With both Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp arriving in the Premier League at a similar time, each with their own brand of counter-pressing, it’s little surprise the two are grouped together.
The two of them, however, arrive at their methods from different directions and do what they do for different reason. Although there are some very obvious similarities in the ways the two teams eat up a ton of the pitch, hounding the opposition off the ball; there are some, stylistically, important differences too.
In The Art of War Sun Tzu famously advises us to “Appear weak when you are strong and strong when you are weak”. I think this summarises the two different approaches to high-pressing utilised by the two clubs.
Revitalising methods from England first used in the 1970’s Klopp, contemporaries such as Roger Schmidt and, now, the rest of the Bundesliga use high-pressing as a way of attacking while defending; creating without the ball.
By winning the ball from the opposition while they are trying to build their own play, they are caught at their weakest. Liverpool, in this situation don’t have to use creative, positional and possessional play to move the opposition away from their own goal because the opposition have done so themselves, willingly.
“No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation” says Klopp and he’s shown it to be true. Time and time again his Dortmund and Liverpool players have suddenly found themselves one v one with the opposition keeper as a result of winning the ball from the last man.
In order to create such situations Klopp’s teams employ a lot of guile and trickery in their pressing. This is where Sun Tzu comes in – they appear weak when they are strong. Liverpool don’t press the first or even second pass. Klopp’s men start blocking off options a little deeper; inviting the goalkeeper to take the easy option and pass to his centre-back and that centre-back to his full-back. But it’s a trap!
“Give him the opportunity to pass the ball, but not a real opportunity, it’s more an imagination of something.”explained Klopp as a guest on Monday Night Football.
Having just scored, Liverpool are at this point content to sit deep and narrow. Liverpool position themselves off the Tottenham defence offering Dier passes out to his full-backs or to his centre-back partner.
Wijnaldum allows Dembele to move away from him but doesn’t do so by accident. Wijnaldum maintains awareness of Dembele’s movement and he himself moves so that he obscured from Dier’s sight behind teammate Firmino.
Dier then can’t see Wijnaldum’s aggressive body shape as he waits for the ball to leave Dier’s feet before pouncing on Dembele as he turns. Because Firmino was defending space rather than a man he is immediately in space as Wijnaldum challenges Dembele which means that Wijnaldum can angle his tackle into Firmino’s path who can then run at the exposed and high defence with the ball.
Spurs, meanwhile, are a lot less subtle. Instead they play a very physical, aggressive and obvious variety of pressing which is much less interested in actually winning the ball high up the pitch than it is simply using the threat of losing the ball high to force the opposition into sub-optimal decisions.
Tottenham match-up with the opposition’s defenders man-for-man, denying the short options. The nearest Spurs player will simply make a straight line for the ball acting as a countdown for the opposition player who is on the ball to make his decision.
Invariably the man on the ball will opt to either play the ball long, or, if under a greater pressure will play the ball off the sideline to avoid being caught in possession.
Due to the immensely physical nature of the Tottenham midfield and the outstanding defensive reading of Spurs’ defenders; attempts to hoof the ball up the pitch under pressure will almost always result in Spurs winning the ball back at which point they will begin their own attack.
Tottenham appear strong at winning the ball high, but they are, relatively, weak.
Pochettino, it seems, believes the best playmaker is in fact a playmaker and so provides the ideal context for his creatives to play in. Continually forcing the opposition to play the ball in the general direction of Tottenham’s elite defenders doesn’t just mean Spurs get a lot of the ball, it means that losing it is low-risk.
Unlike Liverpool, Tottenham’s pressing is much more a defensive tool. The counter-press presses the counter and as a result losing the ball is no big deal. This means that Pochettino’s men are rewarded with a sense of creative freedom to again and again take risks in possession. And it’s when creative players are provided with the opportunity to take risks that quality chances are created.
The comparisons between the two styles aren’t unjust though. While Liverpool’s press is more prone to failure, leaving their defence exposed; pressing is still, definitively, a defensive action. There’s no better way to prevent the opposition from attacking you than by taking the ball from them.
And while most of the time Tottenham are really only threatening to take the ball from you they will follow through on that threat if you fail to get rid of the it – a situation Spurs are all too happy to take advantage of.
There’s a curiosity here over whether the perception that Spurs press like Liverpool do aids them in their own style of pressing.
There’s going to be a little bit of repetition ahead as I use this situation to introduce some technical language. Most tacticians and coaches subscribe to the notion that there are four phases in the game: attacking, defending, transition from attack to defence and transition from defence to attack.
The first two are very easy too visualise. Barcelona have come to Tony Pulis’ West Brom and nearly every man is in the same half of the pitch as Barca move the ball around and West Brom keep 11 men behind it. Barca are attacking and West Brom are defending. Transitioning from defence to attack has a more common term: counter-attacking. And transitioning from attack to defence – being counter-attacked against – is where pressing comes in.
Until now the transition from attack to defence had been the big neglect of the four phases. Now counter-pressing is the flavour of the month and the era of possession teams committing men forward and being vulnerable on the counter is coming to an end.
Attitudes towards transitions are another way of exploring the difference between Liverpool and Spurs. Klopp loves the transition. The transition is where chaos lives and with chaos comes the chance to capitalise on errors and get at the opposition goal unchecked. Time and time again Liverpool will have the ball in the back of the net before it’s obvious the transition period is over.
As such, Liverpool fill their squad with transition specialists. Can, Henderson, Wijnaldum are all fast-paced, hard-working, ground-coverers. They are by no means old-school grafters though, because they also boast technical excellency, lighting fast reactions and a well coached ability to read the chaos. With three central-midfielders who could all be described as ‘box-to-box’ types Liverpool do lack creative vision and defensive solidity in midfield though.
Pochettino, however, prefers control to chaos. So the aim of the Tottenham press is to end the transition period as soon as possible, squash and chance of a counter-attack and begin the attacking phase again.