Anyone who has played soccer at any level will be familiar with certain truisms entrenched in the fabric of the game. At the highest levels of the game, though, the basic traits we’re taught as we learn the game — closing down opponents, working as a unit, springing into shape — haven’t always applied in the way. Now though, gradually, these rudimentary duties are creeping back into English soccer’s top flight again.
For Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, players are pressing, shutting off gaps, retreating back in defensive shells smartly; the kind of commands which are vital at the grassroots level, yet those traits have been forgotten as the English game has sought to immerse itself in tactical and technical-based trends.
It’d be reductionist to claim both Pochettino and Klopp employ the same principles, even if they are often branded as staunch purveyors of pressing in the mainstream media. However, there are key credos which clearly resonate with both, of which a high-intensity style of soccer is the most pertinent.
It’s not a style which has been prominent in successful sides in the Premier League in recent years. Last season’s champions Chelsea and Manchester City, who had won the league title in two of the three campaigns previously, aren’t high intensity sides, preferring to build meticulously, probe for opportunities and then spring into life in flashes. As is often the case in the Premier League, these sorts of patterns catch on. Managers look to these prosperous sides, and while those in the division’s mid- and lower-table don’t possess a quality of player similar to the elite outfits, there are stylistic segments which are sought to be replicated. So the skeleton of those systems have dripped down.
That’s often been the case in the top flight. When Liverpool came so close to winning the Premier League in 2013-14, they opted for a scarcely used diamond formation, catering to the attacking qualities of Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge. In the wake of their remarkable run, it was a system a plethora of teams started using. Similar happened during the glory days of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side. In the campaign following their treble triumph, teams were suddenly splitting center backs, having a holding midfield player drop between them and trying to play out from the back, regardless of the technical qualities of their personnel.
Ironically, what’s likely to be the Premier League’s next big trend was something the aforementioned Barcelona side executed superbly and was often forgotten: intense, intelligent pressure on the opposition. While social media has long been ablaze with passing counts and possession statistics, now, with Klopp’s and Pochettino’s teams putting in immense work-rate, distances covered, sprints, possession turnovers high up the pitch are commonly bandied about . And as Liverpool and Spurs continue to thrive, other teams will naturally pick up on this pattern.
Of course, it’s something which sides should do already, yet it’s not commonplace. The notion that the Premier League is a division of high-intensity play is a tired one, with recent poor performances in Europea an emphatic indicator of that decline. However, sometimes it takes one or two triggers to build momentum.
With all due respect to Klopp and Pochettino, while the minutiae of their methods will be refined and complex, the core requisite qualities of their philosophies are basic. Pressing the ball in an effective manner requires intelligence, focus and quick-thinking, but with the right guidance it’s more learnable than other inherent qualities.
Indeed, the challenge with this kind of style is having the right man to implement it, as getting young millionaires to push themselves to the absolute limit in every game is not easy. The coach needs to have an aura to underpin such demands, whether it’s Klopp’s amicable persona or Pochettino’s sharp cynicism; their players want to work for them.
Yet sometimes, it can be as simple as seeing another team adopting this style and having success. Other managers can point to success stories in the league and ask themselves and their players “why aren’t we doing that?”
If these traits prosper and the Premier League does dial up in vigor over the next few months, then the implications can only be positive. Those sides competing in Europe will be better acquainted to deal with some of the best teams on the continent at the moment. Sides such as Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Atletico Madrid have outworked Premier League sides in recent seasons even before their technical superiority allows them to take over. The same applies to the England national team, who also seem a little ill-equipped to cope with teams who hustle the ball with an assurance at major tournaments.
Of course, these processes being implemented on a more widespread basis depends on the likes of Klopp and Pochettino continuing their bright starts to the season. If Liverpool and Tottenham can continue to pull off positive results with these pugnacious practices, outperform the league’s very biggest spenders and get silverware in the trophy cabinet, then mimicking will be inevitable. In a league which is sadly reactive rather than proactive in its approach, it may well be necessity they enjoy such prosperity if the division is to better itself.