When the top two meet in the Premier League, it’s a reflex action – muscle memory from past Super Sundays, past Judgment Days – to seek out the big managerial brawl.
The first plays second, champions against contenders: spot the haggard split screen, the visionaries with crazy eyes in their quilted coats, nose to nose on the sideline, a collision of wills, visions, “philosophies”.
As Tottenham travel to Anfield on Wednesday night, there will be an attempt to re-erect this familiar machine around José Mourinho and Jürgen Klopp. It’s not just a meeting of the first and the second, but pleasantly contrasting styles: perky versus grumpy, high pressure versus low block, sideline hug versus rabbit punch to the kidneys.
And yet, Klopp vs. Mourinho doesn’t really work that way. There is something here, a kind of anti-chemistry. Damn, they actually seem to like each other.
Most rivalries are exaggerated or are the product of theatrical conventions. With Klopp and Mourinho, there is a flowering of something that almost looks like affection. Just last month, they agreed on player exhaustion, when we frankly would have preferred a furious war of words.
Klopp called Mourinho a “world-class manager” at the start of the year. José – yes: this José – described Klopp as “one of the best”. Attempts have been made over the years to simulate this, with the odd jab on spending or resources. But there seems to be an awkward degree of professional respect here.
Fortunately, this is a match with a lot of real substance beyond operetta. In Mourinho’s case, the odd advantage – as there always has to be an odd advantage – is with Liverpool FC themselves, another football institution that they seem to have considered taking by storm in a way or another.
The first contact was in March 2004, when Mourinho’s agent approached Liverpool to discuss player sales and then made it clear over coffee with Rick Parry that his man José would be ready to come to Anfield once he won the Champions League. The offer was a little raw given that Gérard Houllier was there. Liverpool have passed.
So Mourinho kept coming back in other forms. The famous gesture of silence – nobody makes an inflammatory gesture like José – after Steven Gerrard’s goal in the 2005 League Cup final against his Chelsea side. Epic matches in the Champions League. 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 this season, stalking the sideline full time, slapping his chest, screaming at the crowd.
Mourinho had been annoyed about having to play in the game on Sunday afternoon, three days before a Champions League semi-final against Atlético Madrid. He was sick with a virus and had to self-isolate on the way to the game. He found himself unshaven, pale and angry. Chelsea lost again against Atlético. But it clearly sounded like a pre-consolation.
And now we have this, a visit from the team Mourinho calls ‘my Spurs’, to a full house private Anfield. Although the weirdness of the season also fuels the occasion.
Wednesday night marks a third of the Premier League schedule, with Tottenham leading and undefeated since day one. They play for Liverpool again at the end of January. Before, it’s Leicester at home, then Wolves, Fulham, Leeds, Villa, Sheffield United. The points collected in this spell, reserved between the home and away champions, will decide the severity of Tottenham’s race.
The draw at Crystal Palace on Sunday was a reminder that sometimes it was about tooth skin stuff. It is a team of fine margins and refined methods. Spurs have scored nine goals in their last seven Premier League games. Five of the last seven went at the last minute with the result still on the razor’s edge.
It’s too much to talk about underdogs when you have a £ 1billion stadium, the best striker in the league and a coach with titles in four European countries. But it has at times been Mourinho ad absurdum, a team seemingly convinced they are in a tense relegation fight and in danger of looking up at the end of the season to find they have just won the league.
Is it sustainable? Mourinho’s last side to win the title at Chelsea attacked in numbers before Christmas, only falling back into Kurt-Zouma-midfield mode once the home stretch was in sight. It would be a monumental, if not improbable, act of self-flagellation to continue winning in this manner from here on out.
This game also comes at a time of good margins for Liverpool. There have been passages of that familiar clarity, but it’s also a stretched team. Five teenagers have played in the past two weeks. Liverpool have three wins in their last eight games and 23 shots on target in their last six games. And yet there is also the feeling that they could click at any time, that a real ignition is just waiting to happen.
The obvious tactical adjustment with Mourinho’s Spurs could lead either way. The game appears to be taking place in a kind of hot zone between the halfway point and Tottenham’s penalty area. Klopp loves a destructive creative high press; Mourinho likes his team to dive deep and use the space that this offers on offense.
The question is, to what extent Klopp will change to stifle this. Roy Hodgson showed a way this weekend, refusing to let his team overengage on offense and playing long passes into the box, leaving the low block to suffocate.
Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum will they “bypass” Harry Kane in these deep playing areas? Can Spurs really hope to “absorb” this Liverpool team at Anfield?
First against second: as always, it looks like a meeting of angles, trajectories, unanswered questions; and far from the last in this extremely unstable season.