Aa is the case with all sports, a football game is a dynamic ecosystem. A combination of teamwide philosophies and personnel selection ensures that every match produces a relatively unique experience, with triumph typically granted to the side that most successfully imposes their own game on the opposition — the inherent and unavoidable randomness of sports notwithstanding.
Broadly, then, to explain this dynamic, this writer has always attempted to make a distinction between strategies and tactics, with the former explaining what you’re trying to achieve, and the latter answering the question of how.
To wit, Liverpool’s high line, the subject of many a pundit’s nonplussedness whenever an opposing team manages to wrangle a one-on-one situation with the Reds’ keeper, or, as was the case against Arsenal last night, two one-on-one situations with the Reds’ keeper, albeit one of them was explicitly offside.
Now, on the strategic level, what Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool are broadly trying to do in a football game — not taking into account strategic alterations as a result of game state — is to win the ball back high up the pitch in order to create clear chances against an opponent caught off guard, but without tremendous leakage at the back end of the pitch. This is not a novel concept, and a plethora of teams have taken the pitch with similar ideas in the past century.
On the macro level, the applied tactics are not groundbreaking either, and we would have to get down to specific patterns of play, far beyond the scope of this article and, in all likelihood, the grasp of this writer, to understand exactly why they have been so successful in this specific side. Nonetheless, the bigger picture of how the team’s tactics function appear to have passed many pundits by, and so we can make an attempt at clarifying.
If we make the assumption that the opposition begins with established possession — as opposed to having just won it from the Reds, in which case Klopp’s extremely aggressive gegenpress comes into play — the first thing this Liverpool side sets out to do, is establish a primary press. This largely revolves around the notorious front three — often assisted by one midfielder — closing down ball carriers and passing lanes at specific angles in order to shepherd the ball, either into specific areas of the pitch, or away from a primary playmaker. No team performed more pressures in the final third last season than Liverpool, a full eight percent more than Manchester City, another renowned pressing side that we will come back to later in this piece.
Should the opposition find their way through the primary press, some control has been lost, and the balance begins to shift towards damage limitation, through the secondary press. Here, the fullbacks and/or midfielders, depending on the location of the ball, will do their best to disturb the ball carrier, ideally forcing play to go backwards, but at the very least, making sure that a clean look at a through ball is avoided.
In the event that a pass is made, the hotly debated high line comes into play. Already positioned high up the pitch to constrict space and passing options in the centre of the park, the defensive unit will move as one and push up in an attempt to disrupt the timing of the pass with its corresponding run, but without selling out so hard that they cannot make an attempt to recover.
The Reds’ central defenders have a few things in common — an impressive passing range among them — but for the purposes of this defensive system, their main shared attribute is their recovery speed. Long, rangy strides allow Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and the rest to catch up with strikers who have gotten a head start should a pass find its way in their direction, and it is an absolute necessity for the defensive structure to work the way it does.
Finally, the Reds have an aggressive goalkeeper. Despite Liverpool’s dominant possession stats, no team had their goalkeeper make more defensive actions outside the area last season than the Reds, and only Manchester City’s Ederson averaged those actions further from their own goal line. Alisson Becker has arguably been the world’s best goalkeeper for the past few seasons, but more than that, he is a perfect fit for the kind of goalkeeping is required in Klopp’s side.
Crucially, when evaluating a defensive structure, rather than taking shots at single pieces of it, it makes more sense to look at its effectiveness in its entirety. The Reds have, in the past two seasons, conceded fewer goals than any other side. Their post-shot expected goals are lower than any other side. As a percentage of overall tackles, no team makes fewer in their defensive third. And, crucially, despite the impression that when they give up chances those chances tend to be big ones, they kept the average expected goals value of shots against to .092 per effort, just under the league average. For comparison, the other really good high pressing side gave up shots that averaged .12 expected goals per effort.
This has been an incredibly long-winded, probably pretentious, and possibly completely unnecessary exploration of the fact that even if pundits and studio analysis point out singular moments where a part of it is breached, either through a moment of opposition brilliance, individual failure, or managerial oversight, the system, as a whole, works exceptionally well and exactly according to design. Eliminating any single part would compromise the entire structure.
Sometimes, the best keeper on the planer has to make a great save. Most of the time, though, he doesn’t. And that’s pretty good.