Blog » Evolution not Revolution – Klopp’s Changing Tactical Blueprint

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An interesting point came up during the planning of this week’s LFC Stat Show – will Klopp look to change the team’s formation going forward into the summer? And if he does, is there anything in his past to give a clue as to how? Will it influence the profile of player we look to secure in the summer?

Now this question was borne out of some extended study of our midfield three and a season-long look at @11tegen11’s passmaps which reveal some interesting quirks in terms of Klopp’s tactical setup. The standard 433 the manager has employed since the summer has often become 343 in practice, particularly in attack, while occasionally lapsing into a more traditional 4231. For many the fact we play 433 at all came as something of a shock. Most assumed Klopp would look to persist with the 4231 that brought him so much success at Borussia Dortmund and has become de rigueur in the last decade or so throughout football. It’s no secret that Klopp has looked to secure wingers for his squad, which would suggest 433 remains firmly in his mind, but what about our striking options if we are to lose Daniel Sturridge? Are Firmino and Origi clinical enough? Given our recent slump and repeated cries of exhaustion from pundits, how would we successfully negotiate squad rotation for European competitions next season? Rotating Lallana and Firmino in the 10-cum-second striker role seems a safe bet, but again who leads the line and provides the width on the wings? It’s a question we’ve faced already this season, during the period when Klopp’s squad was decimated by injuries and led to calls of a 442 diamond with Origi and Sturridge up front.

So will Klopp look to persist with the 433 after this season, or will he retreat to safer territory? His history offers some insightful clues, but little to let us come down safely in one camp or the other.

Arriving at Dortmund: 424 and 442 diamond
When Klopp arrived at Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2008 he inherited a squad that had underperformed under previous manager Thomas Doll, but also lacked the requisite quality to compete in the upper echelons of the Bundesliga table. Pre-season was intensive, with the manager looking to lay the foundations of the high-pressing and direct attacking style that had brought him success at Mainz, while culling his squad dramatically of no less than 17 players. Tactically, he looked to implement a 442 that favoured two strikers and two wingers, often becoming a 424 in practice. The opening period of the season brought mixed results – 2 wins and 2 draws – but a 4-1 drubbing away at Hoffenheim led to Klopp deciding to tweak his formation to a diamond in midfield, making his team more compact and providing numbers in the middle of the park. This opening period coincided with Klopp often rotating his squad in order to test players in new roles, but ultimately bore fruit as the club approached Christmas with Klopp finding a settled first XI. The form improved following this switch to the diamond, with the team losing only four of its remaining 29 games and provides the first insight into the hallmarks of a ‘Klopp side’.

While in some senses it is a misnomer to suggest Klopp has a set formation as I did at the start of this article, there are some key traits that occur across his sides regardless of the formation. The emergence of Sahin in midfield during this debut season as chief playmaker is one, as is his twinning him with a more classically box-to-box destroyer in Sebastian Kehl. In the current Liverpool setup these roles are occupied by Henderson and Wijnaldum respectively, and in his later Dortmund sides (following the switch to 4231), by Gundogan and Sven Bender. The presence of Dede and Owomoyela at full-back provided the width – as Clyne and Milner do currently – and meant the formation often resembled a 343 in attack, with the fullbacks becoming part of the midfield. In all of this Klopp seeks balance within the team to compensate for individual player’s weaknesses and provide passing options. I think of Paul Heyman discussing his time as head booker for ECW when I say Klopp sought to ‘accentuate the positives and hide the negatives’. A season-ending injury to a young Hummels meant Sahin became the chief creative presence within the team, but his lack of athleticism created an issue, and was compensated for by having the much more mobile Valdez and Blaszczykowski around him. The team became a group greater than the sum of its parts, which in turn served as the embodiment of Klopp’s high-octane, and all-for-one, one-for-all style. While the team finished a respectable sixth place, I hasten to add that this was the genesis of Klopp’s success at Dortmund but that this came from the balance of players he utilized, as opposed to the formation he set them up in. As we’ll come to see going forward, for Klopp it is evolution, not revolution, that forms the basis of his team’s development.

The Glory Years: 2009 – 2013
Summer 2009 saw Klopp add several players who would become key to his success at Dortmund in Sven Bender, Kevin Grosskreutz and Lucas Barrios. However, persisting with the 442-diamond led to poor results at the start of the season with 3 wins, 3 draws and 3 losses. It was now Klopp changed his team’s setup to the more familiar 4231, and the team again embarked on a winning run, finishing the season strongly in fifth place, and four points off third.

