This Saturday sees two clubs with similar recent histories look to affirm themselves as candidates for a Top Four finish, and the fixture offers an opportunity to examine the approach each club has taken to achieve this.
It is 2013, and Tottenham Hotspur are struggling to adjust to life without the star player who fired them to great new heights after his big-money move to Spain. Despite sizeable financial reinvestment, the exciting, attacking team that broke into the established Top Four has lost its identity, and an underwhelming start a new season sees the club fire its young and forward-thinking coach. Sound familiar?
There are many similarities between AVB’s time at Spurs and that of Rodgers at Liverpool, but these end when it comes to the approach of their former employers in replacing them. Spurs, shackled by stadium-related costs and with one eye placed on a manager still under contract, chose to recruit from within, and subjected their fans to half a season of Tim Sherwood. Liverpool’s owners have taken a different tack entirely, elating their support by hiring the enigmatic German coach Jurgen Klopp, making him the third-highest-paid manager in the world in the process.
It is somewhat fitting then that Liverpool, as a club turning to mid-season firing and hiring as their strategy for attaining Top Four success, should be led out by their new man for the first time at the very home of that business model. After all, the powers that be at White Hart Lane have spent the best part of 10 years making it clear that even one place below 4th is not good enough. Just ask Martin Jol.
One wonders whether Klopp relishes the prospect of facing an in-form Spurs team as his first match in charge. An away trip to a team that is unbeaten since opening day, with a band of players that has won just one in six, seems a tall order. And no matter how many ‘Top Ten Klopp Moments’ are being gleefully posted online, the former Borussia Dortmund man will know that the media here love nothing more than to shoot down a prospect. Just ask ‘the new Mourinho’ AVB or, indeed, ‘future England manager’ Rodgers.
Then again, successfully enact the much-fabled ‘new manager bounce’ to inspire a group of capable professionals, many of whom played at least some part in one of the most exciting teams in Premier League history, and a win away at direct rival makes for a dream start. Forget clever rhyming of Klopp with ‘flop’, and instead add ‘Klopp celebrates win on LFC debut’ to those Top Ten lists…
Still, few managers come into a new position and promise instant title-winning form – especially, you imagine, if that position is at a club with Dejan Lovren as a first-choice centre-back – and while talking big, Klopp has asked for time. And time he will need, and it is in this that another parallel with his opponents on Saturday can be seen.
In many ways, Klopp is responsible for the recent fashion for the high-energy, high-intensity pressing game, following the successes of his Dortmund team that blew away Bayern Munich along with other Champion’s League big-hitters between 2010-13. The question, though, is whether he will be able to get injury-prone players like Sturridge and Benteke, or those ‘less gifted with pace’ like or Milner or Lukas, playing in such a high-tempo style – without a winter break to recuperate – anytime soon is another question altogether.
Just ask Mauricio Pochettino. Though the Argentine is another devotee of the high-pressing game, few would say with any conviction that he had the Spurs team he inherited when he took over last summer playing ‘his’ way in anything but patches of last season. Indeed, some 17 months and a ruthless squad culling later, he is only now reaching anything approaching consistency in his team’s playing style. And while Klopp is clearly the more accomplished manager of the two, and while talk of buying Lewandoski makes for an impressive statement of intent, at the minute Liverpool’s new man will have to work with what he’s got. In short, if the German is to return to Merseyside victorious on Saturday afternoon, it will quite possibly have been more down to enigmatic encouragement than any immediate tactical revolution. Though he would, no doubt, be just fine with that.
And so the immediate question regarding Saturday’s fixture is of playing style. Liverpool were sporadic at best when it came to their style of play throughout Rodgers’ latter days: the long-ball-to-Benteke model, so different to the style of those heady Suarez days, was for many proof that either the manager was clueless, the players unimaginative, or both. Certainly few see this style as a natural fit with Klopp. That said, Spurs’ defence, though impressive this season, has been weakest from crosses – the last three goals the team has conceded have all come from crosses – so should the game stay scoreless as it enters the closing stages, it wouldn’t bee too great a surprise to see red-shirted players reverting to hoofing balls upfield; pragmatism may even win out on the day.
Elsewhere on the pitch, the teams seems pretty matched, and there is the risk of their cancelling each other out; a moment of Phillpe Countinho magic met by a Christian Eriksen free kick, for example. And this also applies to absentees, where the suspension of Spurs’ Eric Dier, who has been instrumental to the team’s solidity this season, is mirrored by Liverpool’s loss through injury of Jordan Henderson, who instills a similar cohesiveness in the XI as club captain when playing.
Jamie Carragher was ignorant and wrong to say that neither Tottenham or Liverpool are ‘big clubs’; they are. But while the former Red was just toeing the Sky party line that willingly confuses ‘big’ with ‘rich’, it is true that as representatives of the top five most decorated clubs in English history, Spurs and Liverpool ought to have more to show for the last decade than one FA and two League Cups between them. The winner of Saturday’s match will not correct this, but it does serve as an intriguing contest between two clubs in a similar place and with similar aspirations.