Why Liverpool’s Gegenpressing Makes the Clean Sheet Irrelevant
And here’s why.
Four. That’s the number of clean sheets in all competitions earned by a Liverpool side that sits 2nd in the Premier League almost a third of the way into the campaign—five shutouts if you include the 4-0 dismantling of the mighty Barcelona in preseason. Which we will, because, you know, it was fun. Of those four (or five) clean sheets, two were earned against lower league sides in the EFL Cup, one came in the underwhelming 0-0 “football match” against Manchester United in which José Mourinho set up a side more obstructionist than a Republican Congress in an Obama presidency, while a fourth came at the weekend against a well-drilled Southampton.
On the flip-side, Jürgen Klopp’s side have also let in 14 goals in the league so far this term, a mark often levied against them by doubters of their title credentials as being on pace for more Goals Against than virtually any champion in the Premier League era. “They can’t keep a clean sheet” the reductive argument goes from the talking heads; and true, being able to hold onto a 1-0 lead against wave after wave of last minute attacks is typically characteristic of an exceptional side. However, it is useful to note that there is little about the squad that has emerged of Melwood this season that can be considered typical.
Some more random integers: 1, 3, 1, 1, 5, 6, 8, 0. Those are the number of shots that Liverpool’s last eight opponents were able to direct on target (WWDWWWWD, respectively in case you were wondering) and it can be argued that it is here that the Liverpool’s defensive strength lies.
The much-discussed gegenpressing system requires 10 players who are all willing runners, full of that stereotypically English concept of “industry,” as well as—especially following the hamstring apocalypse of Winter 2015 and the subsequent triple sessions to achieve the requisite fitness—the physical ability to enact the system relentlessly for 90 minutes, week in, week out. This squad fulfills all of this requirements to awe-inspiring levels, leading the league in every statistic related to hard work.
The flair players in this Liverpool are no Eden Hazard either, unwilling to get stuck in; rather their leading of the charge is essential to the success of the system. While starting no. 9, Roberto Firmino is surely developing into a fine striker, the reason why one of the most prolific scorers to ever don a Liverpool shirt in Daniel Sturridge can’t get a look into the side is simply because his, as well as Divock Origi’s, commitment on the defensive side of the gameplan, something neither have probably ever been asked to do to this degree in their entire careers, pales in comparison to the Brazilian’s tireless work ethic in closing down. It is a mindset rare to find in a single millionaire goal scorer much less in an entire squad and it is an ethos that Klopp has somehow managed to inculcate in the entire club less than a year into his tenure (long may he reign).
The result ends up being that opponents lack the time to breathe in possession and Klopp’s emphasis of winning the ball back deep in the attacking third of the pitch as soon after a turnover as possible means that opponents simply do not spend much time in the Liverpool half, short of lumping the ball up to the target man or endeavoring to strike fast on the counter. Midfields have been pressed into oblivion, attackers starved of service and defenders spooked into making hasty decisions on the ball. As it has been pointed out on these pages, the plaudits from vanquished opponents aren’t simply boilerplate PR, nor are the fearful tactics encountered with increasing regularity typical in the expansive English game (Mourinho did not set up nearly as regressively against Arsenal, another title contender, at the weekend for example). There’s something fascinating going on at Anfield, and Jürgen Klopp has begun something special.
The December 31st fixture against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in particular will be a intriguing clash of footballing philosophies, being as gegenpressing is an anathema to the Spaniard’s strategy of building from the back. Tottenham, practicers of a statistically milder and less comprehensive version of the Klopp style, have already handily dismantled City 2-0 City at White Hart Lane this season, a fact that will hopefully serve as a preview of how the New Year’s Eve matchup might turn out.
So yes, Liverpool might not boast the gaudy clean sheet stats of Antonio Conte’s revamped Chelsea, a side who have yet to concede in league since two of the league’s best holding players in N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matić came together to form Voltron at the base of the Blues midfield six games ago. However this does not take away from the fact that this Liverpool side are still defensively dominant, they simply do it in a different manner. The pressing system requires a high-level of concentration and coordination between all of its moving parts, and the only thing stopping the Watford, West Brom, Hull City and Leicester wins from going down as clean sheets were momentary lapses of concentration on the tail end of otherwise dominant defensive performances.
Liverpool press high and hard, they struggle to keep clean sheets, their press is a big playmaker in the goal bonanza; none of this is revelatory to any Liverpool fan or keen viewer of England’s most exciting side this season. However, it is important to realize that Klopp is showing the league a new way to skin a cat. While a title challenge may or not in the offing, with two-thirds of a season’s worth of challenges left to overcome, what is for certain that the old metrics of success will struggle to apply to Liverpool. We’re all just along for the ride.