“Umschaltspeil” Jurgen Klopp proclaimed. Some journalists looked at each other bemused whilst others remained staring at the German that sat in front of them but now with a quizzical look on their faces. A collection of reporters at the back didn’t even flinch – well they were German after all.
It was Klopp’s first press conference as Liverpool manager and an important question had just been asked. It didn’t provide that well-used sound-bite of being ‘the normal one’ but in many ways, it was far more pertinent. It regarded the style of play that his new side was going to play during his tenure. To many, it was fairly apparent having seen his Borussia Dortmund side reach a Champions League final with such a definitive method.
‘Transition game’ is the loose translation of ‘umschaltspeil’ but there is nothing loose about how it is being applied at Anfield. Liverpool are now a team that thrives on exploiting moments in transition using a mixture of speed, energy and the ability to create mayhem that only they are able to control.
It was seen especially in last season’s Champions League knockout round matches and, in particular, when the opposition was moving into their attacking shape having just won back possession. An attacking shape is more expansive in nature than a defensive one, so there are more gaps to be exploited and space for the attackers to utilise. Roma and Manchester City were blown away by it in short spells.
It is a practice that Klopp introduced back on day one, and it was pivotal last season – the ability to see off matches in half-hour stages was crucial to seeing Liverpool through the knockout rounds. At the time, there was plenty of emphasis on the work done by Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino in running into the areas free of opposition and finishing the moves with ease.
But the players responsible for feeding the attackers have to be comfortable with passing forwards – a virtue that is unfortunately declining. Skill, courage and vision are required for players to control the ball in tight situations – often in the middle of the pitch – and then release a controlled pass that sets the attack in motion. It is having the clarity and composure amidst the chaos that sets these types of players above the rest.
Therefore it is when confidence is high and players feel like they can do no wrong that they begin to elevate above the madness and distribute the ball with a touch of perfection. It is no coincidence that, for Liverpool in particular, the midfield trio is so influential in how the team play; a good Liverpool performance often comes off the back of a good midfield performance.
Jordan Henderson has had his critics during his spell at the club but he is now showing the leadership qualities that Klopp believed he had. But Henderson’s passing has also shone recently and again this was noticeable in the big clashes in last season’s Champions League. Henderson, prior to joining Liverpool, may well have been urged to pass the ball sideways, or possibly backwards, rather than passing forwards. But there are clear signs that he has corrected this mentality that might have developed when playing for teams that didn’t have sufficient quality to maintain possession in a forward motion.
But with the additions that have been made to Liverpool’s midfield this summer, the service the attackers will receive may well get an upgrade in the coming season. If pre-season is anything to go by then Salah, Mane and Firmino will be frothing at the mouth at the potential of what could be served up to them when the season starts.
I was sat in the Red Bull Arena in March 2017, RB Leipzig beat Darmstadt 4-0 – Naby Keita scored twice – but it was Keita’s ability to always feed the constantly moving attacking trio of Emil Forsberg, Marcel Sabitzer and Oliver Burke, no matter where they were on the pitch, that struck me. He addressed the ball with such calmness and confidence when surrounded by Darmstadt midfielders and defenders who, to be truthful, didn’t have a clue what to do.
Forwards is Keita’s natural mode, it will suit Klopp’s way perfectly; as it did at Leipzig and previously Salzburg. Both clubs have a strong belief in how they want to operate and consequently how the team plays. Both deploy a transition-focused game with an added emphasis on directness and diagonal passing. Ralph Hassenhutl – Keita’s coach at Leipzig and a Klopp admirer – ensured that the Guinean was at the centre of his team’s structure so that the ball predominantly went through him and, all too often, ended up either with an attacker in the penalty area or in the goal.
Keita may well fit into Klopp’s central midfield role better than Henderson given his instinctive speed of thought to take advantage of a passing opportunity appears to be superior. This does not end Henderson’s place in the starting 11, it simply changes his role. It was apparent last season that an extra aspect to Liverpool’s midfield was needed – Keita’s introduction should not diminish Henderson’s influence, it should enhance it.
Fabinho, to a lesser extent, has also shown in pre-season that he is more than capable of executing fine passes in crowded situations. Although, so far he has mainly played it simple – smooth passes forwards 10-20 yards whilst being closed down – he showed at Monaco his ability to control the ball and use it easily whilst being on the move; a critical skill when counter-attacking.
Whether a new level of supply during transitions can be achieved will be ultimately unknown until a strong XI faces another strong XI when the league begins. When Salah, Mane and Firmino replace Dominic Solanke, Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge, the opportunities being created by Keita and Fabinho will be given their appropriate finish.
In any team, goal scoring is the most important aspect – that is rightly why Klopp focused on upgrading his leading line when he first took over. But in Klopp’s transition game, the role of the midfielders is paramount. The upgrades made this summer have the potential to make Liverpool’s ability to excel in transition and on the counter even more exhilarating. Klopp’s response on day one seems truer than ever before.