The current tactical resurgence surfacing throughout the traditional Premier League top sides was expected following the arrival of some of the world’s best football managers.
Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola have already injected key elements that contributed to their respected sides’ underachievement last year. However, the stylistic shift currently taking place in England’s top division gained prominence last season.
Prior to Leicester City’s triumph, the past three title winners Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United were generally powerful sides that dominated possession, and were equally solid maintaining a deep defensive block when required. While that may not apply to Manchester City from a defensive perspective – a key reason as to why City was unable to sustain their success – they did possess the power to overwhelm inferior opposition.
This weekend’s lunchtime kickoff between Liverpool and Spurs welcomes a different brand of football that’s replicated across the continent. Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino enjoyed success at previous clubs outside of the Premier League, and their footballing philosophy is ground-breaking to a league that’s been criticized for losing its tactical nous.
Klopp began his Liverpool career at White Hart Lane with a vision of bringing the Reds back amongst the elite sides in England, but on his return to North London the German’s philosophy has provided doubt amongst supporters. Liverpool’s growth was displayed in spurts last season, often producing their best performances when forced to play reactive, whilst receiving space to exploit in the opposition’s half.
Klopp has often referred to ‘gegenpressing’ as the best play-maker: the defensive method where Liverpool swarm the ball in packs once they lose possession. It’s very successful when executed cohesively, often flustering opponents into mistakes, and enabling Klopp’s side to retain possession.
“The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it,” Klopp has said. “The opponent is still looking for orientation where to pass the ball. He will have taken his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception and he will have expended energy. Both make him vulnerable.”
Liverpool’s 4-1 demolition of then-champions, Manchester City, appeared to be a turning point in the club’s season: Klopp finally had his players on the same wavelength in regards to his philosophy and they were such demands with devastating efficiency. Although it didn’t drive Liverpool into the top four or prevent a second half collapse in the Europa League final, the breathtaking performance at the Etihad provided optimism.
Likewise, Spurs press in a different manner, as their intent to win the ball close to the opposition’s box is vivid. More importantly, they clog spaces to limit passing lanes, and the defensive high-line remains high to compress space. Essentially, Liverpool’s pressing is better suited to negate counter-attacks, but both approaches can equally go wrong if it’s not a joint-effort.
“It is a different style of pressing,” said Pochettino ahead of Klopp’s Liverpool debut last season. “If you analyze Dortmund, it’s not similar to how we played at Southampton. Our pressing was to the opposing goalkeeper, whereas Dortmund played with a medium block. You can’t compare Klopp’s style with my style, we are different. I’m not saying one is better than the other, just that we are different.
“It depends on your ideas, your culture, how you see the philosophy, your football,” continued Pochettino. “I prefer to press high and we believe we can press the keeper. Another manager believes it is better to stay with a medium block or play deep and go on the counterattack. This is how you feel and believe, and how you develop your style.”
Therefore, the one glaring issue that can unfold when two teams adopt similar defensive schemes is the possibility of cancelling each other out. Spurs’ buildup play is generally decent, but Liverpool’s first half display at the Emirates suggests they may encounter some issues. More so, while both sides are competent out of possession, their early season attacking deficiencies are concerning.
Pochettino was partially guilty for overexerting his players throughout last season’s campaign, and it’s uncertain as to whether they’ve fully recovered – this specifically applies to Harry Kane and Dele Alli, however, Kane generally takes a few games before he identifies his goal-scoring rhythm. But while Spurs have evolved into a slick passing proactive side, this season, they’ve found it challenging to create chances within the final third.
At Everton, they were simply out-worked and out-pressed during the first half: Kane was staved for service, while the attacking players were clearly shunted out by Gareth Barry and Idrissa Gueye. However, Vincent Janssen’s arrival tilted the match in Spurs favour, as they quickly switched to a 4-4-2 and equalized through Erik Lamela’s header from a Kyle Walker cross.
Janssen was rewarded with a start in last weekend’s win over Crystal Palace, pushing Kane into a withdrawn role, but once again, from an attacking sense, Spurs were dull. Nevertheless, majority of their best moves were created in wide areas, and Victor Wanyama’s winner stemmed from a clever Lamela corner, that saw Kane direct his near post header to the Kenyan.
Spurs’ attack evidently lacks width, and it’s odd that they aren’t pushing the full-backs forward with two defensive-minded holders sitting in midfield. They play clever intricate passes in central zones, but against two organized sides that adopted deep, narrow shapes – Everton and Palace – majority of their attacks were cut out.
The other concern with Spurs’ attack rests in the pairing of Wanyama and Dier. Both men are powerful specimens capable of breaking up play and possess adequate distribution skills, but they simply lack the dynamism and penetrating forward runs Moussa Dembele offers from deep.
Spurs can afford to field one holding midfielder against sides that prefer to adopt a low defensive block, and although Wanyama nicked the winner against Palace, the Kenyan’s attacking threat from open play is sporadic. While it’s nearly certain Dembele will return to the starting XI when match-fit, the Wanyama – Dier partnership is better suited for the Champions League and against top opposition, which is why they may strive against Liverpool’s tricky attackers.
On the other hand, Klopp’s issue is more complex: Christian Benteke has been sold, and neither Divock Origi, nor Daniel Sturridge have impressed in a central role – the latter started from the right at Burnley and offered little. Klopp has often trusted Roberto Firmino in a central role, where he drops deep to invite forward runs, and makes outward runs into half-spaces to combine with teammates in tight spaces. Nevertheless, the contrast between Liverpool’s two league matches summarizes last year’s problems.
When the Reds are offered space in midfield and behind the back-line they can press, bully, and out-play nearly every team in the league – Arsenal’s makeshift XI frustrated Klopp’s men in the opening half, but when they tired, Liverpool were dominant over a 20-minute period and scored four goals. Arsenal pushed men forwards in the final 20-minutes with attempts of inspiring a comeback, and though Liverpool broke into key positions in transitions, they still conceded two goals in that span, thus enduring a nervy conclusion to the match.
Meanwhile, last week’s trip to Turf Moor, showcased a dull Reds attack that failed to unlock an organized Burnley side. Firmino was forced to drop into deeper positions, Georginio Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana couldn’t locate space to make penetrative runs into the box, Philippe Coutinho was forced into taking several ambitious shots from distance due to his poor passing around the final third, whereas Jordan Henderson was unable to breakup Burnley’s quick transitions that led to both goals.
Klopp has reiterated his gripe with luring players to Anfield, but with a full pre-season under his belt a certain level of consistency is expected. The intricate passing combinations, fluid movement, and Coutinho wonder-goals are brilliant when Liverpool’s gegenpressing is effective, but converting territorial dominance into goal-scoring chances is preventing the Reds from moving forward as a club.
Klopp and Pochettino have bucked the trend of defending in the Premier League, yet oddly, their main issue to start the season is a lack balance in the final third. With players still to return from injury and pre-season, perhaps this is a minor blip, but Saturday’s clash at White Hart Lane presents the ideal opportunity to build confidence in open play.
Neither side is expected to sit deep, as it’s illogical to expect 90 minutes of full-octane pressing, and given the progress displayed by both clubs over the past few months this match is expected to represent the tactical shift within the league. But where Spurs narrow play requires width to stretch the opposition, Klopp must identify the ideal balance to accommodate his new signings in a fairly direct 4-3-3.
In a league that’s most recently been criticized for a lack of organization and defensive structure, a match featuring some of the best young talent in the league may rest on whether they can maximize their creativity and goal-scoring threat around the box.