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A Tactical Guide to Liverpool's Summer Transfer Business, Part 1: Introduction & The Flanks

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The January transfer window may have just closed, but that just means it's time to look towards the summer with a guest post series analyzing Liverpool's existing needs from a tactical point of view.

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As another January transfer window slammed shut last week, the collective Liverpool faithful had its faith tested once more.  Despite having a frightfully long injury list and playing a grueling schedule across four competitions, LFC conducted no significant transfer activity in January (with all apologies to Steven Caulker and Marko Grujic). What's more, since Jürgen Klopp's arrival in October, the team has consistently failed to be consistent. The team's defensive tendencies leave supporters turning away in horror with each set piece or incoming cross from an adversary. Meanwhile, against the typical, park-the-bus tactics employed by most Premier League teams when facing the Reds, the team under Klopp has continued to display the same dull edges that marred the final 18 months of Brendan Rodgers' time at LFC.

But whatever the merits of LFC's decision to sit on the sidelines during January's transfer window, going forward the question is: how should Jürgen Klopp look to change his squad in the summer?  We have seven more months in which to wrestle with that question, and the names that will be tossed about as possible transfers to Liverpool during that time will be legion. Few observers, if any, outside the club have a well-informed idea of who will end up coming to LFC in the summer. But I think we have enough information at this point to make educated guesses about the types of players Klopp will buy this summer, from a tactical perspective.  So, let the guessing game begin.

What does Jürgen Klopp's tactically ideal team look like?

We need to start by discussing how LFC's new manager likes his teams to play football.

The reality is that Klopp's tactical approaches over the years while at Mainz, Dortmund, and Liverpool have demonstrated quite a lot of flexibility.  Although his most famous team at Dortmund - the one that advanced to a Champions League final in 2013 - generally played in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Klopp by no means limits himself to that system.  Instead, Klopp employs a wide variety of formations, depending on his own personnel and the tendencies of his opposition.  Indeed, since arriving at LFC in October, Klopp has used at least five different formations: a) 4-2-3-1; b) 4-3-3 (a/k/a 4-1-2-3); c) 4-3-2-1 (the "Christmas tree"); d) a traditional 4-4-2 (perhaps better described as a 4-2-2-2); and e) a 4-4-2 diamond. Stylistically, his teams also typically have shown the ability both to play quite directly and also to pass the ball about with intricate passing moves.  Each style has its place at different times and against different opposition, and Klopp has pragmatically coached his teams to play with the approach he believes is most likely to succeed under the circumstances.

Nonetheless, as most of us already know, there is a defining characteristic of Klopp's teams that cuts across formational setups, personnel, and opposition: he wants to put pressure on the ball when his team does not have possession.  The pressure will come from different places on the pitch, depending on the circumstances.  But Jürgen Klopp teams will always press.  They will always run.  Then they will run some more.  The goal is to make the opposition feel "terrible."  More often than not, his teams probably have succeeded in this goal, even when the scoreline fails to reflect it.  It's no fun to be closed down all over the pitch for 90 minutes, never having time to make comfortable decisions with the ball.  And Klopp's teams rarely allow the opposition any such comfort.

With this in mind, we know that any players Klopp is likely to target will be grafters.  Attackers will be expected to defend from the front throughout the match, harrying the opposition from the moment LFC loses possession. Midfielders will be expected to run farther than their opponents, and with greater intensity. Defenders will be expected to push their defensive line high up the pitch, creating a compact unit that can better swarm the opposition.

Another common characteristic in Klopp's teams is a need for speed.  Klopp's approach focuses on developing key attacking opportunities immediately after regaining possession.  There is no time for tiki-taka pondering on the ball.  Instead, Klopp wants his team to get the ball back and then send both the ball and a host of attackers immediately toward the opposition goal. In order to maximize the effectiveness of these direct counter-attacks, Klopp wants players with pace.  An he especially wants these speedy players to be employed on the edges of his team - in the forward wings and fullbacks. Thus, Klopp's teams have featured players like Marco Reus, Jakub Blaszczykowski, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Lukasz Piszczek.

How do the current players fit with Klopp's tactical vision?

The short answer is: incompletely.

Fullbacks

LFC do have some speed on the flanks right now.

LFC have two quick fullbacks in Alberto Moreno and Nathaniel Clyne.  Although both have widely-recognized faults in their games, both are nice tactical fits for the new boss.  Depending on the performances of Brad Smith and Jon Flanagan over the next few months, LFC may need to invest in one or two fullbacks just to add depth in those positions. But, I would guess that fullbacks will be a relatively low priority for Klopp when it comes to adding new starter-quality personnel this summer.

Fullback needs: One or two squad players to compete with and fill in for Moreno and Clyne.

Attacking Wingers

Once you move higher up the pitch, however, speed on the flanks goes from a relative strength to a glaring squad weakness.  This season, LFC has had only one "senior" squad player who qualifies as a "pacey winger."  That's Jordon Ibe, who recently celebrated his 20th birthday. The only other "pacey winger" who has seen pitch time for LFC this season is Sheyi Ojo, who only recently returned to the club after spending the first half of the season on loan to Wolverhampton. He's all of 18 years old. The club also owns the rights to Lazar Markovic, who is now 21.  For reasons that escape supporters, Brendan Rodgers chose to ship Markovic to Turkey on loan for the season, leaving the team terribly lacking on the wings.

This winger shortage leads to a variety of serious problems. Most obviously, it means that LFC cannot attack from the flanks as it should.  This in turn seriously blunts the effectiveness of Christian Benteke, who depends both on runners darting behind him and on service coming in from wide. More on this subject later.  Finally, it just makes the team slower than Klopp would like overall.  As noted above, he wants a lot of speed in the team, especially in the forward positions.

Winger needs: at least two experienced wingers with speed to spare.  Even with Markovic returning, Klopp will want to bring more width to the squad.  He will also likely want more balance, in the form of a left-footed winger.  Currently, there are none of those in the squad at all, which seriously handicaps the team's attacks from the left flank.  Playing "inverted" wingers - that is, playing a right-footed player on the left wing and vice versa -- is a legitimate tactic that can often pay large dividends.  When those inverted wingers cut inside on their stronger foot, they can then unleash curling shots toward the far corner and cause all kinds of headaches for the keeper. But an inverted winger will find it quite difficult to send effective crosses (in the air or on the ground) into the box from a wide position.  This is why virtually all of LFC's crosses from the left this season have come from Alberto Moreno, and why Moreno has created more chances than anyone in the squad.  Some of that responsibility needs to fall off Moreno's shoulders, so that he can focus more on his supposedly primary duties as a defender.

Also in This Series

Wednesday — Part 1: Introduction and The Flanks
Thursday — Part 2: Central Midfield
Friday — Part 3: Centre Back
Saturday — Part 4: Striker