Across all footballing cultures, continents and eras, virtually every football manager or coach will have a favoured system that he’d like to utilise as regularly as possible. These favoured systems are usually based on a manager’s footballing education, principles and preferred style of play, and will consequently differ from person to person depending on each manager’s footballing background and subjective beliefs.
Each tactical system employed will have general strengths, weaknesses and benefits that ultimately have to suit the players at the manager’s disposal. However, sometimes a manager will take charge of a squad that doesn’t particularly suit his tactical needs, and in such a scenario, the manager can either adapt his system, or bring in players to accommodate his desired tactical needs.
The most ideological, philosophical and often, the best managers, have even more specific ways of playing than normal, which further emphasise precise tactical needs. For example, Rafa Benitez at Liverpool and Jose Mourinho at Chelsea adopted systems that had the essential tactical need for a complete striker. Virtually all of Liverpool’s attacking play during that era was centred and focused towards Fernando Torres, and he effectively had to be able to contribute to all aspects of play in order for the system to work. Both of Mourinho’s spells at Chelsea were largely defined by Didier Drogba and Diego Costa; two complete strikers that overly contributed in the tactical systems that they played in.
Last season, Allegri, Conte, and Jardim to an extent, across three different leagues, played systems that demonstrated a tactical need for complete wing-backs. All three of their systems varied, but largely relied on wing-backs to manage the entirety of the flanks. This was often due to the attacking players in each system playing centrally and very narrow, thus requiring the wing-backs to provide the width and contribute to every phase of play acting as both full-backs and wingers depending on where the ball is. If the wing-backs in these systems are unable to fulfil the complete responsibilities required of them, then the tactical systems they’re playing in break down and the team is unable to reach the maximum outcome that the manager envisages.
However, another idealistic and very meticulous manager is Jürgen Klopp, the ultramodern coach in charge of Liverpool. Klopp has very specific footballing principles and beliefs, and therefore requires a very well-tailored squad to fulfil his tactical requirements. Klopp’s style of play at Liverpool was well summed-up by Ronald Koeman in 2015, as he said:
“Klopp plays real attacking football – the kind of football the public wants to see, what he does right now in football in this country is so refreshing. His approach is really what the Premier League needs, he does not wait. He wants his team to be the boss on the pitch and go for it.”
Klopp naturally demands more from his centre-backs at Liverpool than the average manager does as consequence of his favoured attacking style; they’re exposed with less cover than normal, and are also expected to get involved with the team’s attack. Thus, I believe Klopp’s preferred style of play exhibits a tactical need for complete centre-backs, and I’ll demonstrate that below.
Klopp’s style of play is reminiscent of the notorious ‘Total Football’, which was pioneered in Holland, and involves any outfield player being able to take over the role of any other player in the team. In basic terms, the concept involves everyone defending as a team, and everyone attacking as a team in a fluid manner. However, when this is applied in Klopp’s attacking system, it naturally demands more from the centre-backs. Klopp’s Liverpool adopt a high defensive line to keep the play in the opponent’s half, so his centre-backs are always somewhat exposed when in possession due to the vast amount of space able for the opposition to exploit in behind. In order to manage that space as well as contributing to the team’s attack, Klopp’s centre-backs have to be technically superior to the average defender, with confidence, composure and an ease with the ball at their feet.
Klopp’s system incorporates a compact shape and shuffling as a team to one area of the pitch to press and play intricately depending on where the ball is situated. However, Klopp’s centre backs will largely stay around the centre circle in order to circulate possession and due to the compact play in tight areas, there’s often the opportunity for a hurried switch of play through a diagonal long ball to whoever is free on the opposite flank, likely to be Mane, Salah, Clyne or Milner. Those switches of play, as well as the essential attacking contribution, are demonstrated in the video below.
— Distance Covered (@DistanceCovered) July 4, 2017
As shown, Joël Matip has demonstrated thus far that he’s capable of meeting these attacking requirements, but Dejan Lovren is prone to panic and poor decisions, signalling that Klopp should be looking to upgrade in that area to maximise his attack.
Ahead of his NYE tie with Klopp at Anfield, Pep Guardiola had this to say about his rival:
“Maybe Klopp is the best manager in the world at creating teams that attack the back four with so many players, from almost anywhere on the pitch. They have intensity with the ball and without the ball, and it is not easy to do that. They attack wide sometimes with [Nathaniel] Clyne and [James] Milner but they especially like to attack from inside, through the middle. I don’t think there is another team in the world attacking in this way with so many players capable of launching moves in an instant.”
It is ‘attacking in this way with so many players’, that naturally exposes his centre-backs and leaves them vulnerable to an immediate counter-attack. Klopp effectively chooses to attack with 7-8 players most of the time, leaving his two centre-backs, the goalkeeper and occasionally the player playing in the no.6 role to deal with any abrupt defensive situations.
In order to cope with this exposure, Klopp’s centre-backs have to be all-around complete players. The expected traits for a typical centre-back include strength, heading ability, positioning, awareness, tactical knowledge and tackling. Conversely, a Klopp centre-back needs all of those in addition to pace and acceleration due to the high defensive line and space in behind; composure, first touch and passing ability to contribute technically, and stamina due to the pressing, intensity, and training levels.
Jamie Carragher recently played as a centre-back under Klopp in a post-season friendly against Sydney, and was quoted after the match saying:
“I think with the centre-back position, it’s so difficult to find someone you want because you ask so much of them now. They’ve got to be good on the ball. Basically they start the attacks now, so you can’t have anyone who can’t feed passes. We expect them to do that, and defend and be aggressive & to deal with counter attacks because full backs play so high & wide.”
As demonstrated in the video below, Klopp relies significantly on his centre-backs to cope defensively and provides them with virtually no protection due to his commitment to attacking football. Whilst playing for Klopp in Sydney, Carragher also stated that every time Liverpool lost the ball, he’d think ‘we may have a problem here’, and that’s due to the pressure and dependency that Klopp’s system places on his centre-backs.
— Distance Covered (@DistanceCovered) July 4, 2017
Thus, in order to cope with such reliance, isolation and burden, alongside attacking contribution and technical football, I believe Klopp has a tactical need for complete centre-backs in order for his favoured style of play to work wholly. Joël Matip performs the responsibility to a decent standard, and possibly benefits from his time playing as a midfielder at Schalke, but there’s room for another. Lovren, Klavan and Lucas have shown flashes, but have ultimately struggled to fulfil the collective aspects of the role with complete performances, and therefore prevent Klopp’s tactical utopia from being reached. Any centre-back in Klopp’s system is going to be exposed and vulnerable, so it’s vital that he has complete players that are as equipped as possible at dealing with such scenarios. Three words: Virgil van Dijk.