Tactically, the team developed in this period from the foundations Klopp had laid the season before. The return to fitness of Hummels gave Klopp a ball-playing presence from the back and saw him teamed with the much more agricultural and no-nonsense Subotic. The additions of Schmelzer and Grosskreutz to the starting XI, while moving Blaszczykowski to the wing, gave the team balanced and hardworking flanks, all four of whom would look to press forward in attack, and return quickly in defence to allow consistent pressing and 2 vs 1 overloads while passing. Finally, the addition of Barrios meant Klopp had a large focal point for the team to find up front, either from Sahin and Hummels’ looping passes upfield, or by Barrios himself holding the ball up for Valdez and the wingers to play in behind. The result was a team that would look to play comfortably in possession while often switching play long, and dropping into a hardworking 4141 when defending in order to limit space the opposition had.

Again the key factor here is balance, with Klopp evolving the basic tenets that had brought him success, and supplementing them through squad additions and tactical changes. The formation change from the diamond to 4231 grew organically from seeking to service this end rather than any great tactical shift within the league or Klopp himself. The best way to do this? Simple - play more of your best players in the positions they excel in, and then fill in the blanks with what you have left. The most notable addition for me is that of Barrios up front, in many ways the ‘forgotten’ one of Klopp’s great strikers. Brought in from Colo-Colo for
4.2 million, the 6ft 2 Paraguayan created the archetype Lewandowski would later follow for Klopp, scoring 19 goals in his first Bundesliga season, while becoming heavily involved in his team’s build-up play and overall game. A 6ft2 target man seems a world away from the profile of striker most envision under Klopp, especially considering he sold Benteke in his first summer with Liverpool. Yet Barrios was a key player in Klopp’s early sides and serves as the link between his original striker Frei and the man who replaced him Lewandowski. Where Frei was aging and in many respects a classic ‘target man’, Barrios was much more mobile and involved in play, undone ultimately only by a spell on the sidelines through injury, that saw him lose his place to the emerging Lewandowski.

For Liverpool fans, it highlights what Klopp looks for in a striker, namely hold-up play, finishing and involvement. While Firmino might not fit the bill of classic no 9, he holds the ball up extremely well, often drops deep to link play in midfield and is an accomplished if not exceptional finisher. Of the remaining options, this seemingly provides the death knell for Sturridge, a player who looks to play in behind, rarely becomes involved in play further back up the pitch and struggles to hold up the ball. Origi however fits this profile much more readily, being hard-working, strong and showing an eye for goal. Ings too - if he returns to fitness - possesses two of these attributes, though his ability to hold the ball up remains an area of potential improvement and which, for my money, might see him appear more readily on the wing.

The following season saw further developments to this formation, with Kagawa’s arrival as an orthodox no 10 replacing Valdez who had served this role in a rudimentary manner akin to a second striker – the final vestige of the 442. Lukasz Piszczek was brought in as a more attacking upgrade for the hard-working Owomoyela, while the promotion of Mario Gotze from the youth academy replaced the workmanlike Blaszczykowski on the right wing. Robert Lewandowski also arrived as a youthful backup for the hardworking Barrios. The result was a front four that was fluid and offered the attributes to tackle all manner of defensive setups, be it from Kagawa’s energy and linkup play, Gotze’s flair, Grosskreutz’ hard running or Barrios’ strength and finishing. Gotze and Kagawa often rotated in the 10 position, with Blaszczykowski returning on the right to provide more defensive stability and direct wing play in games that demanded it. It also allowed Dortmund to ‘pin’ teams in their own half, and allowed them to play more compactly, limiting the chances of opposition teams and forcing them to defend instead. This fluidity is something we’ve already seen replicated at Liverpool earlier this season, with the Coutinho-Firmino-Mane-Lallana axis putting teams to the sword, but falling down when one or more of the four is missing from the team. Supplemented by a strong bench however, the result for Klopp was a German title and a team that had gained versatility and a wide range of tactical permutations all within the one formation.

The complete nature of the side (and their title victory) saw bigger clubs circling, and the summer of 2010 saw Nuri Sahin leave for Real Madrid, replaced by Ilkay Gundogan, a move which proved a blessing in disguise. Sahin, while a key component of Klopp’s side, remained a creative if slow player. While integral to the team’s build-up play, his lack of pace meant he had to be deployed in midfield with a more mobile player (usually Bender). Gundogan’s arrival negated this somewhat, as he retained Sahin’s passing range, while being much more mobile, essentially giving Klopp a roving playmaker in midfield as opposed to a much more static (and more easily marked) one in Sahin. Short of this, the only key emergence in this season was that of Lewandowski as the team’s first choice striker. Barrios began the season injured, leading to Lewandowski starting the season up front. Where he had struggled for goals and appearances the previous year, scoring only nine in 43 appearances, this season he trebled that figure, ending the season with 30 goals in 47 games in all competitions. His integration to the team brought further class up front, often creating his own chances, as much as he did for his teammates. This ability to shuffle existing players into new positions is another hallmark of Klopp’s, and allowed him to successfully negotiate the sale of his best players over three successive seasons. Both Lewandowski and Gundogan became upgrades on existing positions, while the rotation (and subsequent sale the following season) of Kagawa, was managed by simply moving Gotze across into the ten, and allowed the addition of Marco Reus for the 2012/2013 season as a more potent threat from the wing. This trend of ‘doubling down’ on players and combining more rudimentary roles into specialist positions becomes a hallmark as his sides develop.

