Champions League final: Guillem Balague on Klopp & Pochettino preparations
Guillem Balague is the host of BBC Radio 5 live’s Football Daily podcast on Thursdays covering European football. Here he reveals what he learned from recent meetings with Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino.
On 17 October 2015, Jurgen Klopp took his seat in the dugout for the first time as Liverpool manager. The venue: White Hart Lane. The opponent: Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur.
BBC Sport’s chief football writer Phil McNulty wrote after the game: “The styles may be different – one stone-faced and suited, although occasionally highly agitated, the other in a tracksuit and all animated body language – but Spurs boss Pochettino and Liverpool counterpart Klopp have much in common.”
Fast forward four seasons to this Saturday and the common thread is that both will be leading their teams out at Atletico Madrid’s gleaming Wanda Metropolitano stadium, where they will be locking horns for the 10th time in four seasons, on this occasion for the richest and most coveted prize in European club football.
They are two of the most highly regarded and deeply respected coaches in world football, yet neither has lifted a trophy since their arrival into English football. That will change on Saturday in Madrid.
In the build-up to the final, I travelled to meet both men, who are preparing for the game in very different ways. Here is what I learned from spending time with them.
Small tweaks shaped Liverpool’s season
Much has changed at Liverpool since Klopp’s first match four years ago. But perhaps the biggest transformation has happened in the past 10 months.
This is a Liverpool side that identified before the start of the season they were going to become more and more difficult to maintain their relentless pressing game. Teams had rumbled them and were beginning to play deeper and deeper – and not just the mid to lower-table sides, but also the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United.
There had to be a different way, not least because their style came with an exhaustion that inevitably manifested itself at the sharp end of the season. Klopp and his team realised they weren’t going to get a second season with a team that surprised everybody by blitzing them, as they had done in 2017-18. Some extreme pressure was going to have to be sacrificed for a little more control.
On the back of the World Cup came much greater attention to creating and scoring from set-pieces and encouraging quick thinking and initiative in such situations. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s corner to set up Divock Origi’s goal in the semi-final against Barcelona was the perfect example of this.
Indeed, the stunning impact made by both Alexander-Arnold and fellow full-back Andrew Robertson is part of a process that has been a fundamental part of the plan to optimise the increased possession they now enjoy.
That evolution has led to an added maturity which was evident in the second leg against Barcelona at Anfield. The old Liverpool would have gone on a relentless, gung-ho mission in search of the fourth goal to take the lead in the tie. This Liverpool took stock of the situation, dropped deeper and had a breather, confident in the knowledge the winner would eventually arrive.
A positive attitude goes a long way for Tottenham
It has been a year of contrasting emotions for Pochettino, and one that could end on a career-defining high.
But there were plenty of times when reaching this final seemed distinctly unlikely.
Set aside the fact they repeatedly faced elimination in the group stages and were on the brink of going out to both Manchester City and Ajax in the knockout rounds, other factors have also threatened their progress.
It is now 16 months since they signed a player – Lucas Moura for £25.5m in January 2018 – and they were depleted this season for a variety of reasons.
Mousa Dembele was allowed to leave for China in January, as it was felt the midfielder had peaked and it was time for both parties to move on.
There have been crucial injuries, not least to captain Harry Kane, and, of course, all this has been set against a backdrop of stadium uncertainty, which meant they played most of this campaign’s home matches at Wembley, sometimes in front of fewer than 30,000 fans.
But Pochettino has turned all the negatives into positives. He has a glass-half-full outlook and, along with his staff, set about creating a siege mentality. His positive mantra proved to the players that together, anything was possible.
The emergence of Son Heung-min and Moura as key players during the Champions League run is evidence of that – other teams may have wilted without their talismanic striker. Moussa Sissoko is another who has stepped up, taking stock of what was being learned in training and applying that to the pitch, including his star performance in Amsterdam, where he played in three different positions.
It is a mentality and a philosophy which was summed up when I spoke to Pochettino after the emotion of the semi-final second leg against Ajax had finally died down.
“We played with that big heart that Tottenham have – that was more than tactics,” he said.
“To make the efforts, to run together, to try to defend, to try to be solid, to attack, to give our best.
“I think it’s a massive example for us to take into a final against someone like Liverpool, where we must think about tactics but also about playing with our hearts.”
