Jurgen Klopp is an exceptional manager. His teams are so modern, mobile and electrifying that they often feel like a glimpse into football’s future, one where every counter-attack is done at scintillating speed, every forward has no truly fixed position and each player has the technique, bravery and power to stage breakaways from every department. And yet, there’s a common theme surrounding the German that’s become hard to ignore – an unfortunate collection of near-misses in cup finals, including the two European finals he’s been involved in.
It must be said that in pretty much all of them he’s managed the underdog. Borussia Dortmund were always a lesser side to Bayern Munich, at least in terms of proven pedigree and resources, just as Manchester City were vastly superior to the Liverpool side Klopp inherited from Brendan Rodgers in the 2016 League Cup final. Even Sevilla in last season’s Europa League final boasted two consecutive titles heading to the 3-1 defeat. Perhaps the only real exception is a 3-1 loss to Wolfsburg in the 2015 German Cup, but that came at a time when Dortmund suddenly imploded to end the campaign in seventh in between runners-up finishes.
Nonetheless, it does highlight perhaps the biggest drawback with Klopp; while he’s capable of fashioning incredibly exciting teams, teams that often mould raw young talent into genuine superstars, he’s less capable when it comes to outwitting a specific opponent in one-off games. Sure, alterations are made here and there, but his overall approach is largely indiscriminate of the rival team. He focuses on playing his game to his own strengths rather than to the weaknesses of others.
The closest comparison in that regard is with Arsene Wenger. Like Klopp, the Frenchman’s Arsenal teams once captured that futuristic, revolutionary feel. But like Klopp also, Wenger could never quite get over the line in Europe. His CV also includes two trophies missed from two European finals, although Klopp could make it a third on Saturday when Liverpool face Real Madrid in Kiev.
Pep Guardiola adopts part of that mantra too, but the key differentiation is adaptability compared to predictability. In 22 years at Arsenal, barring a brief flirtation with 3-4-3 Wenger stuck with various variations of 4-2-3-1 religiously; their 4-4-2 tucked Dennis Bergkamp behind Thierry Henry, just as their 4-3-3s nearly always had a No.10-esque creator at its heart. Guardiola has his preferred setup as well, 4-3-3, but whereas the Manchester City gaffer deviated from it three times in the Champions League this season, Klopp’s set up his team differently just once – using a 4-4-2 in the 7-0 demolition of Spartak Moscow.
The consequence is how easy Saturday’s starting XI is to predict. Injuries have been a factor in that as well, not to mention overall limitations of squad depth, but the personnel, mentality and shape of Liverpool’s starting XI has come to dictate itself, always trying to operate at lightening speed. That inevitably renders them much simpler to plan against, even if few have really come up with an answer for Mohamed Salah this season, whereas Zinedine Zidane has the ability to spring a few surprises. Will he match up with Liverpool’s 4-3-3? Will he use Gareth Bale as a centre-forward? Will he play a midfield diamond? There’s just a dose more ambiguity, but one that could make all the difference on Saturday.
The other consequence is how Liverpool have never really overcome the same weaknesses that Klopp tried to eradicate when he first joined the club. Just as Liverpool failed to beat West Brom during Klopp’s first encounter with them in 2015, the Reds drew with the same team at the same ground using largely the same tactics less than a month ago. More important than the disappointing result at the Hawthorns is what it truly highlights; when Liverpool are allowed to play Klopp’s game they’re unstoppable, but when they’re made to play somebody else’s they quickly become unstuck.
That problem was precisely at the heart of Wenger and Arsenal’s intertwined demise, and it will catch up with Klopp too. Just as his Dortmund side eventually suffered from becoming too predictable and one dimensional, Liverpool are treading a similar path. Ahead of Saturday, Real Madrid will be only too aware of how much the Reds struggle to adapt their game; if there’s one thing for Klopp to learn from his and Wenger’s two near misses in European finals, it’s that a few tactical surprises to catch the opposition off-guard can go a very, very long way.