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Klopp and Pochettino need to solve their pressing warriors’ attacking dilemmas

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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.

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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.

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Posted by on August 26, 2016 in EPL, Published Work


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Tottenham 0-5 Liverpool


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Liverpool produced a scintillating performance at White Hart Lane, which sees them climb to second in the table.


Andre Villas-Boas made two changes to his side, introducing Roberto Soldado and Sandro to the starting line up.

Brendan Rodgers was forced to make one change to the side that defeated West Ham last week, as Lucas was placed in midfield for the injured Steven Gerrard.

Rodgers’ men were exceptional – they attacked and defended well as a unit, but most importantly they exposed Spurs’ highline.


A key component heading into this fixture was how both sides would approach the match without the ball. In possession, they both rely on ball retention, yet defensively they intend on applying pressure, and closing down their opponents in their third.

Spurs attempted to press Liverpool from the back with Soldado and Paulinho closing down the two centre backs, but Lucas Leiva dropped between Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho as the spare man. At times, Aaron Lennon and Moussa Dembele pushed forward to press Lucas, and a Liverpool fullback, but Nacer Chadli’s deep positioning provided Rodgers’ men with a passing outlet.

The odd feat in AVB’s approach was their reluctance to press in midfield. Spurs maintained an extremely high-line, but they allowed Liverpool’s midfield space and time to play passes across the pitch. The only defence Villas-Boas could make is Liverpool’s aim to overload central areas – Rodgers’ men already had a numerical advantage in central areas, but with Phillippe Coutinho drifting infield, Spurs were outnumbered 4v2.

Liverpool down the right

A common feat in the first half was Liverpool’s aim to isolate Kyle Naughton. Prior to Liverpool’s opener, Rodgers’ men constantly looked to overload and play balls behind the Spurs left back.

  • 10th min: Henderson played a lovely diagonal ball to Raheem Sterling, and the Liverpool winger cut to his right, beating Naughton, and forcing him to foul Sterling at the edge of the 18-yard box.
  • 11th min: Sterling intercepts Dembele’s pass and plays a one-two with Coutinho, before slipping a ball to Allen – behind Naughton – who delivers a cross into the box, thus leading to Sterling firing his shot over the net.
  • 15th min: Etienne Capoue fails to clear Lucas’ corner, and the ball falls to Sterling, who cuts to his right, beats the Frenchman for space and drives a venomous cross into the box.
  • 17th min: Coutinho drifted infield, dragging Chadli and Lennon out of position, before slipping a ball into Sterling. Chadli recovered his run, but was also beaten for pace by Sterling, but the Liverpool winger’s cross went right into Hugo Lloris’ hands.
  • 47th min: Sterling got the better of Lewis Holtby by cutting towards the byline, and his lofted cross was met by Sakho, who nodded the ball off the post.

Sterling was Liverpool’s main threat leading up to Suarez’s opening goal – Rodgers utilized his pace, and instructed his men to play him into 1v1 situations. Naughton struggled throughout the entire half, and Ezekiel Fryers replaced him at half time.


Subsequently, Liverpool took the lead a minute after Sterling’s final threat in the opening 20 minutes. There’s no denying the quality of the finish, or Henderson’s influence on the situation, but the manner in which Spurs conceded was appalling.


Above we see Spurs’ shape after Dawson’s timely sliding interception to prevent Henderson from breaking free on goal. We also see Suarez behind Dembele, Sandro and Capoue.


Henderson’s persistence allowed him to nick the ball away from Dawson to play in Suarez, and the Uruguayan – who was initially behind the three Spurs players – ran onto the ball, anticipated Walker’s slide, swayed to the left and coolly slotted his shot past Lloris.

While Henderson’s run and determination plays a pivotal role towards the build-up of the goal, the work ethic and positional awareness of the Spurs trio was diabolical.

Spurs’ highline

The most evident feat throughout the match was Spurs’ vulnerability maintaining an organized high-line, and Liverpool’s aim to get runners behind it. It also didn’t help that Villas-Boas was without Jan Vertonghen and Vlad Chiriches, thus forcing him to pair Capoue and Dawson against Suarez.

However, it was peculiar to see AVB stick with this approach, considering his results against both Manchester clubs this season. At the Ethiad, City blitzed Spurs’ backline, defeating them by six goals. Yet, against United, Spurs sat a few yards deeper and focused on minimizing passing lanes, and space between the lines.

