“I am the wrong person to ask about [it] because I don’t like this kind of football,” said Jurgen Klopp. It was n’t his style of him: low block, three at the back, which became five, barely a third of possession with a team who, the Liverpool manager was keen to point out, had world-class players. He claimed he respected Tottenham but his comments from him felt damning. “I cannot coach it,” Klopp concluded.
Antonio Conte could. “He makes it very, very, very easy for you on the pitch,” said Ben Davies who snuffed out Mohamed Salah on the Egyptian’s 250th Liverpool game. Tottenham’s draw at Anfield altered the equation in the title race and the top-four battle alike. Above all, however, it felt a triumph of Conte’s puritanism. Just when it seemed as though Liverpool might compile the greatest season of any English club, and among the best of any club, along came Conte, a world-class manager with an odd hybrid of superstar and more prosaic players. “Our gameplan was perfect,” reflected Heung-Min Son, his scorer.
Part of the paradox of Conte is that he invariably calls for an influx of expensive signings, forever giving the impression he is unhappy with the players he has, yet some of the greatest examples of his expertise come with more unglamorous figures he has inherited. Perhaps Davies will provide a case in point. A perpetually angry manager was, the Wales defender reported, “very calm” in the dressing room afterwards. Conte had coaxed and coached him. “He is a very detail-oriented manager,” he said. “You know your roles, you know your responsibilities, if this man is running here you know where you need to be, if you’re defending in this zone you know where you need to be. The level of detail he works to is incredible.”
Klopp’s irritation reflected the immediate sense that the Premier League crown is bound for Manchester City. Perhaps they were cumulative, a consequence of the way Everton and Villarreal had also come to Anfield to frustrate. Yet there was a relevance to one of his pointed comments from him. “The gameplan works for these games,” he said. Conte has proof his counter-attacking can: he won at the Etihad Stadium when City had 71 percent of possession but just four shots on target while Tottenham scored three times.
Lads, it’s not Tottenham: not in the way Sir Alex Ferguson used to deem them soft. Nor, going back further, to the historic image of Spurs. “The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning,” said Danny Blanchflower, captain of the 1961 Double winners. “It is nothing of the kind.” Try telling that to Conte.
But perhaps, instead, there is a new form of Spursiness: Tottenham are alone in facing both City and Liverpool this season and losing to neither. They have taken eight points against the superpowers – it can still feel a surprise that Nuno Espirito Santo procured three of them, providing a false start to a wretched reign – but may finish below Arsenal, who have the wrong sort of 100 percent record in the league against the top two. Spurs faced both on their epic Champions League run of 2019. Now they may not meet among the European elite for a while longer.
It is because Conte’s gameplan has been both spectacularly successful and then strangely sterile against lesser lights, in the sort of matches where, as Klopp hinted, the onus is on them to be proactive. They can hark back to February’s dismal defeat at Burnley: 66 percent of possession, two shots on target and no goals. Thereafter, Conte showed he could be a pragmatic entertainer as Tottenham were prolific. Then, suddenly, they failed to record a shot on target against Brighton and Brentford, dropping five points, taking their destiny out of their own hands. The North London derby has long looked potentially decisive. “Thursday is huge,” Davies said. “We know what we have to do going into it. There’s no hiding from that. We have to go out there and put in a similar performance to today.”
But also different: it may require the same attention to detail, the same show of Son’s potency, further evidence of Conte’s excellence but, as Klopp hinted, a rearguard action needs to be traded for something more progressive. Whatever Conte devises, it will surely be more compelling that Nuno’s inconsistent blueprint for the season’s first meeting with Arsenal. But the danger is that Spurs’ season is defined not by an ability to compete with the rest, but by taking too few points from the rest.