Football Features

How Klopp’s Liverpool work, explained by Guardiola, Mourinho – and the man himself

By CJ Smith

Published: 10:19, 30 October 2019 | Updated: 9:04, 19 December 2022

Since joining Liverpool in 2015, Jurgen Klopp has transformed the Reds into one of the most feared sides in Europe.

There have been some bumps along the way – including three consecutive final losses in the League Cup (2016), Europa League (2016) and Champions League (2018) – but the German has been backed by his club and they’re now reaping the rewards.

Some may not have seen this level of success coming but others were more aware of how much a club can benefit from allowing a plan to work its course over time – a point well made by Bayern Munich manager Niko Kovac, who lost out to Liverpool in the Champions League last season.

“What are we talking about, eh?” he said. “About continuity. About time. Which apparently you no longer have in football.”

So, what kind of football has this time and patience produced? Just how do Liverpool overwhelm and crush so many opponents, week after week?

Here is how Klopp’s Liverpool work, as explained by some of the greatest minds in football.

Pep Guardiola

In an age of quick fixes and managerial merry-go-rounds, rivalries between opposing dugouts are becoming an ever-more rare occurrence. We’re seeing far fewer Sir Alex Ferguson v Arsene Wenger type duels due to clubs chopping and changing. But thanks to their overlapping times in Germany and England, Pep Guardiola v Klopp has become something of a fascination.

The two tacticians have dominated Bundesliga, Premier League and European football for years now, often going in direct competition for the biggest honours, and speaking in September 2019, Guardiola was keen to highlight how Klopp’s Liverpool have “everything”.

From counter-attacks to set-pieces and that world-famous ‘gegenpress’, the Reds are a nightmare for opposition managers to plan for, as eluded to by Guardiola.

“The opponent we have is the strongest opponent I have faced in my career as a manager – Liverpool,” said the Spaniard.

“I said it when we were in front, I said it when they were in front, I said it when we won, I said it when we lose, I’ve said many times because they have absolutely everything, in the positioning game, in the counter-attack, set-pieces, transitions, Anfield, the stadium.

“I know how difficult it was, I know how difficult it is and will be. But that’s the challenge we have.”

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Jose Mourinho

Speaking after Liverpool’s remarkable comeback win over Barcelona in the 2018/19 Champions League semi-final, former Chelsea and Man Utd boss Jose Mourinho chose to focus on the unique mentality Klopp instils among his players, believing the Reds’ “fighting spirit” means they’re never truly out of a game until the final whistle.

“For me, this [comeback] has one name—Jurgen,” Mourinho said. “This is about him. This is a reflection of his personality – don’t give up – his fighting spirit, every player giving everything.

“Today is about Jurgen’s mentality. This is not about tactics, not about philosophy. This is about heart and soul and fantastic empathy he has created with that group of players.”

However, speaking as a pundit on Sky Sports following Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Man Utd at Old Trafford in October 2019, Mourinho did point out that Klopp’s side prefer to play against teams which allow them to counter-attack, while also praising Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s plan to limit the number of times that happened.

“They are, of course, much stronger playing against opposition that gives them chances for transitions and counter-attacks,” the Portuguese tactician said.

“Of course, Man Utd with the limitations they have at this moment played a different profile of game.

“They tried to be solid in the back, they tried not to give chances of transition, they always kept three centre-backs in position plus McTominay and Fred, they were always compact. They [Liverpool] didn’t like the menu.”

Unai Emery

Few teams have struggled against Klopp’s Liverpool more than Arsenal in recent years, with the Gunners running up an aggregate scoreline of 6-16 in their past five meetings with the European champions.

Manager Unai Emery is at a tactical crossroads with Arsenal at the moment but, perhaps more importantly, it’s Liverpool’s winning mentality which impresses the Spaniard the most. He recently suggested the Reds have teams beat before even entering the pitch thanks to the winning culture and team spirit Klopp has introduced to the club, something he wishes to emulate himself at the Emirates.

“Liverpool is a very good example,” Emery said in August. “I think they have a very strong style and their mentality is very, very strong. They are adding titles. I think we are on our way to creating a big mentality. We also need time. I think they have an advantage on us in this way, but I really appreciate their work a lot.

“I think their performance is amazing, their spirit and quality also. They are a team that can feel strong. I want to create our mentality, our style, and get stronger in our way little by little.”

The man himself

While Klopp’s brand of “heavy metal football” was certainly fun to watch and became a big part of why Liverpool were so effective earlier in his reign at Anfield, the German has admitted to being forced into tactical tweaks.

Speaking ahead of December 2018’s Merseyside derby against Everton, Klopp admitted he had to find a way for his team to “control” games more to avoid being counter-attacked themselves, believing the opposition showed more respect to Manchester City than his side.

“A lot of teams saw that we were good at that and realised they were overplaying,” Klopp said. “If the team gives us the opportunity to do it we will still be there with the counter-press. But very often it is not possible.

“A lot of teams also play counter-attack against us. They don’t have the same respect for us that they have for Man City, for example. Against City, you watch it and wonder what they are doing. A week later they play us and they are thinking, right, let’s try.

“City deserve that but it makes a big difference because we have to be 100 per cent concentrated all the time. It means that now we have to control more games. We have to keep the ball, especially against counter-attacking sides.”

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