Let’s not gild the lily: the 2019 Champions League final was a clunker. The intense pre-match excitement raised expectations beyond a level that most games could satiate, but this was a particularly bad example of a season-closing fixture which historically disappoints as a spectacle (between 1971 and 1995, for example, only four of these finals even managed an equaliser).
But as coaches, we’re not (always) the same as fans. We’re watching for intel, seeing what we can learn about the game. And while neither Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp nor Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino will ever hold this game up as the finest exemplar of their managerial philosophies, we among the millions who watched can learn a few broader lessons. Here are some suggestions that could be transposed to your own coaching career – for big final and run-of-the-mill fixture alike.
Klopp had lost six successive finals, including two Champions League showpieces, and had just seen his side secure 97 Premier League points yet still come runners-up. With customary comic honesty, the genial German deflated the issue by smilingly noting that his cup final defeats made him the “world record-holder in winning semi-finals”.
If there is an elephant in your dressing room – perhaps a fear of big games, a certain opponent or even given climatic conditions – address it. If it exists in your players’ minds, it needs to be slain. Deride the elephant. Liverpool’s players weren’t scared of history repeating, because their manager demonstrated he wasn’t.
With Harry Kane returning from injury, Tottenham’s big pre-match question was whether Pochettino would ease him in from the bench or start his talisman. He decided to go for it, and even though the gamble didn’t come off – a frustrated Kane was excellently marshalled by Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip – the Argentinian gaffer had very good reasons to gamble.
Firstly, the presence of a player like Kane can act as a huge psychological boost for team-mates. Instead of holding him back, Poch decided to trust him. This had the knock-on effect of benching semi-final hero Lucas Moura, one of those difficult decisions coaches have to take, but the Brazilian speedster was always likely to be a more effective substitute against wearying defenders than Kane, who has assiduously polished his game in almost every respect but will never have truly fearsome pace.
More broadly, coaches must endeavour to eliminate the voices wondering What Might Have Been. Had Poch fought shy of unleashing his star man, and Spurs gone behind, many would have asked why he wasn’t bolder. The Argentine is far too savvy to waste much time wondering if he should have done differently.
Liverpool were perhaps lucky to get a penalty within the first 23 seconds but they made their own luck by winning their battles beforehand. As the ball pinged around the central third, Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Virgil van Dijk all won aerial duels against their opposite numbers – eventually allowing Henderson to play the ball forward for Sadio Mane to win a cheap handball off Moussa Sissoko’s curiously flailing arm. In the grand sweep of history, winning these second-by-second battles can go unnoticed – but if Liverpool hadn’t out-battled Tottenham from the start, they wouldn’t have had the ball to play it forward and take the lead.
In the yawning three-week build-up Pochettino had worked on mental strength and his team needed it when they went behind before the executive seats had even filled up. Teams have to be ready for adversity, and after Mo Salah put Liverpool ahead Spurs certainly didn’t fold: indeed they immediately started to dominate possession, even if they lacked penetration. There’s no point pretending your players will never face a tricky situation – bad things happen to good teams, too – so they need to be prepared for it.
Pochettino is notably adept at switching formation, including mid-game, in order to probe opponents for weaknesses – or to reduce their strengths. Eschewing the back three he’d played previously against Liverpool, Pochettino selected a 4-2-3-1 which let Son Heung-min drift into areas behind the rampaging Reds right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold, meaning the young Scouser had to contain his usual enthusiasm which has brought him 16 assists.
Pochettino’s midfield then switched between that system and a diamond, and even personnel within that formation – sometimes Harry Winks would sit, sometimes he would push on. It all added up to an uncertainty that denied fluency to Liverpool and particularly Alexander-Arnold. Although the lifelong Red may have eventually had the best night of his life, he certainly didn’t have the best game of it.
The main reason the match disappointed was that neither of these two attractive attacking teams ever got into their rhythm on the front foot. Liverpool’s early goal meant they didn’t have to force the game by enforcing Klopp’s gegenpressing in 30-degree heat and choking humidity.
Instead, they kept a strong shape, pressing at the right time (and always together rather than individually) and working hard for each other. It sounds almost fatuous for a Champions League final but those teamwork qualities are what kept Spurs at bay.
Pochettino’s side can’t have expected to have as much possession as they did, but where they fell down was an inability to stretch Liverpool’s compact shape with cross-field balls to their high full-backs, who were often left alone on the opposite wing, waving distantly like tourists on a cruise ship. Although Kane came deep to spray a particularly adept cross-field zinger, team-mates like Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen too often failed to notice, contemplate or complete the right pass. That meant Liverpool found it easier to maintain shape, keep harrying and keep nicking the ball back. You may not be able to do what you want, but you can always do what you should.
At the final whistle, having berated his substitutes for removing their tracksuit tops ready to celebrate, Klopp’s first reaction was to find Pochettino and genuinely, extensively comfort him, empathising with the manager who lost at the last, as Klopp had done himself so many times. As a previous runner-up with Liverpool in the Champions League, Europa League, League Cup and Premier League, he had tasted the bitterness of falling just short. Maybe you haven’t, and maybe you never will, but you can learn from his class.
It may be tempting to get swept up in the moment you have worked so hard for, or even to indulge in a little schadenfreude at the loser’s misfortune, but these things come round fast in football. Any arrogance will be seized upon as motivation in the inevitable rematch. And besides, football isn’t all about winning, and the false dichotomy of glory or death. Have a heart for those who fell just short. Next time it might be you. That uncertainty is one of football’s greatest gifts. Be respectful to your opponents, and the football will come first, as it always, always should.
Gary Parkinson is a journalist and coach. garyparkinsonmedia.com
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