It’s called ‘counter-pressing’ in the footballing neolanguage that reaches us from the Coaches’ Academy. You know, the ‘low block’ and all the rest. Counter-pressing (which we used to call stopping your opponents playing it out) consists of harrying your rivals with science and effort to get the ball back when an attack didn’t go to plan. Guardiola’s Barça used to do it so well - though the slick passing between Busquets, Xavi, Messi and Iniesta meant it wasn’t noticed so much. Now the masters of the art are Klopp’s Liverpool, who suffocated Villarreal from start to finish in the Champions League semifinal first leg on Wednesday night, trapping them in their own half. (When Klopp did this with Borussia Dortmund it was called gegenpressing.)
Liverpool lack of cutting edge
Faced with this, the Spanish Champions League semifinalists tried, proudly, to play the ball out down the wings, but it was impossible. Liverpool, using geometry and pure endeavour, won the ball back time and again. Though it’s true that once they had it they struggled to turn use it to create real danger. Villarreal defend well, not just by throwing bodies into the mix - though they do that too - but by decent organisation. They got to half-time unscathed, Liverpool’s best a long-distance effort from Thiago that had hit the post (Liverpool resorted to efforts from distant given their lack of cutting edge) and a couple of stupendous passes from Salah to Mané, similar to Mahrez to De Bruyne for the goal against Madrid, a type of UCLA Cut that’s becoming more and more common in football. A simple move, beautiful and wickedly dangerous.
Villarreal alive... just
But after the break came the storm. First, a goal chalked off for offside; then, straight away, a goal from Henderson from a cross that, unluckily, took a wicked deflection off Estupiñan; directly after, Salah sent a ball to Mané through Pau’s legs and the striker poked it home past Rulli; then, another goal overruled for offside. Utter disaster loomed, but Villarreal held on, even managing a free-kick into the Liverpool box right at the end. The result is not a catastrophe, Villarreal can consider themselves still in the tie, but I turned the TV off thinking that the six or eight best players on the pitch were all Liverpool’s. And the physically strongest. And so on...