Somewhere amongst these two and a half years was Klopp’s best team as Dortmund manager, but it developed naturally as a form of alchemy between the players he managed, rather than a reliance on a single tactical ‘masterplan’. Klopp aimed to make the best of the players he had at his disposal and to slowly supplement them rather than arriving with a preconceived tactical blueprint and looking to make wholesale changes a la Jose Mourinho. Once he settled on a balanced and successful starting XI in 2009, his transfer business aimed mainly to develop this first team, and then provide quality backups from the bench. His continued success in this respect highlights a manager who was well aware of his team’s deficiencies and tactical limitations, but also one canny enough to address these issues well in the transfer market and by coaching players into new roles. For Liverpool fans, it points to a summer where the team will seek to evolve and supplement the existing starting XI of players, rather than the system they play.  

Back down to Earth: 2013 – 2015

If the 2013 Champions League final represented Jurgen’s peak as Dortmund manager, all that followed was a slow and steady decline. The loss of Gotze to Bayern Munich was accommodated through the addition of Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang, but an injury crisis and increased exposure to the wider world led to teams choosing to sit deep against Dortmund, and the manager without the tools to effectively play through low block teams. The team still finished second in the league, replicating their finish of the previous season but struggled to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League, and were rocked by the news that Lewandowski would also be leaving the club for Bayern Munich – on a free transfer – in the summer. The following season amplified these problems tenfold, with stars returning late and fatigued from the World Cup, and the new additions of Ramos and Immobile struggling for form to replace Lewandowski, leading to an over-reliance on Aubameyang. The result was a team in freefall, who entered the winter break in the bottom three and seriously flirting with the possibility of relegation, having won only three matches from 17. The Winter break saw an upturn in form, with the muted displays of the first half of the season replaced with something of the vibrancy of years gone by. Dropping Immobile led to Klopp moving Aubameyang from the right wing to striker and replacing him with Mkhitaryan, as well as the returning Kagawa in the no 10. The replicated the setup they had in 2011 and proved something of a hit, the club winning nine games and rising to seventh by the end of the season.

This was Klopp’s final season at the club, announcing his decision to step down in mid-April, and brought the curtain down on a spellbinding seven years where he took the club from relegation favourites to European superpower. Looking back, it’s clear Klopp was a talented manager from the off, even if purely on the merit of taking Dortmund to within reaching distance of Europe in his first season. However, his commitment to his beliefs and a simple, shared tactical approach created a team that played muscular football as if every game was the final five minutes of a cup final. What emerges over these seven years is a manager who favours certain roles within his team, but has no set plan as long as the team contains these elements and works for each other. Mapping his ‘peak’ Dortmund team onto the existing Liverpool setup, it’s easy to see where these traits are translated. Matip is the calm ball-playing presence Hummels was, Henderson and Wijnaldum the mobile and creative double pivot of Gundogan and Bender, Lallana the roving 10 of Kagawa, Milner the versatile hardworker of Grosskreutz, Mane the pacy Marco Reus. While a fun exercise, we’re currently somewhere around 2009/2010 on this history of Klopp’s Dortmund, and at the stage where the manager will be looking to supplement the bench and squad with quality.

The question of will he change formation to 4231 remains somewhat less clear. True be told, the 433 we currently play often becomes 4231 depending on the personnel (our 433 is actually much closer to 4123 in truth) and in reality, it doesn’t really matter as long as he gets the best out of the players available. If with the summer additions this becomes the case, I’m fully certain Klopp won’t hesitate to change systems to meet this goal. The key to this in many ways remains those forward positions, specifically the wing and striker, and to some extent finding cover in midfield.

Finding a striker who replicates Barrios/Lewandowski’s profile would allow Firmino to play in the 10, while adding a second winger of Mane’s quality would allow rotation with Coutinho. Can, for all his faults, is a genuine option in midfield, but lacks the finesse and incisiveness Klopp desires. He either needs to be used at the base of midfield in rotation with Henderson, or upgraded for a better option further forward – either way the need for an additional body in midfield becomes clear. I expect Klopp will be busy in the summer looking to make changes similar to these, and the reports so far from the club fall in line with this. Brandt and Dahoud would satisfy the lack of depth in midfield and on the wing, while however true the Inaki Williams rumours are, he definitely fits the profile of a Klopp striker and allows Firmino to play as an outright ten in rotation with Adam Lallana. Whether that comes to pass is a different story, but from a cursory glance over his previous team, I have full faith in the manager’s ability to do it.

Jonathon Reid

(This article was based heavily on this Tomkins Times post which I recommend you check out if you want a longer exploration of Klopp's tactics)

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