Philosophically, Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp are hardly kindred spirits. One does his defending from the front with intense high presses, the other sticks all ten men behind the ball and soaks up pressure.
One unexpectedly reached a Champions League final through Borussia Dortmund’s vibrant, exciting and rampant football; the other unexpectedly lifted Europe’s most coveted prize with FC Porto by meticulously grinding down the opposition.
And yet, Liverpool’s football this season has certainly contained traces of Mourinho at his peak. The wavering relentlessness of last term, which proved unsustainable over a whole campaign, has been traded for a less emotionally-driven, more measured and efficient style of play.
Liverpool still score great goals, and in Mohamed Salah they have one of Europe’s most exciting players, but they’re no longer relying on playing well to get results. It’s not exactly winning ugly, but it’s not winning gorgeously either – Klopp finally has a team well-balanced enough to source victories in different ways, and that is what has turned them into legitimate title challengers.
When Manchester United appointed Mourinho two summers ago, the club and the fans knew exactly what they’d be getting. Nobody expected the Portuguese to renege the pragmatic approach that his silverware-enthused career has been built upon, but most were probably hoping for an acceptable medium, encompassing the trophy-yielding habits of his two Chelsea teams with a dose more style, speed and flair.
That wouldn’t be beyond Mourinho either; it shouldn’t be forgotten that his La Liga-winning Real Madrid team still hold the record for most goals in a single season and included Mesut Ozil, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria, Kaka and Marcelo – hardly players that fit the traditional Mourinho profile. Sergio Ramos, when opportunities allowed, was even given licence to push forward from the back.
Two-and-a-half seasons later though, and that brand of play just hasn’t materialised. United only seem capable of ripping teams apart when they’re on the verge of succumbing to defeat, reaching the level of desperation in which tactics – aside from Marouane Fellaini moving up front – go out of the window.
When United try to dig deep and hold firm, meanwhile, their lack of confidence or perhaps even interest in such a game-plan becomes painfully apparent, often to their own detriment.
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Aside from being rather laborious for the spectators, there isn’t really anything Mourinho-esque about the way United have played this season, and to add insult to injury, the under-fire Portuguese will see a manifestation of what his failing Red Devils side should have been when they travel to Anfield this Sunday.
Klopp, accepting the need for tactical compromise that Mourinho has either ignored or failed to successfully implement, has created the team that everybody envisaged when his adversary was given the Old Trafford gig.
The greatest of evidence for this, and for how Liverpool’s style of play has become far less audacious than it was last season, lays in the statistics. Compare Chelsea’s last title win under Mourinho, in 2014/15, to Liverpool’s start to the current campaign and there are a flurry of intriguing similarities.
Perhaps the most analytically valuable are shots per game, goals scored per game and average possession; with very little separating both teams, it’s clear Klopp has found a balance similar to what Chelsea struck up during their last triumph under the Portuguese. It’s enough attacking impetus to consistently win games, without allowing too much risk at the other end.
You may think that’s the mark of every title-winning side, a level of balance pretty much every Premier League champion has struck, but that’s simply not the case; a far more offensive-minded Manchester City averaged 17.5 shots and 2.8 goals per game last season, as well as 65% possession, just as Leicester City won the league with only 13.7 shots and 1.8 goals per game and the minority of the ball. Mourinho’s Chelsea team and this current Liverpool side share some very specific traits.
And the percentage of goals scored by one player is significant here too. Of course, every team in the Premier League has a top scorer, a main goal threat, but it’s the faith placed in the ability of one talismanic influence to get the team over the line that overlaps between both teams.
Although Eden Hazard’s creativity shouldn’t be forgotten either, Diego Costa was trusted to do sufficient damage in front of goal to win games for Chelsea, should the Blues’ resilient defence hold up their end of the bargain, and through his aggression, power and quality was often tasked with making it happen on his own.
We’re now seeing exactly the same thing at Liverpool through Mohamed Salah’s trickery and speed; without his monumental, hat-trick grabbing impact against Bournemouth, the Reds would have created just four chances and taken a mere six efforts at goal last weekend. They did, however, become only the fourth team this season to claim a clean sheet over the Cherries in the Premier League.
It shouldn’t be forgotten how Chelsea ended that title bid; during the last 15 games of the season, there were just three in which the west Londoners scored more than two goals. It will be interesting to see, should Liverpool find themselves leading the table as we come out of the winter period, if Klopp finds himself succumbing to a similar approach, and if that’s received positively or negatively by a fan base that always expects to be entertained.
But the bigger question is why Klopp, an attacking manager by nature, has been able to not only create the kind of balance we’ve come to expect from a Mourinho team but also achieve results using it, whereas United remain stuck in an identity crisis. If the United boss watches closely on Sunday, he may learn from Liverpool’s performance just where it’s gone wrong at Old Trafford.