Barney Ronay – The Guardian
Champions could put pretenders in their place at Anfield, but game may also be first meaningful shot in a battle for the title
Harry Kane during last season’s game at Anfield, where a goal from the England captain saw Spurs lead before Liverpool came back to win 2-1. Photograph: Alex Dodd/CameraSport via Getty Images
When the top two meet in the Premier League it is a reflex action – muscle memory of Super Sundays gone, Judgment Days past – to look for the big managerial tussle.
First plays second, champions versus pretenders: cue the haggard split screen, the wild-eyed seers in their quilted coats, nose-to-nose on the touchline, a collision of wills, visions, “philosophies”.
As Tottenham travel to Anfield on Wednesday night there will be an attempt to re-erect this familiar machinery around José Mourinho and Jürgen Klopp. This is a meeting not just of first and second, but of agreeably contrasting styles: perky versus grouchy, high press versus low block, touchline hug versus rabbit punch to the kidneys.
And yet somehow Klopp versus Mourinho doesn’t really work that way. There is something off here, a kind of anti-chemistry. Dammit, they actually seem to like each other.
Most rivalries are overstated, or a product of theatrical conventions. With Klopp and Mourinho there is a bloom of something that almost feels like affection. Only last month they were agreeing about player exhaustion, when we would, frankly, have preferred a furious war of words.
Klopp called Mourinho a “world‑class manager” early in the year. José – yes: that José – described Klopp as “one of the best”. Attempts have been made down the years to fake it, with the odd jab about spending or resources. But there does seem to be an inconvenient degree of professional respect here.
Happily this is a match-up with plenty of actual substance beyond the operetta. In Mourinho’s case the weird edge – because there must always be a weird edge – is with Liverpool FC itself, another footballing institution he seems to have set his sights on storming one way or another.
First contact came in March 2004 when Mourinho’s agent approached Liverpool to discuss player sales, then made it clear over coffee with Rick Parry that his man, José, would be willing to come to Anfield once he’d won the Champions League. The offer was a little stark given Gérard Houllier was in situ. Liverpool passed.
So Mourinho kept coming back in other guises. The notorious shushing gesture – nobody does an inflammatory gesture like José – after Steven Gerrard’s own goal in the 2005 League Cup final against his Chelsea side. Epic Champions League encounters. Then of course there was April 2014, Demba Ba and all that.
It was shocking at the time to see how much Mourinho enjoyed destroying Liverpool’s title push at Anfield that season, stalking the touchline at full time, punching his chest, bellowing at the crowd.
Mourinho had been irritated by having to play the game on Sunday afternoon, three days before a Champions League semi-final against Atlético Madrid. He was ill with a virus and had to self-isolate on the drive to the game. He turned up unshaven, sallow and angry. Chelsea still lost against Atlético. But it clearly felt like a pre-consolation.
And now we have this, a visit of the team Mourinho calls “my Spurs”, to an Anfield deprived of a full house. Although the weirdness of the season does also feed into the occasion.
Wednesday night marks a third of the way through the Premier League programme, with Tottenham top and unbeaten since the opening day. They play Liverpool again in late January. Before then it’s Leicester at home, then Wolves, Fulham, Leeds, Villa, Sheffield United. Points harvested in that spell, bookended between the champions home and away, will decide how serious Tottenham’s run really is.
The draw at Crystal Palace on Sunday was a reminder that it has been skin-of-the-teeth stuff at times. This is a team of fine margins and pared-back methods. Spurs have scored nine goals in their past seven Premier League games. Five of the past seven have gone to the last minute with the result still on a razor edge.
It’s a stretch to talk about underdogs when you have a £1bn stadium, the best striker in the league and a manager with titles in four European countries. But this has been Mourinho ad absurdum at times, a team apparently convinced they are engaged in a sinew‑straining relegation dogfight, and in danger of looking up at the end of the season to find they have just won the league.
Is this sustainable? Mourinho’s last title-winning team at Chelsea attacked in numbers before Christmas, only sinking back into Kurt-Zouma-in-midfield mode once the final straight was in sight. It would be a monumental, and indeed improbable act of self-flagellation to keep winning this way from here.
This game also comes at a fine-margins moment for Liverpool. There have been passages of that familiar clarity, but this is also a squad stretched thin. Five teenagers have played in the past two weeks. Liverpool have three wins in their past eight games, and 23 shots on target in their past six. And yet there is also a feeling they could click at any moment, that real ignition is just waiting to happen.
The obvious tactical fit with Mourinho’s Spurs could drive that either way. The game seems set to take place in a kind of hot zone between halfway and the Tottenham penalty area. Klopp likes a high, destructive-creative press; Mourinho likes his team to drop deep and use the space this offers in attack.
The question is to what degree Klopp will change to stifle this. Roy Hodgson showed one way at the weekend, refusing to let his team overcommit in attack, and playing long passes into the box, letting the low block suffocate itself.
Will Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum “get around” Harry Kane in those deep playmaking areas? Can Spurs really hope to “absorb” this Liverpool team at Anfield?
First versus second: as ever this feels like a meeting of angles, trajectories, unanswered questions; and far from the last in this absorbingly unsettled season.