Was this really a Champions League final just seven months ago? In truth, it didn’t even feel like a replay of the final when the two sides met at Anfield at the end of October. More than anything else, it illustrated all was not well with Mauricio Pochettino, the dying embers of his reign characterized by tactical blunders not seen by the Argentinean in previous visits to Merseyside. And now another confused Spurs manager takes on Jurgen Klopp’s rampant Liverpool.
Mourinho vs Klopp was meant to be one of the apex managerial battles in England. Or at least that’s what everyone thought in the seminal summer of 2016 when Mourinho, Conte, Klopp and Guardiola joined Wenger and Pochettino to dine at the top table of managers in the Premier League. Three and a half seasons on from then, it is pertinent to ask — does Mourinho welcome Klopp as an equal?
Klopp’s irresistible inspirational qualities have only become stronger but he hasn’t rested on those laurels. There is a greater understanding of tactics augmented by an increasing variety to the way Liverpool play nowadays. Importantly, we see a transformation in Liverpool because Klopp knows how to connect with his players. The implementation of new ideas on the pitch have come about as a manifestation of excellent communication off it. Klopp continues to learn, looking for any and every marginal gain.
Exactly who is it that Mourinho now connects with? On taking the Spurs job, the famous anecdote about Mourinho was asking Dele Alli if it was in fact his brother who was putting on the Spurs shirt. Perhaps a case could be made for the Spurs dressing room to now ask their boss if there is an imposter managing them.
Mourinho’s greatest strength was his ability to organize a defence and make them watertight. We’ve seen none of that so far at Spurs. He loved working with experienced campaigners and reinvigorating them. Yes, Toby Alderweireld has finally signed a contract extension but has he shown anything under Mourinho to actually deserve it? Why has there been no upturn in the form of Jan Vertonghen or Eric Dier? For all intents and purposes, Christian Eriksen is not a Mourinho prototype. However, Jose used to rightfully delight in his ability to motivate playmakers and make them integral parts of his success. Think Mesut Ozil and Cesc Fabregas. Yet if anything, Eriksen seems even more distant from the cause than under Pochettino.
It also appears quite evident that Mourinho is trying his best to portray a new identity, both, on and off the pitch. Ostensibly playing with four attackers should result in a side that creates chances and thrills fans. However, his midfield two has been such a disaster, that the lack of fluency has completely nullified the threat of the quartet higher up the pitch. A Mourinho at his best would surely have reverted to a midfield three by now. Troubleshooting was his thing. To compound his woes, he has now lost both Harry Kane and Moussa Sissoko till April.
All this is not to say that Mourinho can’t throw a spanner in the works for Liverpool. Even when he was getting Manchester United to play uninspiring football, he somehow managed to rouse himself to his Machiavellian best to frustrate Klopp. (For what it’s worth, Klopp himself hasn’t got rid of the knack of overthinking such games, almost like teams without an identity confuse his teams into playing their worst football.) Coincidentally, Mourinho’s only defeat to Klopp was his last game in charge of the Red Devils. There is also something about Liverpool that stirs the passion in Mourinho — a sort of acceptance that for all the nouveau riche, the Reds still have an aura about them that transcends, a sense of glory that the Portuguese probably admires and envies in equal measure. One need only go back to that fateful day in 2014, when his injury ravaged Chelsea side featuring Tomas Kalas at centre-back and Demba Ba upfront, stopped Liverpool from winning their first ever Premier League title, extending their wait that goes on till this day.
In truth, there’s a diminished sense of importance to this game. Yes, Spurs are still in the hunt for fourth. But Tottenham look the farthest thing away from a Champions League side right now. Mourinho has nothing to lose. If Spurs suffer a defeat, he can point to the injuries and say he lost to the best side in the land. If Spurs win, it won’t really affect Klopp or Liverpool’s seemingly inevitable march to the title. This is in a way, a credit to Liverpool and their excellent first half, but in another, a sad picture of how one of the league’s most exciting sides in recent times has hit a wall so quickly. That being said, the curious mind (and the media, lest we forget) can’t help but wonder if Mourinho and Klopp can after all, bring something to make this a memorable occasion.