/ 28 January 2020

Chaos theory: How Jürgen Klopp has harnessed the unpredictable

"With any other team I wouldn't think it was possible. They are really mentality giants
Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp. (Alberto Lingria/Reuters)

There will probably never be a corner as celebrated on Anfield as the one Divock Origi smashed in to finish off the Barcelona comeback last year. The significance of this aside, it was the quick thinking of Trent Alexander-Arnold that entranced the ground — the youthful audacity to feign disinterest before bisecting an unguarded box.

We would learn that the goal went deeper than individual ingenuity. In the preceding leg, it had caught the attention of the Liverpool backroom staff that the Catalans had developed a habit of harassing the referee whenever he blew against them. The message was passed down the ranks to the ball boys, who were told to get a new ball onto the pitch quickly.

What we got was a moment that epitomises the mindset that has made Jürgen Klopp so successful: his insistence on paying attention to the seemingly insignificant details and harnessing them to his favour.

At Molineux last week, Wolves were six minutes away from becoming only the second team to prevent a notch in the Reds’s win column. You knew those six minutes might as well have been a lifetime. This team will find a way; you just don’t know how or when. This time it was an angled run from Roberto Firmino to meet a throw-in and nudge it on behind him. The resulting chaos allowed him to slink into space, swivel and finish in tight quarters as only he can. All that from a throw — another area where Klopp has paid mind where few others have seen value.

At first he was ridiculed when he hired former Danish athlete Thomas Grønnemark as a full-time throw-in coach. “I’m sorry, a throw-in coach?” former Sky Sports pundit and king of the sexists Andy Gray asked in horror when Grønnemark was appointed. “Here’s the ball, pick it up with both hands, take it behind your head and throw it with both feet on the ground. I’ve got a new one for you, I want to be the first kick-off coach.”

He’s not laughing now. Nor is anyone else. Off the throw-in, Liverpool are routinely able to launch attacks or, at the very least, maintain possession.

Sure, we’ve had Stoke City who handed the ball along with a towel to Rory Delap and asked him to chuck it as far as possible. Others have had players like Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic, who have used muscle to hoist a possible chance when everything else has failed. But arguably no major side has ever offered any compelling evidence that throw-in patterns and tactics are something that’s been repeatedly drilled or even given much thought. It’s as if the game had an unwritten agreement that looking to benefit from one of its oldest rules was somehow anti-football.

For Klopp it could have never stopped there. Frustrated with Liverpool’s frailty at set-pieces, he embarked on a mission to turn things around and weaponise a weakness. Less than two years later there is no one better at them.

Look again to the Wolves game when Jordan Henderson nodded in the opener from a corner. Or the weekend before when Virgil van Dijk did the same to sink rivals Manchester United. If we’re including penalties, 15 goals have been scored from set-pieces, a clear outlier for a side without an obvious height or strength advantage across the first XI.

Indeed, Klopp would be easily forgiven for keeping the dead ball at the periphery when a dovetailing Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané offer such an obvious primary means of attack. But he hasn’t, and that is what has set this team apart this season.
It all falls under a broader philosophy: sow disorder whenever possible. Four years after Pep Guardiola brought an unprecedented level of control to the Premier League, it is no longer good enough to keep and pass the ball sweetly. Guardiola has been stumped by evolution while Frank Lampard is also finding out the hard way that possession figures will only get you so far.
Klopp likes his players to shoot. Even an average strike introduces an element of randomness to the attack. Where will it bounce?

Who will it spill to? The German wants defenders on their toes at all times.

By introducing uncertainty at every available turn he has all but guaranteed one outcome come the season’s close.