Last weekend’s Premier League fixtures started with an impressive performance by Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, which showed clear indications that Jurgen Klopp’s gegenpressing style is starting to embed itself in Liverpool’s game. The Reds got at Chelsea right from the kick off, swarming their opponents to recover possession and leaving Conte’s men chasing shadows with crisp and incisive passing through a fluid attacking quartet supplemented by the advanced positioning of the full-backs. Klopp’s team were 2-0 up before half-time and despite a second half in which they were more content to sit back and absorb pressure and conceding a goal to Diego Costa, they held firm to inflict Conte’s first home league defeat in 30 matches.
Following on from the 4-1 hammering of champions Leicester the previous weekend, it is starting to feel as if Klopp is building something at Anfield. In a similar way to what he achieved at Dortmund, the charismatic German has set about transforming Liverpool based on foundation of: higher fitness levels developed through intense pre-season training leading to a collective work rate that is setting new Premier League records for distances covered; galvanising the fans, forming a strong bond between them and the players and uniting the whole club behind a common cause; and inspirational man management which has seen players such as Lallana, Firmino, Lovren and Can all make massive developmental progress. All would seem to be rosy in in the Fields of Anfield Road, however the reservations that are still held over their title challenging aspirations centre on a perceived defensive weakness and a vulnerability to teams who are going to sit deep, surrender possession and render their high pressing game impotent, just as Burnley did in the second match of the season. Similarly it remains to be seen whether such an intense and physically demanding style of play can be maintained for the duration of a Premier League season, where the pace of play is so much higher and where there is no winter break?
As well as West Ham losing at West Brom to continue their miserable start to the season; a game which prompted Bilic to admit that the East London side are conceding too many goals; the other big news of the weekend was Manchester United losing for a third consecutive match. It may be way too early to talk of a crisis, however it would seem that there are some fundamental issues for Mourinho to deal with. For all his talk of refereeing decisions going against his team in all three of the defeats, it feels like the balance of the team is wrong. As discussed in a previous post, it feels like United are a collection of individual players rather than a balanced and structured side. Their recent tendency to buy big name players rather than players to fit into a team structure; means that some of the best players are left out or forced to play in positions that they are not best suited to. It seems to many that the key to getting the system right might be to drop Rooney and change the system to one that would allow Pogba to play in his natural position and form a more effective link with Ibrahimovic. However, an interesting stat reveals that United are bottom of the Premier League ratings in terms of distance run; a fact further emphasised by the top two teams being Liverpool and Manchester City, teams led by disciples of the high tempo pressing game. Could it be that a further contributing factor may be that Mourinho’s philosophy of counter-attacking transition-based football is becoming outdated or is it simply a case that one summer has not been long enough to address the three years of problems that United have stocked up? The coming weeks and months will tell us whether Mourinho is capable of re-establishing Manchester United back where they believe the belong.