Klopp – Mourinho tactical battle: Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool entered matchweek 13 first and second, respectively, in the Premier League table, but following the Reds’ dramatic 2-1 victory at Anfield on Wednesday, Jurgen Klopp’s men now sit above Jose Mourinho’s Spurs.
The tactical battle between the two managers, and their sides, ebbed and flowed throughout the game, revealing a few interesting points not only for Wednesday’s showdown, but also for the ensuing weeks and months of the season. The contrast of how their teams played was a perfect encapsulation of the contrast of Klopp and Mourinho as men as well.
A few tactical observations from arguably the biggest game of the 2020-21 Premier League season (thus far)…
Klopp – Mourinho: Hate it or love it, Jose’s plan worked
First things first, how fitting is it to end 2020 defending Jose Mourinho, the longtime anti-football manager who lives and feeds and grows from the outside criticism of his misunderstood genius ways?
Now, with that out of the way, this is where we must acknowledge that Mourinho’s plan was nearly perfect in how Tottenham were set up to battle Liverpool, and their execution of said negative tactics weren’t far behind. Given the fairly significant talent disparity between the sides (yes, even with Liverpool’s extensive injury list), Spurs couldn’t simply take the field and go toe-to-toe with the defending champions without being torn to pieces.
It wasn’t exactly enjoyable to watch from a neutral perspective, but it proved incredibly effective — far more than one might have predicted before the game kicked off — and so nearly resulted in an invaluable point for the challengers. The balance of getting numbers behind the ball and still having the bodies (and legs) to create scoring chances from counter-attacks was, to Mourinho’s credit, enough to draw or even win the game.
Klopp – Mourinho: Thiago’s absence hurting Liverpool
For all of the (meaningful) possession Liverpool had deep inside Tottenham’s defensive half, the Reds currently lack a genius-level playmaker who can spot the perfect pass a full second or two before it presents itself. Georginio Wijnaldum has had a brilliant three-year run under Klopp, but he’s still more of a blunt object than a precise scalpel. Curtis Jones appears to have a very bright future ahead of him, but he’s 19 years old and only in control of his various limbs half the time he’s on the field.
Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane are world-class threats on either wing, but they’re far more goal-minded than looking to dictate and play through balls. That’s why Thiago Alcantara was signed this summer, before he tested positive for COVID-19 in September and injured his knee not long after recovering from the virus in October.
Wednesday’s game — one in which Liverpool enjoyed 77 percent of possession against the then-Premier League leaders — might have looked oh-so-different with Thiago stationed 25 or 30 yards from goal, surveying the field and playing passes that few players in the world even imagine.
Klopp – Mourinho: Liverpool’s midfield prepared (and able) to shadow Kane
Kane’s greatest contribution to the 2020-21 Premier League season (thus far) has been his playmaking efforts when he drops into midfield after Tottenham win back possession. For most sides lacking the talent of Liverpool and the thorough preparations of Klopp, it’s been a devastating nightmare for opposition sides.
For Liverpool, it was a team effort that asked Jordan Henderson, Wijnaldum and Jones to remain on high alert the second Liverpool lost possession. Without asking center backs Fabinho and Joel Matip to follow Kane into the open pasture that is midfield, Kane rarely had options ahead of him. Son Heung-min’s 33rd-minute goal was a rare instance of Liverpool losing track of Tottenham dynamic duo, and it speaks to the ruthless nature of Kane and Son (or Son and Kane) that they linked up in a meaningful manner precisely once all game, and it resulted in the same goal they have scored (what feels like) 200 times this season.
Klopp – Mourinho: Jose picks Davies over Reguilon
On paper, Ben Davies is the pragmatic choice at left back when you’re facing a juggernaut attacking side like Liverpool. However, in practice, it also results in being pinned back deep in your own half as the backline squeezes narrower and narrower. With Sergio Reguilon, who’s not an awful defender himself, in the team, Toby Aldeweireld and Eric Dier have a willing (and able) safety outlet stretching the field a bit wider to play out of pressure and create different angles to play the ball forward.
Given how much possession Liverpool were bound to have, it’s understandable that Mourinho wanted the slightly more defensively disciplined Welshman, but sometimes ultra-defensive tactics can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Klopp – Mourinho: Tottenham found joy from applying pressure higher up the field
Fewer than 60 seconds into the second half, Steven Bergwijn created a wonderful scoring chance all on his own. Barely five minutes later, Kane did the same. The common denominator? Spurs’ forward line pressuring Liverpool’s back-five in their own defensive third.
Liverpool don’t really have another way to play besides passing out of the back beginning with Alisson in goal. That’s why pulling everyone back to midfield and beyond plays into their hands so helpfully. It was quite clear that Mourinho observed this potential pathway to success in the first half and moved his side’s line of confrontation 15 or 20 yards higher after the restart.