DUBAI: They won’t admit it openly. But, slowly and gradually, they’re working towards it.

Just like Barcelona’s ‘tiki-taka’ philosophy once fascinated the world; making it the way of playing football for the world, Liverpool want their ‘gegenpressing’ to do the same.

In the first-ever Train the Trainer programme organised by their title sponsors Standard Chartered, two coaches from Liverpool’s International Academy are training 12 coaches from Pakistan the ‘Liverpool Way’.

It’s an apt time for the club to do that too. Liverpool were crowned kings of Europe last June, when they won the UEFA Champions League — their first trophy since manager Juergen Klopp revolutionised the club with his hi-octane pressing style since he took over in 2015.

The Liverpool academy coach Steven Gillespie was adamant the ‘Liverpool Way’ has always been the same but it was pretty evident during the training sessions with the coaches that it’s now is all about ‘gegenpressing’.

DUBAI: They won’t admit it openly. But, slowly and gradually, they’re working towards it.

Speaking to Dawn, Gillespie didn’t want to talk about Gerard Houllier’s ‘direct style’ of play or Rafa Benitez’s ‘pragmatic, defensive style’. He refused to be drawn upon the fact that Klopp’s arrival at the club had changed the ‘Liverpool Way’. “We’ve always been advocating possession football,” he said.

That hasn’t been the case though. Benitez, who guided Liverpool to the Champions League title in 2015, said a couple of years ago that “possession means nothing in football”. Benitez always paid emphasis on improving defensive tactical play and organisation.

Klopp, on the other hand, is about winning the ball quickly by closing space for the opposition, controlling possession and making quick transitions. It’s made Liverpool European champions, and they’re on their way to being Premier League champions. That would make them English champions for the first time 30 years.

Klopp has crucially achieved that success with a certain philosophy, giving Liverpool a certain identity. It’s a similar sort of identity that was associated with Barcelona when they won a treble in 2009; Pep Guardiola’s philosophy being the benchmark of their success, a philosophy that he’s brought to Liverpool’s Premier League rivals Manchester City.

Liverpool want their new-found ideals go out to the world. The training programme with 12 community coaches from Pakistani club Karachi United in Dubai is aimed at propagation of that philosophy.

Gillespie didn’t want to talk about how Klopp’s arrival at Liverpool changed the way how tactics are now taught at their academy. But he did reference that their is emphasis on embedding Klopp’s philosophy in the age-group teams so that when players like Liverpool’s young star Trent Alexander-Arnold make it to the first team, they don’t have problems settling in.

The use of the same philosophy is very much reminiscent to Barca’s at their famed ‘La Masia’ where youngsters are groomed to play in their very own style.

“The academy tries to replicate what’s being done in the first team,” said Gillespie, subtly indicating, without indicating, Klopp’s impact at the whole club. “We want the teams to look more similar to the first team at the higher age groups because if the Under-23s are playing a similar style to the first team, they wouldn’t struggle as much [with the system] when they make the step up to the first team. The younger teams may not be as slick as the first team but then you look at players like Trent who were fast-tracked to the first team because he was a special talent. We have to produce players for Liverpool’s style. That’s unquestionable. I wouldn’t say ours is the only style to play football but we’re producing players who can get into the Liverpool team.”

A case for Liverpool’s philosophy being the best in the world would probably come if they win the Champions League or the Premier League with a side in which a majority of the players come from the academy. Barca did it with the side that won the treble, and closer to home, Manchester United achieved the same in 1999.

The only home-grown player in Liverpool’s Champions League-winning side was Alexander-Arnold. The 21-year old was one of the standout players during the campaign and has burnished his reputation as a world-class right-back this season. His emergence, though, comes years after Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard left the club.

“We don’t work on yearly cycles,” said Gillespie. “Alexander-Arnold has been a revelation but you can’t produce a player like him every year. I think if you work through the generations, we’ve been fairly consistent. There was a gap between Gerrard and Alexander-Arnold but there have been some other players that have come along. The academy is there to produce one or two players to support the first team. I’m not sure if what United did in 1999 would happen again but you never know in football.

“For every player like Alexander-Arnold, there are so many who don’t make the cut,” he adds. “But his journey shows that making the very competitive first-team [through the academy] isn’t unachievable. It’s a star-studded squad that Liverpool have at the moment and Alexander Arnold has made it. The club’s success has inspired the academy players.”

Gillespie believes that the youngsters will get even more inspired when the first team leaves their historic Melwood training ground and moves into the “state-of-the-art” academy side at the end of this season.

“The first team will move in during the pre-season and even the ability to see a pathway to the first team is inspiring for all ages, from six to all the way through,” he said. “The pathway is there for the ones who will succeed. There have been games this season [in the English League Cup and the FA Cup] where Klopp has played academy players.”

How that transpires remains to be seen but for now, cashing in on their recent success, Liverpool’s academy coaches are spreading the club’s way of playing to the world. Klopp’s way of playing football, rather.

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2020