Liverpool’s energetic, expressive and exciting style of football under Jurgen Klopp won many admirers, far beyond the confines of Anfield. The German’s philosophy gave Liverpool a new identity but the old values of passion and fighting spirit remained intact. The Reds were reborn.
Liverpool under Klopp also had critics. The voices weren’t always from outside Anfield. They pointed at the empty trophy cabinet and the German’s record of losing finals. After all football is about glory and not art. For many, it is only beautiful if success is its end product.
Liverpool fans would have been torn over the debate of glory and art after last season’s Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid, when their flamboyance was undone by Madrid’s ruthless streak. But few Reds will disagree after Saturday’s result that in football nothing succeeds like success.
Method over madness
There was little logic in the way Liverpool and Tottenham booked their place in the Madrid showpiece. The Reds overturned a 3-0 deficit against the Lionel Messi-led Barcelona who were crowned Spanish champions just a few days before the game. On a manic night at Anfield, Liverpool epitomised Klopp’s philosophy of outrunning your opponent to eventually outsmart them.
Tottenham on the other hand, produced an extraordinary half of football to totally undo Ajax, the most fearless team in the Champions League this season who had knocked out Real Madrid and Juventus on their way. Lucas Moura, a bit-part player at best popped up with an unexpected hat-trick to send Spurs into the final and coach Mauricio Pochettino into tears.
The semi-final triumphs for Liverpool and Tottenham saw the optimum level of operation possible for human spirits. It was perhaps the need of the hour.
On Saturday, in Madrid, the situation was different. The rigours of the business end of the season had eased. The cramped schedule was long relaxed and there was too much time on hand to think about the big game.
For teams so used to carrying a rhythm in their run-ins, the three-week break between the final Premier League game and the Champions League final was a problem.
The Europa League final suffered a similar fate with Chelsea and Arsenal not being able to bring their usual intensity to the fore.
In the Champions League final, touted by many as the worst in some years, the case was no different.
“Tonight was a challenge for both teams to deal with the three weeks because we never have three weeks with no games. So it was difficult to get the rhythm back,” Klopp said after the game.
A big factor that added to the difficulty of the two managers was the familiarity and the knowledge the two teams had of each other after regularly squaring off against each other in the Premier League.
There was little scope for a surprise element in terms of tactics. It was down to being more disciplined and not allowing the opponent to exploit the weaknesses of your team.
The surprise element though came in the form of an early goal arrived just after 30 seconds. It forced Tottenham to take the game to Liverpool who could then adopt a more measured approach.
The pre-match tactical talk was all about Liverpool imposing their style on the game and Tottenham adapting accordingly. Mauricio Pochettino’s side’s ability to switch tactical systems during games was perceived to be their greatest strength.
As things panned out it was pretty much the other way round. Liverpool adapted to the circumstances caused by the long break before the final and the unexpectedly early goal.
The Reds who are known to press opponents high up the pitch were happy to concede the ball to an extent in exchange for defensive stability.
Tottenham’s gameplan was obvious: to exploit the spaces behind Liverpool’s full-backs using Son Heung-min’s pace and Dele Alli’s guile. However with Liverpool limiting their attacking forays, especially on the flanks, Spurs attackers had to operate in tight spaces, something they didn’t seem to be prepared for.
The north-London side did ever so well in getting to the edge of the Liverpool penalty area before running out of ideas.
Credit for that also must go to the Liverpool midfield trio who showed great discipline in their performance. They sat in a flat line ahead of the defence line, thus congesting the pockets of spaces between Liverpool’s midfield and defensive lines. These are the areas where the likes of Alli and Christian Eriksen operate and cause opponents problems. Thanks to the Liverpool midfielders, they were denied that space and forced wide.
The tactic left the Reds’ front three on their own but it didn’t hurt Liverpool a lot as they were always ahead in the game thanks to the early goal.
The Van Dijk Wall
Liverpool’s greatest strength this season has been their backline led by the rock-solid Virgil van Dijk. The Dutchman was at his best once again on Saturday as he didn’t give Harry Kane an inch during the game. Klopp put his faith in his rearguard in this game and once again it delivered.
The following stat epitomises Van Dijk’s season.
Liverpool had to sacrifice the ball in this game. They had the second-lowest possession figures (35.4%) for a winner in the Champions League era with Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan being the team that won the Champions League final with the lowest ball possession (32%).
Incidentally, Klopp’s men became the first side since Mourinho’s Inter in 2010 to keep a clean sheet in the Champions League final.
In a choice between style and substance, Klopp chose the latter to finally change his fortunes in the biggest of games. It is perhaps the final frontier that Liverpool had to conquer under Klopp. And they did.
“In the finals in the past where we played better than our opponents, I sat here explaining how we lost the game. But today the players showed great resilience in the circumstances. They used all their experience and fought even without much fuel in the tank. Today was all about winning and we did it,” the German added after the game.
Klopp had said in 2016 that if he was given four years at Liverpool he would be sitting with a title besides him. After several heartbreaks and lessons learnt in the process, the German has lived up to his words much to the delight of his admirers.
As for his many critics, it’s time for introspection. Maybe taking a leaf from Klopp’s book would help.