Liverpool Have Thrown The Football World Into Disarray— And It Might Hand Them Their First League Title In Almost 30 Years
Despite all of Manchester City’s league accomplishments last season, their end of the year parties were all ruined by red.
Whether it be the comprehensive losses in the Champions League to eventual finalists, Liverpool, or the theft of a historic title win at Old Trafford, Manchester City’s 100 point year— and the utterly sublime football that came with it— didn’t cast as big of a shadow as it should have. Even after dominating the ‘world’s greatest league’ by nearly twenty points, the outfit people couldn’t stop talking about wore red. The one that marched its way to a Champions League final with an equally exciting brand of swashbuckling football.
The duality of Manchester City’s and Liverpool’s blunted successes last season seemed to reaffirm what we believe to be true about their styles of football: Proactivity is to consistency as reactivity is to ephemerality. Liverpool could beat the very best Earth had to offer (except for the one time they couldn’t) and Manchester City could beat everyone else.
With consistency in defeating sides who are demonstrably lesser being the determining factor in a title race, the dynamic was drawn. Pep’s formulaic approach to football would forever box out whatever title challengers came to be because they were the best at beating the most. Jürgen Klopp’s chaotic approach to manipulating space would see its golden moments in cups as they invited the best teams in the world into their swirling vortex of terror— the richest and most talented teams being the only ones too arrogant to do anything but batten down the hatches and hang on for dear life.
A year on, however, and the story has changed. Even after losing the opportunity to leach points off their closest competitors, Liverpool are still in a strong position— at press time, they’re tied on points with City with a game in hand. A slew of predictive models have them as heavy favorites, and despite a bump or two, they’ve barely slowed from their blistering pace. While Klopp’s individual achievement should be recognized as such, Liverpool’s success doesn’t benefit them alone. Klopp’s prospective title win says more about where football is going than it does about this specific team because it’s a genuine departure from the old formula. Football’s next step is chaos and Klopp’s Liverpool is the catalyst.
What made Klopp’s Liverpool so unique last season was their ability to dominate the game without needing to dominate the ball. By purposely giving up space for their opponents to play into, they tricked the opposition into exposing themselves. Having seemingly inefficient spacing between the three lines of their 4-3-3 triggered long balls for their well-drilled midfield and defensive lines to press into. Once possession was regained, the space created by the rapid change of possession could be exploited.
The effect of this tactic mirrored that of any good possession system’s ‘pass and overload’ approach because it moved the opposition. Pep Guardiola’s teams, for example, are known for their insistence to play the ball from the goalkeeper. Outside of frustrating English pundits, this tactic often forces the opposition to move further up the field in order to engage City in what they believe to be a good opportunity, only to be played through and exploited by the space they’ve left behind.
The difficulty for Klopp, however, was applying this tactic consistently against teams who refuse to play on Liverpool’s terms. The Burnley’s of the world always had a fighting chance against Liverpool through the simple fact that the Reds were going to have to dominate possession. As long as they frustrated their attempts to open up space, they could lure Liverpool into pouring men forward, leaving space for counter-attacks.
This season, Liverpool doubled down on the chaos and transposed some of what they do off the ball onto what they do on it. By progressing the ball quickly to a forward line that’s as adept at running in behind as it is receiving the ball, Virgil van Dijk’s ability to play accurate passes to feet or, more importantly, into the channels, has allowed Klopp’s chaotic approach to extend to their possession game. Though many have credited Van Dijk with the improvement of their defense, the Dutchman has arguably had a more significant impact on how they attack. Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane prod the defensive line by offering the threat of runs over the top, while Roberto Firmino drops deep to receive and link up with the on-running forwards. Their front three’s potential of speed and incisive runs forces genuinely inefficient spacing in the opposition’s formation and forces the defending team between a rock and a hard place: either they drop back and allow Liverpool to progress the ball uncontested, or they take the risk and look to play a high line.
Either situation tends to play into their favor because in order to stop Liverpool’s deeper players from picking out the forwards, the defending team’s pressing action needs to work in tandem with the high line. While there are an ever-increasing number of teams who can do this without exposing themselves, Liverpool’s ability to be relatively imprecise with where the ball is sent because of Salah, Mane, and Firmino’s talent as individual pressers is a big part of how they’ve continued to impose their favored dynamic this season. If the ball makes it to one of the attackers- great. If not, defenders and goalkeepers are often left isolated with some of the best defensive forwards in Europe.
Liverpool’s fullbacks, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, often fuel this dynamic by pumping the ball forward towards the opposition’s goal. Even if the ball is a hopeless pursuit, the tireless running from their front three forces the opposing players into making quick, and often sub-optimal, decisions. Clearances, miscontrols, and errant passes due to pressure all allow Liverpool to win the ball back and create transition high up the pitch.
This alternative style of chance creation is emblematic of Jürgen Klopp’s infamous quote: “no playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation.” It’s merely been transferred to how they use the ball. It also explains some of Liverpool’s particular idiosyncrasies. Last season, around the winter period, after a series of inexplicable losses to teams they ‘should’ have beaten, the knee-jerk reaction from many fans was to buy a playmaker. The pattern of ineffectively battering a team with crosses and link up play that never panned out seemed to inform the solution of buying a player that could “unlock the defense.” There was even some worry after the club sold Phillipe Coutinho, a player that, for all intents and purposes, is one of the best players with these highly priced set of skills.
And yet, over the past calendar year, the club has exhibited the most consistently successful football of the Klopp era. This is because the team has become more dependent on their system of chance creation, as opposed to any individual player. Liverpool are well on their way to winning the league over a historically talented Manchester City team, and they’re doing it while fielding a midfield of James Milner, Gini Wijnaldum, and Jordan Henderson. The system isn’t dependent on individual player quality (up to a certain point), it’s dependent on the players’ ability to execute the system.
With a 57% chance to win the league and only 13 games to play (as of press time), it seems Jürgen Klopp has successfully synthesized his smiley brand of chaos. Though it would be wholly incorrect to say Liverpool are offering a break from the monotony of boring, ultra-rich football provided by some of the aforementioned title winners— City and other teams are anything but boring, and Liverpool have spent a pretty penny themselves— the breath of fresh air one can feel when seeing a team as unique as Liverpool is something to marvel at. Whatever representative connections football fans have lost the to the totalizing nature of late capitalism, Klopp has ostensibly restored by playing highlight football with a cast of players that people believe they’d look like if only they were fitter. A world where anything is possible if they’re willing to embrace the madness.
Nico Morales is a football writer with features at The Ringer, The Athletic, Fansided, and Statsbomb. Follow him on Twitter at @Nico_OMorales.