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One final, two very different approaches to preparation
Just as they did in preparation for their final against Real Madrid last year, Liverpool have once again ensconced themselves in a hotel in Estepona, only 15 minutes away from the impressive Marbella Football Centre on Spain’s southern coast.
A person of a more superstitious nature than Klopp might have opted for a change in routine bearing in mind what occurred in Kiev at last year’s final, and the misfortune that affected them in that match.
However, the German coach appreciates the luxury and magnificent facilities available to him at the venue, not to mention the obvious climate-orientation benefits. He has been coming to the area for his teams to recharge batteries since his time at Mainz.
He wants to take the players away from the demands of a final: everybody wants a piece of you, friends and family want tickets, there is perhaps not enough time in training to reinforce messages and ideas without distractions.
But in Estepona, sessions have been intense, everything has been discussed and distractions have been minimal.
Pochettino’s approach is very different. For the Argentine, there is no place like home. That is probably not surprising for a man who knows more than most about extensive pre-match stays at training camps. After all, he spent time as a player under the tutelage of the detail-obsessed Marcelo Bielsa with Newells Old Boys and also the Argentina national side. Bielsa did not allow his players to ring home more than once a day. Long queues were formed in front of the only phone available in some of the residences where they stayed.
That isolation is not ideal, Pochettino thought at the time.
To this day, he firmly believes players and coaches alike are far better off mentally if allowed to spend as long as possible close to their nearest and dearest rather than in a group a long way from home.
It helps, of course, that the training facilities available to them at their state-of-the-art training ground in Enfield are second to none. The weather leading up to the final has also been kind. Pochettino has been impressed by the intensity of his men. They are prepared, he feels.
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Sometimes, football is ‘magic’
For all the time spent on the training ground preparing for this final, it escapes neither manager that sometimes luck can be the vital ingredient.
How on earth did Barcelona not score a fourth with the last kick of the game in the Nou Camp when Ousmane Dembele chose to shoot rather than present Lionel Messi with a tap-in?
What if Hugo Lloris had not saved at full stretch from Hakim Ziyech in Amsterdam, seconds before Moura’s decisive 96th-minute strike? What if the ball had not even reached the Brazilian, via Dele Alli’s flicked pass.
“I don’t know if the ball was for Lucas but Danny Rose asked me afterwards: ‘Gaffer, did you think the ball from Dele was for Lucas or for Fernando [Llorente]?’ I said it was for Lucas. ‘Hmm, no way,’ he said. You know the touch was unbelievable when you watch it, but you don’t know if he saw Lucas or not. But football is like this. Football sometimes is magic.”
For Klopp, it has been attitude as much as ability that he thinks has driven Liverpool to this point, allowing them to ride their luck at key moments.
“We are proper competitors, that’s very important,” he says. “That’s the only reason why we are here now.”
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What next? An Anfield evolution and building Pochettino’s second ‘great’ team
Thankfully, for one of the two coaches at least, the idiotic and ill-informed “what’s he won in England?” codswallop often spouted – frequently by those who should know better – is going to come to an end.
One of the best coaches in the world is finally going to get the title he deserves – someone’s zero in the trophy column is going to go. We should start thinking differently about success – has either of these two ‘failed’ this season if they walk away empty-handed?
Whatever happens, one question will inevitably follow: what next?
The rumours say Klopp could well look at extending his contract beyond 2022. He is so comfortable at the moment that there doesn’t seem to be any point in thinking of any possible change, even though Real Madrid president Florentino Perez is an admirer. It is difficult to see how, for someone who appreciates the process of creating, life at the Bernabeu could be more attractive than what he is building with Liverpool. The project continues.
However, the future of Pochettino is less certain, with much of it centred around the “let’s see what happens” line and an interview he gave before the second-leg fightback against Ajax.
After that match – and with speculation about his future the subject of much debate – Pochettino said: “There were two different feelings mixed in the same moment after the semi-final.
“Reaching the Champions League final is the end of an amazing chapter for the club. But, at the same time, the moment you reach the final, it’s like: ‘I want to be involved in the next chapter of the club.’ After four years, we are now consistently in the Champions League and that was the dream for everyone.”
Win or lose, after this final I think he, along with his tried and trusted team, will start to look at trying to create the second great team of the Pochettino era. Work on that starts in the summer.
But that is from Sunday. First, time to enjoy a final this year’s epic tournament deserves.
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