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The Klopp Template

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Every coach worth their salt, at every level, has a temple for how they like the game to be played. The template will contain their favourite formation, the way they defend, the way they attack, how they deal with set pieces, and how they use set pieces to score. It can be as basic as simply the formation and whether they will play the ball on the ground or the air; or it can be as complex as what formation they will play depending on the opponent, conditions of the field, and whether they will attack centrally or down the wings; the speed of the attacks, the level of pressure, the restraining line and the line of confrontation.

Our Klopp is no different. The manager before him had a template, and the manager before him had a breakfast plate. The King had a template, Rafa had a template, and Houllier had a template. As did Evans, Joe, Bob and Shanks. Souness probably didn't have one per se, as he is of that culture of managers who think that the players should be able to sort it out on the pitch. But the template is more than the formation and the style of play. It is an “ideal team” that the manager is always aiming for – something that they believe is repeatable, that they can coach standing on their head, and allows them to buy players for that ideal team that informs their transfer business for probably the entirety of their careers. It's very rare for a manager to change the basic tenets of their template, even if certain aspects of it might change (such as the formation, the method of attack, etc).

Usually, the template is something that experiences a peak moment – either a defining game, or a defining season, or tournament, or something that validates all of their ideas on coaching, recruiting and training that tells them that their ideas were right, valid, and successful. For Shanks, it was probably the Cup in 65. For Bob, it was probably the 77-78 season. For Ged it was – oddly enough – probably the failed attempt to qualify for the World Cup with France, that saw him reinforce his ideas towards safety-first football. For Kenny, it was clearly the 88 team. For Brendan, it was the Swansea promotion team. And for Kloppo, it was almost certainly the Dortmund team that reached the Champions League final. Although they lost that game, everything he every believed in, tested on the training ground, and executed in games, led Dortmund to that moment where they were 90 minutes from being Champions of Europe. And it is probably this tactical template that he will follow for the rest of his career.

Clearly, all teams have personnel changes – season-to-season, game to game, half to half. So any talk of “tactical templates” will necessarily be general, even if specific instances are given. For the purpose of brevity, I'll be referring specifically to the line-up from the 2013 Champions League final. For the most part, it perfectly defines the roles of what Klopp probably looks for in a team. And that is what a “template team” is – it is a sum-total of all of the roles players have to play to fulfill a manager's vision. We can see it when we read the media referring to such things as “the Makelele Role”, or the “Busquets Role”, or the “Pirlo Position”, etc. We see these phrases, and we instantly understand what is being referred to, and we can usually get a picture in our head of how the team they played on operated around them.

So for Klopp, the team he had between 2012 and 2013 probably best epitomised every idea he had on the game, in terms of how to train a team, how to set them up on the field, how to recruit for success, and how to play the game on both sides of the ball. If we break the template down, we might get some insight into what the future for Liverpool looks like, especially with the departure of you-know-who.

The first thing to look at is how they set up, in that game at least. It was their typical 4-2-3-1 formation that Klopp used most regularly:

Wiedenfeller in goal, Piszczek, Subotic, Hummels and Schmelzer at the back, Bender and Gundogan in the middle, Blaszczykowski, Reus, Grosskreutz and Lewandowski in attack. There were other players who rotated in and out (Goetze and Perisic in attack, for example), but the line-up of that night pretty much fit the template, so those players will do for comparison's sake. It was a strong team, an excellent team, and a well-drilled team. Possibly unfortunate to lose that final, but every final has to have a losing team, unfortunately. And they might possibly have won it, if they were facing any other team than Heynckes' Bayern. But the result is immaterial.

We can see from the line-up an almost perfect representation of Klopp's ideas. Apart from the overall Gegenpressing philosophy (which is broad enough and relatively well-understood that it doesn't require repeating here), the roles of the players were well-defined at this point. And they were roles we've already seen forming at Liverpool, especially this season – alternating defensive and attacking fullbacks, a stopper/sweeper type central defence (not actual, because nobody plays with a sweeper anymore, but in terms of those traditional roles), a midfield sweeper and a runner, a defensive winger, an attacking winger, a #10, and a striker. This is not an unfamiliar template for us Liverpool supporters – we've seen it most recently with Rafa (with a minor variation in midfield), and with Kenny in the 87-88 team.

With defined tactical roles, come defined tactical responsibilities. This is not a new idea – it has been ever thus since the change to the offside law in 1925, if not before. Even the basic positions of the game – Goalkeeper, Defender, Midfielder and Attacker – contain certain tasks that the players in those positions must perform more than others. These tasks haven't changed in over a century; the keeper still has to stop shots going in, before anything else; the defenders still have to tackle and mark; the midfielders still have to get up and down the field and create goals; and the attackers have to score them. And so with any manager's tactical template, each area of the field, each unit, and positions within the unit, will have basic tasks attached. The differences in emphasis on which tasks to perform in each position is probably what separates one manager from another, more than anything else.

