Liverpool v Spurs: Why “the best team lost” is a matter of opinion

JOSÉ Mourinho, typically, told his opposite number, the dentist’s dream that is Jürgen Klopp, that the best team had been beaten in the top-of-the-table clash at Anfield. Klopp, still grinning, was mystified and made light of it, and thanks to his perpetual bonhomie, the flame of controversy was extinguished. 

He’s a big fellow, is Klopp, and he made Mourinho look like a ranting man with “little guy syndrome” as they nudged elbows and fists on the pitch with their players. But did José really think his team was the better side on the field, or was it just sour grapes?

As far as Mourinho was probably concerned, his team had been marvellous and had gone out to win. They clearly carried out his orders, staying deep and adopting the quick breakaway style that has been one of his trademark strategies. From his perspective, Spurs had played it right and but for that heartbreaking last minute header from Robert Firmino, they would have gained a highly satisfactory draw. Liverpool just kept going, stoking the fire, pressing the bruise and waiting for a gap to appear.

From the neutral’s armchair, Liverpool were superior, and at times Spurs were hanging on for dear life as the home team’s share of possession nudged the needle over 90%. Mourinho’s tactical game may have kept him happy, but in pure footballing terms, Spurs were second best, they were merely doing their job very well for a long time. 

Some fans at clubs that have been unable to crack the Hotspur nut have called the 2020-21 version of Spurs “anti-football”, but that’s really not the case. Their historic expansive and purist football, still using the 1961 double team as a point of reference, is no longer a successful way – hence they have won very little in the past 25 years, despite producing top talent and attracting big names to dear old White Hart Lane. Spurs are desperate for silverware and Mourinho is drawn to shiny objects more than any nursery rhyme magpie. Spurs have a good chance to win something during his reign, however short it might turn out to be.

Call it pragmatism, that polite way of saying caution, but Mourinho can make Spurs into genuine title contenders. It may not be gung-ho and edge-of-the-seat emotion all the way, but take a look at some of the goals they have scored this season – were they not exciting and a product of thoughtful approach work?

Mourinho teams are effective for most of the clubs he works for, but only if his ethos brings some tangible success. They are not for the uncommitted who wants to be thrilled, but it is a business-like approach to ensure points are chalked on the board. Mourinho’s job rests on results and mostly, fans will support any team that wins, regardless of how they do it.

Spurs will, in all probability, have to beat Liverpool at some stage, but their display at Anfield showed they are not a soft touch and they have the tools to maintain their bid. But playing deep for so long may be effective, but if you fall behind you have to shift tactics and the longer the game goes on, the more difficult it is to retrieve the situation. A little more adventure goes a long way.

Liverpool are a team that thrives on constant power and passion and that has, undoubtedly, won them plenty of games over the past two seasons. Tottenham’s style is very different, a factor that will make the Premier League title race very interesting, especially if Manchester City rediscover their drive. For now, though, Spurs can go marching on into 2021 knowing that talk of ponies is just another mind game from you know who.

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Photo: PA

Di Matteo and Barton showed the unsung hero can also take football’s top stage

THE THREE men who have managed a European Cup/Champions League winner on three occasions are well known to all: Bob Paisley, Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane. Unsurprisingly, most of Europe’s biggest names have won the competition and some equally notable managers have not – Bill Shankly, Don Revie, Arséne Wenger and Franz Beckenbauer, for example, never led a team to European Cup glory, although Der Kaiser was well acquainted with the trophy in his playing days.

Interestingly, some of the lesser-known managers have taken their sides all the way to the final. The first English manager to reach the final was Jimmy Armfield in 1975 with Leeds United, while the only final to feature two Englishmen in charge was in 1979 when Nottingham Forest (Brian Clough) faced Malmö (Bob Houghton). Even then few people had heard of Houghton, but he was just 31 in 1979 and had played less than a hundred senior games for Hastings United. Houghton’s career took him to the Middle East, Far East, the Canada and the US, central and northern Europe. He managed three national teams: China, India and Uzbekistan. He finally hung up his tracksuit in 2011 after a fascinating and lengthy journey. His Malmö team were beaten 1-0 by Forest in an uninspiring game, but reaching the Munich final was an achievement in itself.

