Friday 18 January 2019

Comment: Wembley showdown offers chance for Liverpool to show they have surpassed Tottenham on and off the pitch

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp

Miguel Delaney

It might well be a day of home truths, instead of the homecoming planned.

That Saturday’s afternoon game is taking place at Wembley rather than the new White Hart Lane has far more significance than delaying Tottenham Hotspur’s housewarming party. It could hasten other coming changes to the decreasing ground now between themselves and Liverpool, and point to the future of the Premier League title race.

The change in venue is actually just as relevant to Jurgen Klopp and his squad, not least for how it might yet offer a literal landmark of how far they’ve come and what might come next.

This is Liverpool’s first big-six match of the season and, while the entire club now have bigger ambitions about the campaign and all are conscious of what a win away to Spurs might generally represent, the fact it is also their first return to Wembley since October 2017 means the dressing room have even more specific motivation for victory.

They want some retribution, and to put the record straight. That 4-1 evisceration to Spurs last season was by far Liverpool’s most chastening experience of last season, and their deepest low.

There is naturally a real element of pride to this rematch, but even that feeds into something more profound about the potential future of both sides. That 4-1 ended up having a tangible effect on the Premier League table, as there was a difference of just two points between the sides, with Spurs just beating Liverpool to third place. It emphasises how close these clubs are in terms of quality and ambition, and that is further reflected by the fact four of the six Premier League meetings between Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino have ended in draws. Both managers have done similarly supreme jobs and while much is made of the fact neither have yet won silverware, the more relevant reality is that both have made these hugely exciting and promising teams who offer so much promise of silverware. And maybe, finally, a title challenge?

It is there where things start to diverge.

The stand-out storyline with this game is whether Liverpool can prove they have surpassed Spurs, and thereby prove themselves as Manchester City’s main challengers.

They have already more than surpassed Spurs in the market, and that is what so much of this comes back to - and might be so key going forward.

While Klopp has been able to consistently improve his first XI with signings that are almost surgical in nature, albeit at some expense, Pochettino has remained so frustrated and seemingly unable to enhance his team with any purchases.

Consider their key signings.

A progression of buys in Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Andy Robertson, Virgil van Dijk, Naby Keita and Alisson have gradually seen Liverpool make great leaps; becoming exponentially better with every such expense.

Against that, when was the last time a Tottenham signing tangibly improved the best XI? The majority of Pochettino’s first picks were signed before 2015. Kieran Trippier did arrive in that summer and has since made himself one of the best right-backs in Europe, but that was still only because a more senior player in Kyle Walker left, and there is a similar dynamic with Davinson Sanchez. The 22-year-old has the talent to be one of the best centre-halves in the world, but he was largely bought because of his future quality rather than to instantly improve the side there and then.

He was not a Van Dijk.

It also says much that Pochettino regularly uses six players who preceded him at the club as part of his best XI, whereas it is just four for Klopp - albeit with some injury issues.

You only have to look at the German’s first ever Liverpool line-up, that coincidentally came in a 0-0 draw - of course - away to Spurs back in October 2015

Starting XI: Mignolet; Clyne, Skrtel, Sakho, Moreno; Lucas, Can, Milner, Coutinho, Lallana; Origi

Subs: Bogdan, Toure, Randall, Allen, Ibe, Teixeira, Sinclair

Only Milner is currently used regularly, although Lallana has been injured, and Coutinho was prised away by Barcelona.

These are still contrasting situations that sum up the curious dynamics of the two clubs, with some of it coming back to how the two managers themselves do the job.

Fundamentally, it is precisely because Klopp had so much work to do that Liverpool can make such visible improvements, although it has also given him the scope and tactical freedom to do more.

At the same time, it is precisely because Pochettino has done such a good job - and maximised almost every element of the club - that he is now having to work very, very hard to do more.

He has had no obvious flaws to fix, unlike Klopp.

Spurs are essentially at the point where the team is performing so well that the only way it can really go to the next level is by making the kind of £70m signings that they won’t... but Liverpool will.

That is an inescapable factor in all of this, and why this fixture feels like it might be at a crossroads.

That it isn’t the first game at the new White Hart Lane is all the more important, since it is the construction of a new stadium that is currently constraining Spurs’ market power. The delay becomes even more symbolic.

How Pochettino would love the backing Klopp has had. How he must envy it.

Such expenditure is the greatest difference but not the only difference. Sources close to the clubs also put this issue down to how they manage.

Whereas some believe that Pochettino actually prefers to work with young players he can gradually mould, rather than bring in senior stars, Klopp is said to be one of the easiest coaches to scout for. It is, in the words of one talent-spotter, "very simple to look at player and immediately say where he is or isn’t a Klopp player". That has allowed Liverpool to be even more decisive in the market, to maximise the work of their transfer department.

It has allowed the purchase of someone like Salah for £37m, compared to Spurs’ £32m for Moussa Sissoko. One figure who knows Tottenham well has already wryly commented on how different things could be if such signings were swapped.

It isn’t quite that simple, though, since Salah’s ability to suddenly surge so obviously fits with what Klopp wants.

This is another grand difference between the sides. Klopp lean towards chaos, Pochettino towards order.

There is - as one source puts it - “an untamed aspect” to Klopp’s football that other Premier League sides do fear. If they can make a match an open bare-knuckle fight, they will batter you. Klopp gives his players a lot of attacking direction, but has also specifically bought them for their special maverick qualities. That can mean there feels a limitlessness to Liverpool, as best expressed by those explosions of goals against Manchester City.

That isn’t quite the case with Spurs, who are much more pointed in approach. While they do have some maverick qualities, Pochettino’s side generally hurt you in ways you would expect, with power and clever play that picks you off. So much goes towards Harry Kane and, while his goal return obviously makes it more than worthwhile, there can be a rigidity about him that means it would be much more difficult to accommodate another top-level forward.

Klopp, meanwhile, keeps finding the space.

All of this makes it feel like Liverpool have a higher ceiling… but Spurs a higher baseline.

Pochettino’s order and organisation has given his side a defensive resilience that makes them more reliable, and affixed them to the Champions League places.

This isn’t the first time that Spurs’ lack of summer signings has led to doubt about whether they can perform to the same level, and it has actually been said every year since the summer of 2015... but they have still ended in the top three every one of those seasons. They’re just so durable.

It is also this that everyone at Anfield envies. For all the talk about Liverpool's attack, many senior club figures are saying that proving they can keep a clean sheet away to Spurs will really be key. That might really prove they can make the leap.

It should escape no-one’s attention, after all, that Klopp hasn’t yet leap-frogged Pochettino in the table. He still hasn't finished above him. Who comes out on top at Wembley might tell a lot.

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