Should modern football – particularly the gegenpresse fußball coached by Jürgen Klopp – carry a health warning?
Liverpool, the runaway English champions less than a year ago, look a broken team, physically and mentally. Their defence is cursed by injuries, their attack appears a wearied parody of what it was last spring.
But more recently, coming up to Christmas, they seemed impregnable at Anfield, breaking the record of even the great Liverpool sides that had gone before by being 68 games unbeaten on home turf as their manager’s patented gegenpresse – the term means ‘counter-pressing’ – continued to work its magic.
That relentlessness was all the more remarkable because Anfield, like everywhere else has emptied into a ghost stadium. The symbiosis between fans and players that Bill Shankly enthused decades ago and Klopp embraced and revived, could not help them now.
Even so, the Liverpool that finished off last season out-running as well as outplaying every opponent, used that home advantage to make visitors cower… until mid-December. Since then, not just the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea but also Burnley, Brighton, Fulham and even the neighbours Everton have won at Anfield, where they would not dare to believe they had a chance before.
Yes, the Liverpool defence is wounded, especially in central defence where serious injuries suffered by the colossus Virgil van Dijk, his partner Joe Gomez and deputy Joel Matip forced midfielders Fabinho and Jordan Henderson to play out of position. They picked up injuries too, creating a minor Anfield pandemic within the pandemic.
It might be an unwanted record of sorts. Klopp (himself a defender in his playing days) was forced to try 18 variations on a central defence pairing in just 25 league games. Surely we can not, should not blame the trainer or his coaching and medical staff for that freakish run of ill-fortune?
Maybe, maybe not. Herr Klopp did not invent gegenpresse. It is not even German in origin because the great Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi coached and coaxed some of the finest footballers of the 1980s and 1990s to close down the opposition in order to express their talents.
To defenders of the power and concentration of Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini this was second nature, but Milan’s three magnificent Dutchmen Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten readily bought into the philosophy.
Talent plus work ethic was also the mantra of Johan Cruyff, and through him, of the Barcelona players who under Cruyff’s disciple Pep Guardiola made their own rule that if they lost the ball they had seven seconds to win it back.
The pressing game has many forms. Right now, Guardiola has a breathtaking way of coping with the strain of such relentless physical (and mental) stress. Pep has made seven changes for some Manchester City games, keeping his squad refreshed as they built up a record sequence of wins heading into the business end of the season.
He does this because, the season after City’s phenomenal 100-point title win in 2017-18, the toll on players obliged to run through not only three English competitions but also the Champions League and then the World Cup reaped a physical toll as ruinous as the one Liverpool are suffering now. They still managed a domestic treble but things caught up with them last season, as they looked tired and uninspired in chasing Klopp’s title-winners.
So Guardiola, with the sheikh’s backing at City, built such reserves of talent that he can rest his stars, whether they like it or not. His training regimen, even with trusted lieutenants to oversee the sessions and with medical experts watching over every muscle, must be the eighth wonder of the football world.
Klopp beat Pep last season, just as he beat the financial blunderbuss of Bayern München with far fewer resources at Borussia Dortmund. The Klopp presse, first carried out with the smaller club Mainz, was what we see at Liverpool today — the personal charisma of the coach harnessing the power, the almost craven desire of the crowd, to make his players run until they drop, and then run some more.
Klopp then was the go-between, using the passion of the Yellow Wall of Dortmund’s 80,000-strong home crowd, and the players he persuaded to run through brick walls to beat the mighty Bavarians for back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
He walked away when it unravelled hurtfully the following season. Not only had Bayern prized away Klopp’s playmaker Mario Götze and the extraordinary striker Robert Lewandowski (for nothing in Lewandowski’s case, waiting out his contract and making him a financial offer he could not refuse), they have the omnipotent wealth that proves irresistible to German rising stars.
Klopp had beaten them for a couple of seasons, by an amalgamation of aspiration and emotional appeal. Liverpool’s American owners, venture capitalists from Boston, recognised that power between the desire of the fans who at Anfield are said to suck the ball into the opponents’ net and the man in charge.
Credit Fenway Sports Group, owners of the Boston Red Sox and now of Liverpool FC, with spotting that Jürgen Norbert Klopp could be the reincarnation on Merseyside of Shankly.
There is so much bull written and repeated about Fenway’s employment of analysts to chart and break sport down into fragmented statistics beyond that of others in the game. It is nonsense because you can bet your bottom dollar that Pep and others have as much analysis as they can absorb without choking on it.
What Liverpool found is what Shankly uncovered: That the pulse of a club like Liverpool, like Dortmund, is the special relationship between “working class” communities and incredibly rich star players.
Klopp knows no other way than his gegenpresse. He was a workaholic player, a giant of a man who knew he had to make up in effort what he lacked in quality. If he could imbue that into genuinely talented players, and sustain it, he could raise Dortmund and now Liverpool to the place where billionaire owners feast.
He has made Jordan Henderson and Sadio Mané and Mo Salah winners. But there is a breaking point. Players are human, and Liverpool’s injuries mirror what happened in Dortmund when nine first-team players – among them Mats Hummels and Ilkay Gundogan – simply broke down under the repetitive stress of pushing to their limits game after game after game.
Klopp’s own breaking point, incidentally, appears to be seven years. He left Mainz after seven years and 269 games. He departed Dortmund after seven years and 318 games. He will have been at Liverpool six years this October, and 307 games so far.