roman Weidenfeller in goal, Lukasz Piszczek, Neven Subotic, Mats Hummels and Marcel Schmelzer. In time though, a combination of injuries and loss of form dogged all them over the remainder of Klopp’s spell at the Westfalenstadion. Teams began to “out Dortmund Dortmund” and Klopp appeared powerless to prevent it. Major results were usually followed by wildly off-colour performances, particularly in his last season, where they were in a relegation battle before snapping out of their comatose state after Christmas.

Liverpool will continue to play in this manner because it’s the only way Klopp knows. High octane, balls out, heavy metal football. “If one game should change my mind then I would be a real idiot,” he said in his post match press conference on Saturday. Klopp’s stubbornness and commitment to his philosophy is admirable. Whether or not that approach will ever provide Liverpool consistency is another thing entirely.

 

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