So with Klopp, we saw some solid representation on how he sees his whole system in the 2013 Champions League final. Starting at the front, we had a mobile, strong, reasonably quick (but not overly so) striker who specialized in getting goals. We had a second striker (rather than a pure playmaker) behind him in Reus, capable of breaking the line as much as the striker and getting in on goal himself, as well as setting things up and sorting out the final ball. We saw one winger (on the left side) who was tasked with doubling up with their fullback as well as getting forward, leaving the winger on the opposite side free to attack. We saw a midfield runner who stepped into the press, leaving the other midfielder to sweep up behind him. And both midfielders were capable of delivering a ball or carrying the ball forward, although the stepping midfielder was usually the one who did this the most – in this case, Gundogan. In the back four, there was a defensive fullback and one who went forward on the overlap, and in the middle there was a free-roaming defender who got forward with the ball, and a sweeper-type who collected the through balls from the opposite team. And in goal was a basic keeper who kept it simple:

So we can see the basic jobs that the players were expected to perform at a minimum, either through design/instruction, or default. But there was a definite pattern to the whole thing. A winger who focused on passing rather than crossing, with another winger who focused on crossing; a sitting midfielder and a running midfielder; a fullback who stays and one who goes; a forward who pushes on and one who drops off; and a defender who attacks the ball and one who covers. There is nothing new to these ideas, because they've been the ideas of most managers who employed four-back systems since at least the mid-60s.

And we can relate these tasks, roles and positions to their old shirt-numbers (depending on whether you follow the Continental or English system). The #1 was the keeper, #2 and #3 were the fullbacks, #4 and #5 the centre halves, #6 the sitting.holding midfielder, #8 the running midfielder, #7 the defensive winger, #11 the attacking winger, #10 the second striker or playmaker, and #9 the striker. Vince Lombardi, the NFL coach, used to say something to the effect that he didn't do much more than the fundamentals – but it was up to the other team to stop his team from executing them well. This is the same case – Klopp is, at heart, a traditionalist, and his team-building reflects this. Innovation and creativity is less important than perfect execution of the fundamentals, which is why his pressing is so effective. It's not new (the Dutch were doing a version of it with total football, Jack Charlton's Ireland were doing it in the 80s and 90s, and of course, Guardiola with Barca) – but it does require a slavish devotion to getting the basics of the game right.

Unlike Brendan, whose template requires highly technical, multi-positional players to get right, Klopp's plan is built for – dare I say it – the average player. Where Brendan allows creative players to flourish by encouraging them to play to their natural talent, Klopp allows even the most basic of players to flourish by making the game incredibly simple for them – press when we don't have the ball, get forward when we do, and at all times, remember your basic task. And these basic tasks, rooted in football tradition as they are, give us a clear picture of the template that Klopp seems to favour:

So with that template to hand, how do we see the future shape of Klopp's Liverpool? For one, we know that we don't have Coutinho anymore, so we're lacking a pure playmaker in the midfield. But so did Dortmund. There was nobody like Coutinho in that Dortmund team. Gundogan possibly came the closest, but clearly he wasn't the same type of player. So in terms of the Klopp template, the loss of Coutinho isn't as damaging as it would be, for example, to Brendan's team (as much of a rationalization of recent transfer events as that might sound), where he was absolutely vital for getting ball into the final third (otherwise, as we all know, the ball could spend a lot of time going from side to side – see Celtic this season and last for how different Celtic's possession is when Tom Rogic is on the field versus when he isn't).

The plus point – although not in the immediate future – is the arrival of Keita, who nicely slots into the Gundogan role. His combination of drive, dribbling, power, shots, and delivery will give us that forward impetus that we need for Klopp's plan to work. The winger jobs are adequately covered between Mane, Salah, Chamberlain, and – if it happens – Lemar. The fullback position is actually quite sorted, and we're solid – and possibly better – at central defence with the arrival of Van Dijk:

The three key positions that need to be looked at, then, are goalkeeper, the #6, and the two central attacker positions. In the diagram above, Keita has been added, and Lemar as a possibility. But the main fantasy football change is playing Firmino as the second striker, and Salah as the #9. At the moment, that's essentially how they are playing, as can be seen by the average positions of a number of games where they've played together. Even though Firmino starts nominally up front, and Salah nominally on the left, their natural movements usually take them into the #10 and #9 spots respectively. If those positions were to become definite, that would leave Mane to fill the right spot, where he seems to enjoy playing more. It would give us the speed up top, the second striker in “the hole” (which will keep Mick McCarthy happy, at least), speed on the wings, and defensive solidity on one flank (which has the effect of pushing the play to the other flank when we defend, which lends itself to making play predictable, a key principle of all defending).

