Jürgen Klopp prides himself on his attacking approach, producing some of the best football seen in the modern game. Sami Faizullah takes a look at what options the German has in the attacking third at Anfield, to get the best out of his players.
Transitional phase and long-term future are terms that have become synonymous with Liverpool Football Club. Those can easily be replaced with false dawn and exaggerated hope, with the same actual results on an off the field. But Liverpool’s appointment of Jürgen Klopp as manager has been met with widespread acceptance from all corners of the sport. Klopp may well be the most high profile manager Liverpool have appointed in the Premier League, surpassing La Liga & UEFA Cup winner Rafael Benitez in 2004 and even the returning Kenny Dalglish in 2011.
Despite the success the German boss has achieved previously in his career, there’s a need for cautious optimism and patience at Anfield, before dreams of glory days can be considered. Liverpool, as a squad, are still a couple of paces off the more ‘regular’ top teams. Achieving a top four finish is no more easier than it was before; the task at hand is still the same with the same level of difficulty, despite the new circumstances.
Jürgen Klopp was blessed with solid attacking options during his seven years in Westphalia. He oversaw the progress of Mario Götze, the success of returning Marco Reus, the rise of Shinji Kagawa to a global star and even Robert Lewandowski’s progression to the modern game’s best pure goal-scorer.
But besides these obvious success stories, Klopp also had the option of Lucas Barrios – the man who had as important a role during the back-to-back title winning campaigns as Lewandowski did. The likes of Ivan Perisic, Kevin Grosskreutz & Jakub Błaszczykowski offered the German boss further options during his tenure, that allowed him to display some of the most aesthetically beautiful football.
The scenario at Liverpool from an attacking zone perspective is as exciting as it was at Dortmund. Lewandowski, Reus & Götze weren’t the world-class individuals they are considered today until Klopp infused that belief and style of play in them. Comparatively, the options at Liverpool are potentially far more established than Klopp’s Dortmund bunch were when he developed them. Getting the right mix considering his options will be imperative to meet the pre-set expectations.
FLUID ATTACKING MIDFIELD TRIO WITH LONE STRIKER
This approach would make most practical sense to implement when the side are faced with opposition who are expected to sit back and invite attacks.
The fluid attacking midfield trio (of Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino & Adam Lallana) would be required to play flexible and interchangeable roles. While one individual would be required to play off the big man upfront, the other two would be vital for cutting inside and providing occasional width.
But the individual that is required to play those specific roles remain dynamic, as neither would take up a specific position. Constantly looking to move, create space and prove to be difficult to contain for the opposition defence. All three would be required to be comfortable in playing both out wide and through the centre. Short pass and moves between the trio ensure the fluidity while maintaining constant movement of the ball.
The lone striker upfront (in Christian Benteke) would be required to hold up play and create opportunities for the dynamic midfielders to make runs into the box. These midfielders would most often look to create goal-scoring chances for this lone striker, and thus his intelligence in and around the box becomes vital. The midfielders won’t be the primary goal-scorers, but rather the facilitators for it to take place.
Though breath-taking in attack, this would leave the side vulnerable when not in possession. None of those attacking midfield trio are particularly reliable defensively, and the pressing mind-set is something that would need to be instilled as the season progresses.
REGAINING POSSESSION IN THE ATTACKING THIRD
Klopp’s gegenpressing approach requires regaining possession when lost as quickly as possible, and ideally higher up the pitch. The system seems simple on paper, but it takes a physical toll on players and is something that needs to be coached intensely on the field.
But Klopp has the option of hard-working energetic midfielders in Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Emre Can. These individuals naturally press as part of their game, and would find it most comfortable in Klopp’s intense approach off the ball. While playing either of these in attacking third would force fluidity to suffer, they’d become vital options when faced against difficult opposition looking for the win.
Jordan Henderson as the sample in this approach, would have the sole responsibility in regaining possession in and around the opposition box, while the more creative midfielders around him would look to directly contribute to the scoring charts with the assistance of the striker up front. Henderson himself would make direct late runs into the box (think Steven Gerrard during the height of his powers), but creative responsibility will be retained by Coutinho & Lallana (in this sample). The approach would be less fluid & dynamic as the previous option, but would be more in line with Klopp’s high pressing philosophy.
Klopp’s ideal scenario would be a system which is both fluid and defensively stable from a pressing perspective, but the individuals from the current crop of players are unlikely to play both roles effectively, forcing the German boss to change personnel and approach based on opposition.
While the success of a manager is judged on how confident he is with his starting XI, the epitome of tactical success for Klopp would be a scenario where he manages to combine these first two approaches.
