Chaos theory: How Jürgen Klopp has harnessed the unpredictable

There will likely never be a corner as celebrated on Anfield as the one Devok Origi smashed in to finish off the storied Barcelona comeback last year. The enormous significance aside, it was the quick thinking of Trent Alexander-Arnold that entranced the ground – the youthful audacity to feign disinterest before bisecting an unguarded box. 

But we would go on to learn that the goal went far deeper than individual ingenuity. In the preceding leg, it had caught the attention of the Liverpool backroom staff that the Catalans had developed a predictable habit of harassing the referee whenever he blew against them. The message was passed through the ranks: from the players down to the ball boys who were instructed to get a new ball onto the pitch as quickly. 

What we got was a moment that epitomises the mindset that has made Jürgen Klopp so successful: his insistence on paying attention to the seemingly insignificant details and harnessing them to his favour.

We see this week in, week out, on stages far less glamorous than a Champions League semi-final.  

At Molineux last week, Wolves were six minutes away from becoming only the second team to prevent a notch in the Reds’ win column. But at the time you knew those six minutes might as well have been a lifetime. This team will find a way; you don’t know how or when, they just always do. 

This time it was an angled run from Roberto Firmino to meet a throw-in and ever so slightly nudge it on behind him. The resulting chaos allowed him to slink into space, swivel and finish like only he can in tight quarters. All that from a throw – another area where Klopp has paid mind where few others have seen value. 

At first he was ridiculed when he hired Thomas Grønnemark, a former Danish athlete, as a full-time throw-in coach. 

“I’m sorry, a throw-in coach?” pundit and king of the sexists Andy Gray asked in horror when he was appointed. “Here’s the ball, pick it up with both hands, take it behind your head and throw it with both feet on the ground. I’ve got a new one for you, I want to be the first kick-off coach.”

He’s not laughing now. Nor is anybody else. Off the throw-in, Liverpool are routinely able to launch attacks or at the very least maintain possession. It’s become a spear fashioned from a piece of dry wood that was just lying there all along. 

Sure, we’ve had Stoke City who handed the ball along with a towel to Rory Delap and asked him to chuck it as far as possible. Others have had players like Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic who have used muscle to hoist a possible chance when everything else has failed. But arguably no major side has ever offered any compelling evidence that throw-in patterns and tactics are something that’s been repeatedly drilled or even given much thought. It’s as if the global game had an unwritten agreement that looking to benefit from one of its oldest rules was somehow anti-football. 

For Klopp it could have never stopped there. Frustrated with Liverpool’s frailty at set-pieces, he actively embarked on a mission to turn things around and weaponise a weakness. Less than two years later there is no one better at them. 

Look again to the Wolves game when Jordan Henderson nodded in the opener from a corner. Or the weekend before when Virgil van Dijk did the same to sink rivals Manchester United. If we’re including penalties, 15 goals have been scored from set-pieces – a clear outlier for a side without an obvious height or strength advantage across the first eleven.

Indeed, Klopp would likely be easily forgiven for keeping the dead ball at the periphery when a dovetailing Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané offer such an obvious primary means of attack. But he hasn’t, and that is what has set this team apart this season.

It all falls under a broader philosophy: sow disorder whenever possible. Four years after Pep Guardiola brought an unprecedented level of control to the Premier League, it is no longer good enough to keep and pass the ball sweetly. Guardiola himself has been stumped by evolution while Frank Lampard is equally finding out the hard way that possession figures will only get you so far.

Klopp meanwhile likes his players to shoot (another metric they are leaders in). Even an average strike introduces an element of randomness to the attack; where will it bounce? Who will it spill to? The German wants defenders on their toes at all times, growing weary from continually turning heads. By introducing uncertainty at every available turn he has ironically all but guaranteed one outcome come season’s close.