That leaves two spots that we continually question – the keeper and the #6. The keeper question is the easiest to answer. It's quite possible that Klopp is entirely serious that he doesn't need any better than Mignolet and Karius there. Although Dortmund had good defensive seasons under Klopp, Weidenfeller was actually not the pinnacle of their defensive performance. In fact, if you compared relevant stats, side-by-side, with Mignolet, there is no real difference in numbers – you might as well be looking at the same player:

So it seems, on the face of it, that Klopp is quite believably happy with the goalkeeping situation, and maybe doesn't see it as important as the rest of us do. If he tolerated the patchiness of Weidenfeller - i.e. generally decent but not always consistent - then it's very plausible that he is quite tolerant of the performances of both Karius and Mignolet. Perhaps that's not a position that is going to be changed any time soon?

But that leaves the #6 position. Possibly the next most important position on the field after the keeper and striker, the #6 position has been cause for debate for Liverpool fans since the departure of Mascherano and the in-and-out nature of Lucas' latter time at the club. Henderson does a serviceable job, but he's injury-prone these days, and the quality of his long pass delivery is not exactly in the Alonso category. Klopp, again, seems happy to retain Henderson as his starting #6, but in the summer, is it possible that this could change? With Van Dijk marshalling the troops on the back four, will we see Henderson continue as the midfield stopper, or will we dip into the market for someone more akin to Bender (Sven, not the Futurama robot – although sometimes it seemed like he was made of as much metal as his cartoon namesake)?

If so, who would fit the bill of being a fighter with a deft touch who controls the space behind the press? But if not, then our transfer business gets a little easier – figure out what we're doing up front in the #10 and #9 positions. If Klopp doesn't move a few  existing pieces around as shown above, then which area of the field is most likely to see an upgrade – the striker, or the player in behind? With Firmino already playing a “false nine” position, it seems most suitable that he play the Reus/Gotze role to Salah's Lewandowski. That leaves Mane, Oxlade-Chamberlain, possibly Lemar or someone like that, and Lallana to cover the wing positions, with Lallana also capable of playing the second-striker spot. With the number of games we aim to play per season, there are plenty of options for rotation in the attack.

So the key question, it seems, is whether or not we finally buy the #6 the Liverpool support have been crying out for since 2010. And if we do that, and get it right, we should be very close to the perfect Klopp ideal. Most of the ingredients seem to be there. One single addition might be key to bringing it all together. And if we get the template right, will we also finally end the wait for a trophy? Time will tell. But the journey will be fun nonetheless. And at least we have a picture to reference every time a player comes in, or as we've seen, goes out – even if we believe them to be a key player.

Great post, PoP! I agree with you that we are close. Klopp has made some adjustments to his Dortmund model to suit the Premier League but, as you said, his underlying philosophy has remained steadfast.

I personally believe we're one which on the turn, mobile, vertical passing #6 away from challenging. Will be an interesting summer transfer window.

A question for you. I remember watching Dortmund play a lot of 1-2s out wide in behind the full back, followed by the low cross into the box for the runners to tap in. We don't seem to do a lot of it though. Is that a league adjustment from Klopp or is it because we're still not there yet?

Great read Pop, thanks for sharing.

The balance of the attacking unit is the part which jumps out to me.  I think I've seen Mane used as the 10 at times already, I wonder if that might be a short term move, or if he'll go left while lallana plays the 10.

The other player I can't work out is Can.  Sometimes he looks like a midfield monster in the making.  He probably prefers the 8 position, but isn't he suited to being a 6?  Either way, it looks like he'll be off, but is that mainly because Klopp doesn't see him fit his ideal line-up?


--- Quote from: Gerrvindh on January  7, 2018, 07:58:53 am ---Great post, PoP! I agree with you that we are close. Klopp has made some adjustments to his Dortmund model to suit the Premier League but, as you said, his underlying philosophy has remained steadfast.

I personally believe we're one which on the turn, mobile, vertical passing #6 away from challenging. Will be an interesting summer transfer window.

A question for you. I remember watching Dortmund play a lot of 1-2s out wide in behind the full back, followed by the low cross into the box for the runners to tap in. We don't seem to do a lot of it though. Is that a league adjustment from Klopp or is it because we're still not there yet?

--- End quote ---

I couldn't tell you. But that pattern of play - give, go, send the next one, or short-short-long as it's called - is very German. I love that we do an altered version of it - we usually do it to precede a switch of play, with the two mids playing the give and go and then we send a wide ball in behind the fullback. But whether we don't do the 1-2 and then the low cross because our players aren't attuned to it, or because Klopp doesn't think it will work in English football, I wouldn't honestly know. But that short-short-long pattern is definitely in our play.

I wonder then if the 4-3-3 we played last season was specifically designed to include Coutinho, the kind of player that wouldn't fit in Klopp's standard team.


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