To see how far Liverpool have come under Jurgen Klopp’s leadership, all you need to do is look at the leagues they have won and continue to compete in, compared to when he was first appointed. The German did remarkably well to lead the side he inherited to the League Cup and Europa League finals in 2016, but the Reds now have much bigger goals in mind.
But in terms of how they have progressed so far, obviously there have been many factors. Perhaps most importantly, the club’s recruitment has been excellent over an extended period of time, with players who are a perfect fit for how Klopp wants his team to play.
But perhaps most important of all was their ability to turn what was arguably the Reds’ greatest weakness during their current manager’s reign into a strength. That requires serious hard work, and we’ve seen evidence of that in recent wins over Everton and Villarreal.
READ MORE: Jürgen Klopp’s contract just the beginning, as three Liverpool dilemmas may have just become clear
READ MORE: Four things that will ‘certainly’ happen if Jurgen Klopp agrees to contract extension of Liverpool
Much was said about Klopp’s style of ‘heavy metal football’ when he was hired and the impact was evident from day one. There is a famous image of Adam Lallana nearly collapsing in his manager’s arms when he was substituted in Klopp’s first game in charge, a 0-0 draw at Tottenham. The Reds were now a team of great urgency and determined to prove it both at home and away.
However, opposition managers are not stupid. How do you stop a team that thrives on winning the ball high up the field to create scoring opportunities? Give them the ball and challenge them to break down your deep-lying defense.
Liverpool were repeatedly put to the test in 2015/16 and then Klopp’s first full season at the helm, and repeatedly they failed. In those two campaigns, the Reds had 10 league games in which they held at least 70 percent of the ball, winning just three. Even then, one of the wins saw Hull City get a red card in the first half, so when he played against 11 men who had no interest in having the ball, Liverpool usually struggled.
But there is ‘no interest in having the ball’, and then there is what Everton served at Anfield last weekend. The Reds recorded the second-highest possession in a Premier League game since 2003/04 (when the records began) in the last edition of the Merseyside derby. But despite attempting 82.4 per cent of total passes, Liverpool still managed to command six high turnovers.
These are defined by Opta as “sequences that begin in open play and begin 40 yards or less from the opponent’s goal”, and give a good indication of whether the last third is pushed into or just outside the goal. Although the Reds’ six total against Everton was below their season average, it was quite an effort in light of Everton’s ‘play dead’ tactic. More importantly, one of the high turnovers led to Liverpool’s opening goal.
The Blues were unable to clear their defenses thanks to the attention of several men in red, Fabinho recaptured the ball and the series leading to the goal was on. It was the seventh time Liverpool have scored from a high turnover in the league this season, more than any other team in the division. Klopp’s men may not have been as prolific offensively in pushing against Villarreal, but their efforts have set a new benchmark for 2021/22.
Where once possession-averse teams confused Liverpool, they can now have majority possession of the ball and still win it back. This means it works both from a defensive standpoint and from the more obvious offensive perspective, and that was very evident against Unai Emery’s side.
Villarreal simply couldn’t figure it out, being so overrun with Liverpool players. The Spanish side completed just six open play passes in the final third all evening; Trent Alexander-Arnold alone was successful with three times as many. Although they had been under pressure for much of their quarter-final draw with Bayern Munich, they were still able to break out and have a total of 16 shots in the 180 minutes. At Anfield they only had one, and that from a fixed situation.
The roles of five years ago are well and truly reversed for Liverpool. Where once they had no idea if they had a lot of possession, their opponents are now hopeless in both attacking and defensive terms when they do. Klopp once said that “no playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressure situation”, but his side may have proved that no defensive midfielder can go the other way as well.