When we talk about styles in soccer, we’re usually only talking about the very best teams. There are exceptions to the rule—Quique Setien’s Real Betis, a handful of sides Marcelo Bielsa has managed over the years—but it typically takes an immense amount of talent to play a certain way match after match. Most squads are organized around a couple broad ideas and the manager fills in the specifics depending upon the opponent. You might want to play expressively, but you’re probably not going to be able to do that against Bayern Munich or Manchester City without getting blown off the pitch. You can play five at the back and try to steal points from better sides, but there will also be matches in which you want to push forward and go for the win. Flexibility is a necessity, unless you’ve got a huge budget and head into nearly every game as a favorite. Then you can really refine a specific approach.
It’s a shame, then, when a big club manager doesn’t bother to do that. Real Madrid have been that way for a while, under a few different bosses. José Mourinho was fired on Tuesday because his United were supposed to defend well and spring forward but didn’t actually do either very well. Niko Kovač’s Bayern were pretty muddled to start the season, though they’re beginning to find themselves. Anti-style sets in at big clubs because they can typically out-talent the opposition. The players are skilled and athletic and smart enough to figure a few things out and win 3-1. These amorphous squads get results, but they’re more than a little infuriating to watch: all that ability and no conceptual framework. It’s like sitting down to watch a genius director’s new movie only to endure two hours of unedited footage.
At the same time, styles can be restrictive. Barcelona, in the dying days of tiki taka, were often brutally tedious. Atlético Madrid are in the midst of an identity crisis in part because they’re using small club tactics with big name players. The best styles tend to be both practical (they suit the available talent) and aesthetic (trending, in some fashion, toward beauty). They exist in reality while striving toward an ideal.
Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool might be the most stylish team in the world right now. (It helps their overall impression that they’re also at the top of EPL table.) They’re positive without being naive, physical without fouling the opposition to death. They are not a Xavian argument about some elusive, metaphysically correct way to play soccer. Klopp is (literally) religious, but he’s not a zealot. His team reflects, not ideology, but a sharp understanding of the sport—its capacity to delight its fans and enliven its participants. Liverpool try to have fun, in other words, and communicate joy through what we do, after all, call play.
And of course it’s built on transfer market muscle and an extensive payroll. Naby Keita for $68 million, Fabinho for $52 million, Alisson for $71 million. Fat salaries for everyone involved. Klopp isn’t coaching up scrubs, but that’s not what Europe’s best coaches are asked to do. They’re given ample capital with which to create. It’s good work if you can find it, but many find it tougher than they expect. See: Unai Emery at PSG, Rafa Benitez at Real Madrid, David Moyes at United. Spending is easy; winning all the time is hard.
The contrast between an inspired manager and a doomed one was obvious this past Sunday, when Mourinho’s United were grouchy and aimless while Liverpool threw everything at them. They pressured United’s midfield and forced them to hoof long balls to outnumbered forwards. They switched the ball quickly from flank to flank. They combined near the edge of the box and found great scoring positions. If there’s one thing that Liverpool do exceptionally—some of this is Klopp’s inventiveness, and lot of it is their front three’s astounding spatial intelligence—it’s disorient back lines with their movement. Mo Salah, Sadio Mané, and Roberto Firmino take up positions on the right, left, and center, respectively, but Firmino drifts wide or comes short whenever he feels like it, which allows Mané and Salah to come inside, running beyond him or finding a pocket of space to his right or left. If the fullback, the central midfielder, and the center back on one side of the pitch aren’t in perfect sync for 90 minutes, they lose track of a runner and suddenly a gifted goalscorer is one-on-one with the keeper or well within shooting range with way too much room. It’s a nightmare to deal with without even taking into account that Klopp encourages his midfielders and fullbacks to sprint into the box if they see a lane. When Liverpool possess the ball within some 30 yards of the goal, it’s like watching a swarm of seabirds asynchronously plunge into the sea. They tore United apart, as they have many other teams this season.
It’s taken Klopp three years to get Liverpool to this level, where they’re not just interesting but genuinely one of the elite teams in Europe. They were in the Champions League final last season, but that was a bit of a cinderella run. Now they’re cruising, properly competing with Manchester City, who were superb and won the Prem by 19 points in 2017-18. It’s satisfying when a plan comes together at a big club like Liverpool because it’s a broad canvas finally being utilized properly. There are only a few places in the soccer world where anything is possible. Klopp and Salah and all the rest are, at just about the midpoint of the Premier League season, pushing to demonstrate the fullest extent of what that means.