Jurgen Klopp’s first game in charge of Liverpool was a scoreless draw with Tottenham Hotspur in October 2015, back when the German gaffer was revered as the best young manager in Europe and the Argentine was struggling to convince at a top Premier League club.
Two years on, following an enlightening 4-1 at Wembley last weekend, their roles have completely reversed. Pochettino is now the man in demand, as question marks linger over Klopp’s ability to provide substance with style.
During the intermittent period, Pochettino has evolved exponentially as a manager and particularly a tactician, while Klopp has stood perfectly still; sticking with a predictable game-plan that pre-dates his appointment at Anfield and refusing to address the same intrinsic flaws that have plagued his side for the last two years.
Sunday’s 4-1 was evidence enough of how much one manager and one club have grown in comparison to the other. The result didn’t take place in a vacuum and for Pochettino, it comes at the end of a four-game stretch in which the Lilywhites have started 15 different players, used three different formations and two different game-plans to come away with positive results against four very different types of opponent, ranging from reigning European champions Real Madrid to Premier League relegation battlers Bournemouth.
Tactically though, Klopp and Pochettino were at exactly the same point in October 2015. They used one formation exclusively, they only fielded back fours, they looked to press the opposition high up the pitch and they structured their sides to dominate possession. In many ways, a scoreless draw was the inevitable result between two managers ferociously loyalty to similar principles and ferociously reluctant to experiment.
But Pochettino has gradually accepted the need for pragmatism if Tottenham are to compete with top six rivals that vastly outspend them every season, whereas Klopp continues to cling onto the same tactical ideals; no matter how detrimental they’ve become and how ill-fitting they are in a rapidly changing Premier League that has seen significant tactical shifts in recent years.
The watershed moment came last season when Pochettino introduced 3-4-3. During his first two campaigns at White Hart Lane, Pochettino had used a back three on just one occasion. But the change put Tottenham’s best players in their most accommodating positions and it went on to inspire a win over the Blues that flung his side back into the title race – the west London outfit’s first non-victory for 13 games.
More importantly, it gave Pochettino a much-needed Plan B that made Spurs less predictable and more versatile as rivals began to work out the weaknesses of their usual 4-2-3-1. Throughout 2016/17, we saw Tottenham not only switch between systems week-by-week depending on the opposition, but also during matches themselves depending on the scoreline and the consequential scenarios.
There was one obvious disadvantage, in that it didn’t give Tottenham a way of winning games without controlling the ball. That was a big part of the reason Spurs picked up just two points away from home against top six opposition last season.
During the first few games of the current campaign too, it had already become clear lesser teams were setting up to contain Tottenham by letting them keep possession in unthreatening areas – particularly at Wembley where they lost to Chelsea and drew with Burnley and Swansea despite averaging 70% possession.
But Pochettino has addressed that problem by once again adding to his tactical armoury. The 5-3-2 system used against Real Madrid and on Sunday has created a foundation for Tottenham to lure teams onto them before exploiting the space on the counter, the most common cause of the Lilywhites’ four goals against the Reds and their strike against Los Blancos.
The dramatic shift in emphasis should not be overlooked; in vast contrast to their first three top flight outings at Wembley, Tottenham took just 36% of possession against the Reds, following on from just 34% at the Bernabeu.
At the start of the season, Tottenham were thought of exclusively as a possession-based team. But now they have different ways of winning games, different formations and different personnel for different methods.
Against Real Madrid, Pochettino used Fernando Llorente’s height and power to counter-attack with direct lofted balls that bypassed the midfield; against Liverpool, he used the craft and quality of Alli and Christian Eriksen to thread through the speedy Heung-min Son. The Reds’ chaotic defence simply couldn’t keep up with the South Korean.
That’s how far Pochettino has come since his first meeting with Klopp; in two years and five transfer windows, he’s made Tottenham a multi-dimensional side capable of winning different kinds of matches.
Klopp, given the same time and opportunities to bring players in, still centres his game-plan around 4-3-3, still tries to win every game by dominating the ball and still emphasises offensive flair over defensive solidity.
The German’s signings are tellling enough; despite the many obvious defensive frailties that he inherited from Brendan Rodgers, Klopp’s spent £140million on midfielders and forwards, all of whom naturally fit into 4-3-3 roles, compared to just over £18million on defenders and goalkeepers. Inevitably cheaper positions to recruit for, but Klopp’s spent eight times as much on his middle and final third.
At this point, you have to wonder how much that stubbornness will hold Liverpool back. After all, Klopp’s stuck with 4-3-3 since starting out as Dortmund manager – roughly nine years of the same formation, the same emphasis on attacking through wingers who like to cut inside and playmaking No.10s, and the same emphasis on winning the ball back with counter-pressing.
It’s all become too predictable and too easy for top teams to counteract, but Klopp remains defiant that he’ll eventually make the perfect 4-3-3 side at Liverpool, capable of destroying anything in its path because his side play in the ‘correct’ way.
At Dortmund, during a period in which Bayern Munich were particularly underwhelming, Klopp eventually saw the realisation of his philosophy. But amid an era in which the top end of the Premier League is filled with the best managers in the business, pragmatism and the ability to tweak for specific games inevitably reigns supreme.
Tellingly, the two members of last season’s top six to use only one formation in the Premier League this season, Arsenal and Liverpool, are currently the worst-off in the league table and have won the fewest points on the road.
While Pochettino has slowly and steadily accepted that, transforming a side capable of playing in only one way two years ago into one of the Premier League’s most varied this season, Klopp’s blind faith in principles that haven’t won him a trophy in five years falls somewhere between stubborn and naïve. Perhaps more importantly, they’ve stunted his development as a manager, while one of his most important rivals has infinitely grown.
Because of his belief in a philosophy but the ability to be pragmatic within it, Pochettino is moving up to a higher class, leaving Klopp in his shadow.