Here, they reverted to the approach at the Ethiad, which ultimately made Rodger’s approach straightforward.


  • 21st min: Sterling and Joe Allen dispossessed Chadli at the halfway line, and Sterling drove forward and played Suarez through, but the Uruguayan failed to slip his shot past Lloris.


  • 23rd min: A simple Lucas long ball stretched Spurs’ backline and set Coutinho free on the left flank.


  • 27th min: Lucas played a quick pass to Coutinho off a free kick, and the Brazilian spotted Suarez’s simple run into half-space. Suarez did well to hold the ball up, and cut it back to Coutinho, and his shot rattled the cross bar.


  • 33rd min: A simple hoofed clearance from Martin Skrtel, sees Suarez run past the Spurs high-line and nearly double Liverpool’s lead. Lloris mistimed his header, and it fell to Suarez, but the French keeper did well to recover and deny the Uruguayan.

Villas-Boas’ approach was eccentric – he instructed his men to play a high-line, but no pressure was applied on the midfield, and Liverpool were allowed to easily bypass the Spurs midfield. Meanwhile, it was beneficial to Suarez, who is renowned for making runs into the channels and behind the backline.

This was a poor tactical approach from AVB, yet this isn’t the first time his preferred high-line has failed him in a big match.


Although Suarez may steal all the headlines based on his great form, and outstanding goal return, it’s key to note that Henderson was magnificent at White Hart Lane. At times, Henderson found himself in deeper positions playing long diagonals and retaining possession, but Spurs were unable to cope with his dynamism from midfield.


Henderson’s energetic runs from deep positions were integral to the buildup for three Liverpool goals. Rodgers was aware of Villas-Boas tactical naivety, and he encouraged the Liverpool midfielder to push forward and attack open space.


  • 17th min: Henderson attacked space between Walker and Dawson, which gave Suarez a positive passing option. Dawson may have intercepted the pass, but Henderson’s run and persistence handed him the opportunity to lay the ball off for Suarez, thus leading to his opener.



  • 39th min: Henderson starts his run at half between Lennon and Paulinho, and the Liverpool midfielder surges forward unmarked, and runs into space to receives Coutinho’s lay off. Lloris stopped Henderson and Suarez’s efforts, but the Englishman did well to convert the third attempt.


  • 74th min: Henderson makes a run behind Chadli and into the space between Capoue and Walker. Walker does well to force Henderson wide, but he provides a nifty back heel to Suarez, who picks out Jon Flanagan at the back post, and he fires his shot off the cross bar to give Liverpool a 3-0 lead.
Henderson better view 3-0 run

A better angle of Henderson beginning to make a run behind Chadli, into open space

Better view 3-0 Henderson

Henderson continues his run and attacks the space

Henderson’s role was pivotal to Liverpool’s success at White Hart Lane. He was a proficient distributor from deep positions –  alongside Allen he pressed Dembele, Sandro and Paulinho out of the match, and his energetic runs from midfield tormented the Spurs backline.

Second half

Spurs responded well in the second half as Liverpool oddly dropped deeper into their third, but Soldado missed two opportunities to cut down the two-goal deficit. While Spurs pushed forward, Liverpool had clear opportunities to expose Villas-Boas’ men on the counter – led by Henderson – but they often lacked the final ball.

Ultimately, Paulinho’s red card midway through the second half ended any chance of Spurs mounting a comeback. With Sandro’s injury in the first half, Dembele’s departure for Andros Townsend and Paulinho’s sending off, AVB was forced to field Lewis Holtby and Chadli in a 4-4-1.

Liverpool received more space in midfield to retain possession, and Rodgers’ men surprisingly only scored three goals, despite creating numerous opportunities.


This was a fantastic Liverpool performance, but it’s difficult to ignore Villas-Boas’ tactical naivety. The Portuguese manager looked to have learned from his mistakes based on his approach against United, but is eagerness to revert to back to his preferred philosophy has been suicidal. It let AVB down in big games throughout his career in England, and this time it cost him his job at White Hart Lane.

Rodgers’ men were diligent out of possession, and isolated Spurs’ deficiencies at every opportunity. Liverpool targeted Naughton, nullified their holding midfielders, and used an energetic midfielder to penetrate open space. The result will build confidence in the Liverpool dressing room, but it’s unlikely that they’ll enjoy such freedom on their trips to City and Chelsea – until then, it’s difficult to categorize Liverpool’s role in the title race.

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Posted by on December 16, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work


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