Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have enjoyed a highly successful season, reaching the Champions League final and recording their highest ever points tally in the Premier League.
A key factor in their success has been the defence. A simple look at goals conceded in the league indicates as much – Klopp’s side have conceded just 22 goals this season, a significant improvement on the 46 in 2017-18, and 42 in 2016-17.
Tactically, Klopp’s sides have traditionally been characterised by quick, high-intensity transitions. They have a fantastic change of pace in defensive transition, closing the ball quickly while blocking passing lanes. This enables them to win the ball back quickly and create valuable attacking moments on the counter-attack
No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter pressing situationJurgen Klopp
In longer periods of defending, Liverpool are characterised by a well-organised high pressing system. An underrated feature of this is the work rate of the front three – Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah are world-class attackers, but also set the tempo of Liverpool’s pressing high up the pitch and bring Klopp’s philosophy to life.
When defending in the opposition half, the starting positions of Liverpool’s block is encouraged to force the opponent to play inside into central areas. The 9 blocks the passing lane into the opposition’s deep midfielder (their 6), while the two wingers defend narrow, positioned in between opposition centre-backs and full-backs.
The task of the front 3 is to prevent the opponent from playing wide while funnelling play inside.
The midfield three, meanwhile, have flatter starting positions, covering the width of the pitch. As the second line, they have to cover any potential passes over the top of the wingers into wide areas, as well as closing any opposition midfielder who receives in central areas.
If the ball is played over the top to an opposition full-back, and the nearest central midfielder cannot cover the distance quickly to close the ball, then the near-side full-back steps forward. In this moment, the rest of the back four must adjust and cover the space behind.
Ideally, the midfielder closes the opposition full-back, so that Liverpool’s entire back four can stay in position to defend any potential second balls or passes in behind the last line.
In the middle third, Liverpool defends in a 4-5-1 block. The midfield 3 again flatten, working as a unit to screen and block passing lanes to opponents positioned between the lines.
A great feature of their system is the intensity at which any pass into this zone is closed down – the centre-backs are comfortable stepping forward, while the midfielders have a great change of pace to turn and pressure the ball from behind.
Any backwards pass into the opposition’s own half generally acts as a cue for Liverpool’s front three to move forward, close passing lanes wide and create pressing moments. The wingers will press on an angle from outside to in, preventing the opponent from playing ground passes to wide areas.
Typically, in these moments, the opposition centre-back will carry the ball forward. If this occurs, the task of the nearest central midfielder is to close the ball while still blocking passes to any opponent positioned in behind.
Finally, in deeper positions inside their own half, Liverpool gets numbers behind the ball quickly. Sometimes, Salah will stay high on the right wing, as an outlet for counter-attacks. This means the right-sided central midfielder must shift more to the right to cover this zone – unlike on the other side, where Mane tracks back and protects his zone.
Again, Liverpool have a superb mentality defending in these positions – they cover the space quickly, are aggressive in 1v1 battles and take little risk when winning the ball, often clearing their lines quickly.
Ultimately, while Klopp’s system is clear, cohesive and well-organised, it is this mentality that is their greatest strength, most evident in that superb comeback win against Barcelona.