Jurgen Klopp has certainly got a unique style, his recent pitch invasion in the Merseyside derby is just the latest in a long line of Twitter soundbites and newspaper headlines, and in previous years the team on the pitch seemed to take after their manager. Liverpool last year were known for being the team to watch, there were never boring games. They had the second highest goal difference in the league, the top scorer in Salah who broke all sorts of records in his second spell in the Premier League, and some games that will go down in history like the 4-3 victory over eventual winners Man City in January last year. The team were no doubt successful, reaching the Champions League final proved that, but they didn’t have the consistency throughout the season against the bottom half of the table, and that meant they were never looked at as title contenders.
Fast forward to Boxing Day 2018, and Liverpool are top of the table, 6 points clear of Tottenham and the best defensive record in the league by some margin. This is an incredible turnaround and shows a maturity to a side that has in recent times been looked upon as having defensive troubles
So what has changed? It’s no secret that Klopp’s side last season thrived on playing a high press. The front 3 players of Salah, Mane and Firmino would chase down defenders as soon as they got the ball, Firmino in fact had made more tackles then any defender from the top six Premier League clubs last season (except for Cesar Azpilicueta) by April 2018, and Salah’s record breaking total of 32 goals in a season just shows the level the team were playing at. The issue was the defence. A makeshift back line which included a weekly rotation of goalkeepers and players known for making mistakes . The signing of Virgil van Dijk in January last year seemed like a massive fee at £75 million, however many are saying that on current form he is the best CB in the league, if not the world.
The change has been in the shape and style that Liverpool play. Compare the heatmaps (https://www.whoscored.com/) the back 4 and 2 most defensive midfielders from the most recent game against Bournemouth where they ended up winning 4-0 (Right), to the game against Swansea last season (Left), two things are clear. The side are playing a lot deeper, and a lot wider.
Klopp’s men have had to adapt their game. Last season other sides began to understand that Liverpool’s defence was a weakness, and so could sit back and try and play through the press to create a counter attack sitaution. This was something that Klopp had noticed, and so over the summer, after the brilliant signing of van Dijk earlier in the season, a world class goalkeeper in Alisson was brought in from Roma. The team played more possession football including the goalkeeper and invited a little bit more pressure which allowed them to play through the opposition a lot easier.
The change was a difficult one for the attack. After such an amazing end to last season, Salah took some time to get back to his best (the injury in the Champions League final and being rushed back for the World Cup did not help). His role in the team has changed and he has had to adapt to that. Playing as a winger last season gave him the freedom to attack the wings, and cut inside and pop up in the box when a chance needed putting away. The way Liverpool play has changed though. Moving from a 4-3-3, they now play in almost a 4-4-2 with Salah and Firmino at strikers patrolling the front line. They still press , but it is a lower press with the whole team shifting slightly deeper and Salah and Firmino acting as the first line, removing the need for Salah to track back.
Salah’s adaptation to this has been an incredible sight, playing more intricately with Firmino, driving at players through the middle, and being the first to get to rebounds thanks to his increased presence in the box. His dribble statistics from the two games previously (Bournemouth this season Right, Swansea last season Left) mentioned shows his more central role.
Salah, however, is a goalscorer. There is no doubt about it. Wherever you put him on the pitch, the man will find a way to score, and to have someone like that in your team is a priceless asset.
One final thing to mention is the width provided by the two full backs. Jose Mourinho recently said of Andy Robertson “I am still tired just looking at Robertson. He makes 100-metre sprints every minute, absolutely incredible, and these are qualities”. The ability of Robertson, and Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right provides an incredible threat, and allows the more forward players to almost rotate in the middle, try to pass around the defence and know that there is always that relief on the wings to pass it out and restart the attack. It adds another dimension to the side, and worth noting Roberston and Alexander-Arnold have 6 assists between them.
The Liverpool team has changed quite significantly, going from a side that could beat anyone over 90 minutes but could also lose to any side over 90 minutes, to a side that has been incredible consistent, and the only team in the top 5 European leagues not to have lost a game this season. It hasn’t been without its struggles, but the ability to grind out a win is one that is often overlooked. Squad depth in Shaqiri and Fabinho has provided more stability, and the team look like they are adapting more and more to this new style of play, and I know the Liverpool faithful are loving every minute of it.