FLUID FRONT THREE
While Christian Benteke does offer a different dimension to Klopp in attack, his ability on the ball and dynamic movement remains in question. Klopp was faced with similar issues during his earlier days at Dortmund with Robert Lewandowski, but worked well in developing his all-round game. Similar development would be required for Benteke to succeed in Klopp’s system, as his natural game prevents him from being suited to the approach.
Using Daniel Sturridge as a lone striker does prevent a traditional target man approach, but allows for a more fluid system right across the attacking third. The ex-Chelsea man would be comfortable in drifting into wider areas, paving the way for the likes of Roberto Firmino to occupy the striker’s role while Coutinho would continue to drift from wider areas into more centralised roles as often as possible.
The crucial aspect of this approach would be the difficulty the opposition would face in containing a lone striker, when he is regularly moving into wider areas. While the system would be initiated with a lone striker, Firmino’s movement upfront would make it a traditional two striker system, with Coutinho being the creative head in the role.
This approach could constantly create variations between the front three in terms of roles. The side could naturally orient themselves to a centralised attack or alter to one with more width with the players drifting wider (and providing width is something Adam Lallana would be an ideal option for). The crux of this approach is facilitated by that fluid lone striker, and is arguably the ideal scenario for Danny Ings to make his claim as well, as opposed to the other options (though his unfortunate recent injury sees him out for the rest of the season).
This sort of approach would also potentially solve Liverpool’s issues in central midfield. Klopp’s past experience at Dortmund has involved stable central midfields with the likes of Sebastian Kehl, Sven Bender, Nuri Sahin and Ilkay Gundogan providing options. Those individuals provided both defensive stability and creative vision from the back creating an ideal midfield combination. Liverpool’s current squad unfortunately doesn’t seem to possess an individual who could play any of those roles effectively.
A fluid front three combination would pave the way for Liverpool to play a three man central midfield system with Lucas as the central defensive midfielder, flanked by hard-working box-to-box midfielders in two of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Emre Can; potentially proving a temporary solution for Liverpool’s lack of creative depth in midfield. While the box-to-box midfielders would provide assistance in attack, and in regaining possession with their pressing, they would also further provide defensive cover when the opposition hold possession, ensuring defensive reliance isn’t held with Lucas alone.
VARIATIONS WITH THE DIAMOND
Liverpool supporters have been clamouring for a striker partnership upfront, and a potential return to the diamond. Benteke-Sturridge does have loads of potential in it, and more recently Ings has shown a good understanding upfront as well. To play only one of these individuals while failing to take advantage of their potential partnership isn’t practical, especially with most expecting instant results from the new boss.
Besides providing an opportunity for two-man partnerships up front, the diamond would again allow for variations based on opposition. Jürgen Klopp’s insistence on working with a fluid attacking trio could potentially allow him to play the likes of Coutinho, Firmino and Lallana in midfield, while retaining his philosophy of playing a narrow set-up into attack.
However, the option of playing a more restrained approach in a bid to contain opposition is what makes this formation tempting. A creative midfield would be the focal point of the diamond, but he would be covered by hard-working box-to-box midfielders behind him, focused on regaining possession in the opponents’ half and quickly turning over possession with two options sitting upfront.
A primary reason for Klopp’s success at Dortmund was his ability to change his attacking approach based on opposition. The German had the likes of Kevin Großkreutz and Jakub Błaszczykowski to provide more traditional width, keeping in mind the strengths of Robert Lewandowski; strengths similar to Belgian Christian Benteke.
While it does have it’s obvious advantages when playing a lone striker up front, possibly with a player deployed in the hole, it also has potential to be played with a two-man system. The drawback though would force Klopp into retracting away with any creative player in the hole, a role he considers crucial for his system to work – not to mention the abundance of players Liverpool possess for that position.
Having said that, Liverpool’s squad lacks players who could provide traditional width, preferring more to make runs into channels and creating play narrowly. Jordon Ibe is arguably the most traditional winger in the side, and the consensus seems to be his first-team opportunities are scarce.
It should be noted though that across all approaches, Liverpool’s width will most often be provided by the attack-minded full-backs in Alberto Moreno & Nathaniel Clyne, which could make a wide approach from midfield a bit redundant. Given these factors, traditional width from midfield does remain a fall-back option, but unlikely to be widely deployed.
While Jürgen Klopp is often associated with passion and determination, he is often over-looked for his tactical brilliance. Most viewers are claiming his attitude can revive the club, but ultimately on-field results are based primarily on the tactics employed. Klopp has plenty of options to succeed at the club, he’ll need to find a balance between his philosophy and his players’ strengths.
Written by Sami Faizullah