Another British manager, Tony Barton, took over Aston Villa’s league title-winning side of 1981 in February 1982 after Ron Saunders resigned over a contractual dispute. Barton was an eyebrow-raising choice but he inherited a talented team that had already made its way to the last eight of the European Cup. One of his first games in charge was in the Crimean city of Simferopol, a 0-0 draw with Dynamo Kyiv. Villa won the second leg 2-0 and then scraped through 1-0 over two legs against Belgium’s Anderlecht in the semi-final. Bayern Munich presented a stiff challenge in the final in Rotterdam, but a Peter Withe goal won the cup for Villa and Barton. He was soon gone, though, sacked in May 1984 as Villa failed to build on their success.

Real Madrid’s early successes in the European Cup have passed into football folklore, but people remember Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Raymond Kopa and other fine individuals. The managers are rarely mentioned in despatches. The first to win the European Cup was José Villalonga Llorente, who was not the only the first but also the youngest ever to coach a champion club – just 36 and 184 days. He was succeeded by the Argentinian Luis Carniglia, the first non-European to manage a European Cup winner. Then came Miguel Muñoz, the first to play and manage a winning team in the competition. Muñoz is part of a select band who have achieved that feat. The others include: Giovanni Trapattoni, Johan Cruyff, Carlo Ancelotti, Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola.

When Zinedine Zidane led Real Madrid to their hat-trick of triumphs between 2016 and 2018, he became the first coach to win three in a row. He was also the first French manager to win the competition. Albert Batteaux, Robert Herbin and Didier Deschamps had all tried before him.

Coaches from the other main countries seem to have more joy –  12 times the trophy has been won by an Italian manager, 10 times a Spaniard and eight times a German. English coaches have won the competition seven times, the first (1977) was Bob Paisley and the last (1984) being Joe Fagan of Liverpool, another relatively unknown figure who was promoted to run the first team via the fabled Anfield “Boot Room”.

One of the unlikely coaches from Italy was Roberto Di Matteo, who led Chelsea to victory on May 19, 2012. Di Matteo was never seen as more than a stop gap by Chelsea’s top management, although he was popular with the fans and won the FA Cup as well as the European Cup in his short spell in charge. It was ironic as the club had pursued a strategy of hiring marque managers such as Jose Mourinho, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Carlo Ancelotti and Di Matteo was something of an untried alternative. But he certainly delivered. It was no shock that within a few months of his – and Chelsea’s – greatest moment in the game, he was gone.

Germany’s European Cup winning coaches have all been well known characters, from Udo Lattek in 1974 to Jürgen Klopp in 2019. Of the five Germans, perhaps the least celebrated has been Ottmar Hitzfeld, who won the competition with Borussia Dortmund in 1997 and Bayern Munich in 2001. The German list, which is completed by Jupp Heynckes and Dettmar Cramer, is an impressive one.

It’s hard for a relatively unknown manager to win the competition today. Increasingly, the big names circulate the big clubs and they change jobs frequently. Therefore, the chances of a Barton or a Di Matteo emerging as manager of Europe’s number one club are extremely remote. Regardless of their CVs, their successes are part of the romance of the game.

Photo: PA

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Liverpool and Tottenham ousted by canny operators

ONLY three times since the UEFA Champions League was formed have both of the previous season’s finalists exited at the round of 16 stage. The structure of the competition is designed to allow the rich to become successful, so that fact should come as no great surprise. The Champions League has become the playground of a handful of clubs – in the past decade, just 11 clubs from four countries have filled the 20 final places.

Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, the 2019 finalists, both crashed out this week, raising question marks about the relative strength of the Premier League and also the quality of the two teams. It is unlikely the sides that beat them, Atlético Madrid and RB Leipzig, will win their domestic leagues, so we are not talking about the outstanding teams from Spain and Germany.

Liverpool were beaten in old-skool fashion, the defensive and robust continentals proving too much of an obstacle, while Tottenham were eliminated by a much better team that made the North Londoners look pedestrian, lacking in savvy and out-of-touch with modern tactical trends. It was a tale of four top coaches – Jürgen Klopp was ousted by Diego Simeone’s stubborn “defend in depth” philosophy, while tomorrow’s man, Julian Nagelsmann, made José Mourinho look a little like yesterday’s hero.

