When Liverpool hired Jurgen Klopp, it was supposed to be one of those unusual managerial moves that made a lasting difference. Klopp brought a complex counter-pressing system, in which he trains his team to respond to a turnover of possession by pressing high to win the ball back and then moving to strike quickly on the counterattack. This produces typically crowd-pleasing, open matches, and for Klopp at Borussia Dortmund also led to huge success. His Dortmund won a pair of Bundesliga titles and made a Champions League final.
So expectations are high. In a few matches, Liverpool appears to have reached those heights. The Reds have beaten Chelsea, 3-1 and Manchester City, 4-1, and on Wednesday they won a cup match against Southampton, 6-1. Such results have not been the rule, however. Liverpool lost to Crystal Palace 2-1, drawn with Rubin Kazan in the Europa League, and last Sunday it took a lucky penalty call to squeak a 1-0 victory against bottom-half Swansea. The attack in particular has sputtered at times, but Liverpool has rarely been in danger of conceding more than a couple of goals. Overall, the difference that Klopp has made appears to be mostly on the defensive side thus far.
The following graphic displays chances created and conceded by Liverpool in matches in the EPL and the Europa League. The size of the marker is relative to the estimated expected goals value of the chance.
In attack, Klopp’s Liverpool has scored a few more goals mostly because of improved finishing. The chances created have not been markedly improved. But defensively, Liverpool has tightened up measurably, conceding only 6.7 xG in nine matches. Under Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool conceded 11 clear-cut scoring chances in 10 matches, and Klopp has cut this already-good number down to six big chances in nine matches.
This improvement looks even more striking when it is adjusted for quality of opposition. Klopp already has seen his club face three of the league’s projected top sides (Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City) as well as top-half teams Southampton and Crystal Palace. Simply maintaining the same level of production against such a slate of matches would require improved performance. I adjusted Liverpool’s expected goals statistics for the quality of opposition, based on those teams’ expected goals statistics. This shows that under Klopp, Liverpool has improved its defense by about 0.25 expected goals conceded per match. The attack has been a little better, but the defense has reached an elite level.
This sounds like a change wrought by counter-pressing, but the story is a little more complicated than that. I created a statistic for pressing effectiveness, which measures how often a team breaks up opposition midfield possession within five seconds. It shows that Liverpool had a pressing rate of about 51 percent under Brendan Rodgers, and this rate has remained unchanged at 51 percent under Klopp.
What appears to be a more effective press, in other words, might instead be a different in pace of play. Liverpool matches featured about 100 new midfield possessions per match under Rodgers, increasing to 115 per match under Klopp. Games are being played, then, at a pace about 15 percent faster. The only team in the EPL averaging more than 115 new midfield possessions per match is harum-scarum Leicester City. So Klopp has increased the team’s tempo of play, but the press has not yet become overwhelming.
The defensive improvement, it appears, has more to do with stopping opposition penetration than breaking up possession with an early, high press. I use my expected goals passing system to find the best penetrating passes conceded by Liverpool. Of the 36 most dangerous passes conceded by Liverpool, 25 came in the first ten matches with Rodgers as manager, and only 11 have occurred under Klopp. This suggests that the biggest change that Klopp has wrought has been one of the simplest. He instituted a three-man midfield, typically with Lucas Leiva sitting deep behind Emre Can and James Milner. This hard-working midfield has prevented chances and attacking penetration without hurting Liverpool’s attacking output.
It may be that eventually Liverpool will soon master the press and bring a new consistency to their counterattacking. But until then, Klopp has built a powerful, defensive Liverpool side that can compete at the top of the league.
All data provided by Opta.