Occasionally soccer schedule computers throw up matches that seem too good to be true. A Jürgen Klopp homecoming to Dortmund for example, or a Liverpool vs. Manchester United clash or Real Madrid-Barcelona Clasico in Europe. How convenient was it that Liverpool started their league campaign this year against Stoke City, the side that thrashed them 5-1 towards the end of last season’s disappointing denouement.
Regardless of narrative, Liverpool have had an interesting week of games — playing Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield on Saturday before traveling to Germany four days later and taking on Borussia Dortmund at the Westfallenstadion. Aside from the fact that Dortmund and Spurs are second in their respective leagues and were always likely to pose a serious challenge, what was interesting about the matches was that Tottenham and Dortmund play exactly how a good, or seriously good Liverpool side under Klopp would play.
Tottenham have the best defense in England, despite not being a team that monopolizes possession. They commit the third most fouls per game, make the fourth most tackles, and the eighth most interceptions, speaking to the ferocity of their pressing game. As they’ve gotten more and more familiar with Mauricio Pochettino’s training methods and playing style, they’ve also been pressing faster and harder. No other top team runs as much.
Everybody watching the game on Saturday would have been surprised that only two goals were scored, even if they were goals of the highest quality, especially Harry Kane’s. Tottenham took 18 shots, Liverpool 15. The actions flowed rapidly from end to end, with Liverpool conceding possession to negate Tottenham’s pressing ability and careening around the pitch to make 29 tackles, six more than their season average.
And Liverpool created chances in a manner Tottenham would have been proud of, hustling the back line through Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana, winning the ball and then either running forward at pace or exploiting the high line through the speed of Daniel Sturridge. Twice quick through balls presented very good chances for Sturridge who was unable to stick them away.
Removing the lens of the result and the lack of finishing on both sides should leave Liverpool with lots of positives. Their offensive plan is starting to come together as they get more and more players back from injury, lots more of their shooting chances are coming from winning the ball high up the pitch and they are making smarter decisions with the ball after winning a tackle, something Klopp pleaded for after his first game in charge (also against Tottenham in North London).
However if reaching Tottenham’s stature is a stretch target for Liverpool, Dortmund are the gold standard. They demolished Tottenham over two legs in the Europa League, and it didn’t matter which Spurs players played or were rested because their league-leading defense was simply swept aside repeatedly.
There is still a strong imprint of Klopp on Dortmund, despite Thomas Tuchel adding a bit more refined possession to the German side, and one can easily imagine his ideal Liverpool team having Coutinho running through the middle as Henrikh Mkhitaryan setting up Roberto Firmino as the tricky and smart Marco Reus. Daniel Sturridge and Pierre Aubameyang would be the pacy and lethal finishers.
The initial press is extremely strong, and unlike with most other teams that hassle and harry once you break past it with swift passing the game still doesn’t somehow open up. Dortmund’s defensive positioning is so good, that even with a medium block on their back line it is difficult to move past them. By the time a through ball has been found the midfield has tracked back.
Offensively, matching their 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 doesn’t work because Mats Hummels often strides forward with the ball at his feet, and not only is his passing accurate he doesn’t allow the tempo to drop. His ball from the left wing to Aubameyang in the first half on Thursday was a thing of beauty, and could easily have come from Reus.
Still, Liverpool’s progress was underlined by the fact they again imitated their betters, and again got a very positive result. A 1-1 draw in Dortmund is nothing to sniff at, the only Europa League game the Germans have lost this season has been a dead rubber. And since that game, Dortmund have only dropped points against Bayern Munich.
Liverpool did it by doing a very passable Dortmund impression, making 27 tackles and letting the visitors have nearly 60% of the ball. Crucially this was the only important stat that Liverpool won, despite not giving Dortmund a lot of chances to exploit their own pressing game they still only had a passing accuracy 73% and conceded 16 shots, a lot of them coming from Dortmund winning the ball in the final third.
But for a couple of smart blocks and interceptions by Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren on Reus and Aubameyang the score could have been different, but again Liverpool’s offensive game plan showed its evolution under Klopp.
Giving up the ball in order to press Dortmund at every opportunity, and then after winning it immediately looking for Coutinho and Adam Lallana to run at the Dortmund defense or play a pass that eliminated a majority of the opposition players. Divock Origi’s opening goal came from just such an instance where Coutinho played a ball over the top for a James Milner flick on that eliminated three opposition midfielders. Origi’s strength and pace meant that he could get past the opposition defense, hold them off, and finish.
A second opportunity in the first half again occurred after winning the ball from Dortmund and Coutinho sprinting forward at pace, aware that the defense had to sag so that he couldn’t pick a pass early and exploit a defensive line that didn’t have time to reorganize during the transition phase. Advancing till just after the defensive line, he exploited the chaos caused by the rapid change of possession and again picked out Origi who this time couldn’t get his shot past Weidenfeller.
There is no question that at this moment in time both Dortmund and Tottenham are in more advanced stages of their development than Liverpool. However the Reds have only decided to play this way after Klopp came in mid-season. Brendan Rodgers was a possession oriented coach, who wanted ‘death by football’ for the opposition. If after only half a season his Liverpool side is capable of matching teams that have practiced this style for years the future has to look bright.