On a flight from New York to London recently, I watched Rocky IV for the 10,000th time in my young life.
Every time Rocky marches stone-faced through the hostile Moscow crowd, I know exactly how it ends. (Spoiler for a 38-year-old movie: Rocky wins.) But as soon as the bell rings and Ivan Drago starts landing bombs, something inside me can’t help but fear for Rocky’s chances.
Liverpool fans of all ages, whether they’ve seen the movie or not, know this exact feeling. Because every full season since Jurgen Klopp took over at Liverpool, the opening games have prompted discussion about Liverpool’s “high defensive line.”
Throughout August and September, teams create chances against the Reds, while fans and pundits alike wonder aloud what on earth Klopp’s players are doing. But after absorbing a few blows, Liverpool normally figures it out and the number of chances conceded settles down.
But with this trend continuing into 2023/24, it’s worth exploring: why does Liverpool play with a high line?
What is a high line?
First, let’s agree on what the term means.
The defensive line is the last line of outfield players between the opponent and the goalkeeper.
While many teams set up with a back four, often one or both full-backs will push up to be part of the attack. This means that, when the ball is lost, there are two or sometimes three center-backs holding the defensive line.
The positioning of the line obviously changes throughout the game. But teams that play with a high line tend to spend more time on the attack, and when they are countered, they will tend to step up and try to catch opponents offside rather than falling back.
The defensive line has to stay together to effectively hold the same offside line and usually wants to be close to each other in order to remain compact.
Why does Liverpool play with one?
That last word “compact” is a key one in Klopp’s vocabulary. He often talks about his players being compact when defending.
This is part of a philosophy that Rafa Benitez enforced at Anfield. In possession and on the attack, the team should expand to offer space to run into and options to pass to. Out of possession and on the defensive, the team should become as compact as possible to deny opponents space to attack.
The expanding and shrinking of each team’s positioning as the ball changes possession is one of the fundamental movements of the game. It’s why you’d often see Rafa drawing his hands together on the touchline – urging his team to become compact.
But Liverpool under Klopp doesn’t play like Liverpool under Rafa. So how can the principle be the same?
Well, here’s what a compact shape looks like in a low, defensive block:
And here’s a compact shape in an aggressive, high press:
In both cases, the distance between each unit of the team is as short as possible. This makes it hard for opponents to create chances in possession.
The opponents of the low block can possess the ball easily, but getting it into lucrative areas or creating a high-value chance is difficult.
The opponents of the high press meanwhile have lots of space to attack the box, but have no time to play into those areas because they’re being suffocated by the press.
But doesn’t it cause problems?
Where both shapes fall down is when each unit of the team is prised apart, creating gaps. For Klopp’s high press, imagine that the attacking unit chases the ball, but the midfield is slower to follow. The gap between the units is too big…
…and the opponent can progress the ball through the first line of pressure before exploiting the high line.
This is why we hear Klopp say that “to play a high last line without pressure on the ball is impossible.” We saw this in the painful defeat to Real Madrid in 2021.
The gaps between the units are too big, a sign that the team is unsure of what they’re doing. This allows Toni Kroos to collect the ball in a deep area, with no pressure, and pick a pass over the top for Vinicius Jr.
He times his run perfectly to stay onside and finishes smartly.
What happens if we change it?
When games such as the 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa happen, a common cry is for Liverpool to drop the defensive line. Jamie Carragher has been vocal on several occasions that the Reds should consider dropping “just five or ten yards.” But here’s what happens if you drop the defensive line back. You either create space between the lines for opponents to bypass your midfield…
…or you pull the whole unit back…
…which is fine, except, you’re not really a high-pressing team anymore then, are you?
In this scenario, Liverpool is now sitting in a mid-block, which makes sense for certain games where you want to let the opponent have the ball and hit them on the counter. Liverpool did this in the 1-0 win over Manchester City last year. But when you’re a team as good as Liverpool, most weeks you’re playing against opponents who sit in a low block and let you have the ball.
What does all this mean?
So next time Liverpool concede from a direct goal, remember the key isn’t how high the line is: it’s how compact the team shape is. If the likes of Virgil Van Dijk or Ibrahima Konaté are beaten 1v1, there’s a strong chance somebody further back left a little too much room for their opponent.
Liverpool has excellent defenders. But if they’re asked to go toe-to-toe all season long like Rocky against Drago, sooner or later they’ll be knocked out.