Decline

Tottenham’s defeat, emphatic and a fair reflection of the gap between the two teams, should signal the start of a serious rebuild at the club. The Mauricio Pochettino era drew to a close with no silverware and with a paper-thin squad. The lack of real strength in depth has been cruelly highlighted this season with Harry Kane and Son, arguably their two best players, on the injury list. Add to that the loss of the excellent Christian Eriksen, and Tottenham look very average, possibly the most ill-equipped team that Mourinho has coached since arriving in Britain in 2004.

Tottenham’s decline this season has been fairly dramatic, although in 2018-19, they lost seven of their last 12 league games and won just twice. Overall, they were beaten 13 times, their worst record since Pochettino arrived at the club. There were other signs that the team may have passed its peak – 71 points was their lowest since 2014-15 and they scored 67 goals, a drop of 19 from 2016-17. Harry Kane, who has been missing for some weeks this season, scored 17 goals in 28 league games in 2018-19, representing 0.61 goals per game. This was his worst ratio since the pre-Pochettino era and his contribution – 25% of Tottenham’s overall tally – was his lowest yet. So, Kane scores less, Spurs score less, Spurs win less frequently. This season, Kane’s goal-per-game ratio is 0.55 and he’s scored 30% of the team’s league goals. He’s still only 26, but Spurs need a fit Kane if they continue to rely on his goals to such a large degree.

It is easy to suggest in hindsight that Spurs’ run to the Champions League final in 2019 was their undoing, that their squad was ill-equipped to run a campaign on all fronts. But it does now appear as though it was the pinnacle of that team’s achievements. In other words, it was the beginning of the end of an era – a Zircon, rather than diamond-encrusted, period of thwarted ambition.

Liverpool’s boardroom will soon welcome the FA Premier League trophy in a week or two, but they said farewell to Champions League with a clumsy defensive display that cost them the tie with Atlético Madrid. The absence of Alisson, their excellent goalkeeper, was key and Adrián had a night to forget, underlining the importance of including two top keepers in your squad. Too often clubs skimp on their goalkeeping cover and it can prove costly. But for Adrián’s shortcomings, Liverpool would have won this tie, for some of their football was outstanding.

Bitter

Klopp was uncharacteristically sour at the end of the game, admitting that he now realised he was a bad loser, but if Atléti had gone into the game with all guns blazing, they would have been overrun by Liverpool’s intense and relentless style. As it was, their Slovenian goalkeeper, Jan Oblak, was superb and must surely attract Premier League money soon. Oblak has won the prestigious Zamora Trophy, awarded to the goalkeeper with the best record in La Liga, for the past four years. He made nine top saves against Liverpool.

Klopp may not have liked the way Simeone’s team played, but it should come as no surprise. Any team in the same circumstances would have lined-up something like Atléti at Anfield – the two-legged tie system is all about a little bit of shadow-boxing and careful strategy over 180 minutes (or more). Furthermore, Liverpool, in their European heyday, were renowned for pulling off a thoroughly “professional job” in away legs.

Are Liverpool starting to tire? Klopp’s methods must be exhausting and his players have barely taken their feet off the pedal this season. The Premier League has been like a Holy Grail for the club for almost three decades and they are nearing the end of their journey. For teams like Chelsea (FA Cup), Watford (survival) and Atlético Madrid (Champions League), their seasons have hinged, to a certain extent, on these recent games, and therefore they have met Liverpool in a state of high motivation and determination.

Two English teams put in their place and Chelsea almost sure to join them means all eyes will be on Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, who meet Real Madrid in the second leg with a 2-1 lead. Barcelona should make it through against Napoli, but this is not the Barca of 2011, or even 2015. Paris Saint-Germain are desperate for UCL success, so maybe Neymar will sign off with the trophy? Bayern look impressive at times and they may attract the smart money. And don’t write off Atlético, who know how to negotiate the latter stages of the competition only too well. As for Liverpool, they will be back next season, perhaps more confident and assured once they have their Premier League medals in their back pockets.

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Photo: PA