Since 2009 it’s been relatively clear who the new Big Four in England are. Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal have kept their places in the elite group which they’ve enjoyed for some time. They’re joined by new-rich club Manchester City who have replaced Liverpool after the Reds fell victim to the double curse of playing in a smaller city and having a smaller, older stadium. Those two factors have limited the Reds’ financial power and made it more difficult to compete with their wealthier rivals in Manchester and London.
That said, this new Big Four has proven to be far more vulnerable than the older Big Four of the 2000s. From the 2003-04 season (the first time Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool all qualified for the Champions League) to 2008-09, only one Premier League team other than those four clubs qualified for Europe’s top competition—Everton in 2004-05. Even then, Liverpool still qualified for Europe by winning the competition in their famous Miracle in Istanbul victory over Milan. That’s six consecutive seasons of the same four teams going to the Champions League.
In contrast, in the six seasons since City’s ascent began in 2009-10 with Europa League qualification, the new Big Four has missed out on top four placement three times: City in 2009-10, Chelsea in 2011-12, and Manchester United in 2013-14. Like Liverpool, Chelsea still qualified for the Champions League as the defending champions. Even so, the fact that Arsenal is the only member of the new big four to not miss Europe (and they did nearly did on two separate occasions with Spurs finishing only a point behind them) says something about the vulnerability of this new English elite.
Liverpool already is Tottenham. But that’s a good thing. Really.
And that brings us to Jamie Carragher’s recent comments that Liverpool is “in danger” of becoming Tottenham if they do not arrest the slide they are currently on. Carragher obviously meant this to be a devastating insult, but in his (clumsy) attempt at making a strong point the ex-Liverpool man actually made an interesting point: It’s not that Liverpool is in danger of becoming Tottenham. It’s that Liverpool already is like Tottenham and, in hiring Jurgen Klopp, they have taken a major step toward looking even more like Spurs. And here’s the thing—that is a very, very good thing if you’re a Liverpool fan.
If you look at those three times someone other than the Big Four finished in the top four, two of those times it was Tottenham cracking the top four. The first time is somewhat flukey since it came at the beginning of Liverpool’s descent and City’s rise, allowing Spurs to almost stumble into fourth by default. (Although even there Tottenham needed late season wins against Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City to finish in fourth.)
But the second time is more significant. That came in 2011-12 when a team managed by a British manager featuring four attacking stars in a fluid, counter-attacking system took England by storm. Up till the team’s 5-0 pasting of Newcastle in February, that Tottenham team looked capable of making a challenge not only for top four, but for the title.
As it happened they fizzled out in the season’s second half and finished in fourth, one point behind third place Arsenal. Through a cruel twist of fate, however, the club missed out on the Champions League after Chelsea defeated Bayern Munich in the Champions League finale in Munich. (A sign that the soccer gods hate you: The only way for you to get screwed is if an English team wins a cup final on penalties against a German team in Munich. And that’s what actually ends up happening.)
Two seasons later, Brendan Rodgers Liverpool would adopt this basic blueprint of Redknapp’s Spurs but would sustain their torrid form for far longer, culminating in an agonizingly close flirtation with the title. But the basic approach is eerily similar:
- Egotistical English manager whose ego far surpasses his actual accomplishments: Check
- A deep-lying playmaker who, earlier in his career, played in an advanced role and whose long passing knits the side together: Check
- An anarchic number 10 whose unpredictable style creates major problems for the opposition defense: Check
- An injury-prone attacking player with world-class pace and deceptively good finishing ability who carries the team for long chunks of time: Check
- An all-action striker whose character issues have haunted him for much of his career but who, on his day, is one of the finest center forwards in Europe: Check
The Klopp hire shows that Liverpool and Tottenham have the exact same idea about how to overcome their financial handicap.
After the 2011-12 season it became clear that Harry Redknapp had taken Tottenham as far as he could. Luka Modric was set to leave the club that summer and everyone knew Redknapp would not find a suitable replacement. The same problem loomed whenever Gareth Bale would force an exit. So Daniel Levy made an abrupt turn. He shifted from having a British boss whose side looked most comfortable when playing on the counter to hiring a continental manager known for a high-pressing style that, he hoped, would be unique enough that it would give Spurs a special advantage and help them compete against wealthier rivals.
That coach, of course, was Andre Villas-Boas. But the other two leading candidates for the role were similar managers—Swansea City’s Brendan Rodgers and Everton’s Roberto Martinez. From that point on it was clear that Levy wanted to implement a more European style at the club which, he hoped, could help the club continue to punch above their weight. British counter-attacking got the club to the top four, but now they were after more. And in AVB’s first year they almost achieved it. Unfortunately, the sale of Bale decimated the Spurs attack. The underlying numbers were still decent early in AVB’s second year, but late in the fall after the defeat to Newcastle Villas-Boas made several changes that made the side less solid defensively. Those changes result in a series of devastating losses that, somewhat fittingly, culminated in AVB’s Spurs losing to Liverpool’s take on Redknapp’s Spurs. Villas-Boas was out.
But the following summer when it came time to appoint a permanent successor, Levy never considered going with caretaker boss and Redknapp-clone Tim Sherwood. Instead, he hired another continental manager known for a high-pressing system in Southampton boss Mauricio Pochettino. There were two key differences, however, between Pochettino and Villas-Boas. First, while Villas-Boas had a history of demanding a large transfer kitty to build “his” team, Pochettino had a reputation for working with the players currently at the club and promoting academy graduates to the senior team. Second, while AVB had come to be known as one of the worst man managers in European football, Pochettino was known for being upbeat, positive, and placing a high emphasis on the mentality of the team. For a club as neurotic and broken as Spurs, this trait in particular would be vital.
That said, the important thing is probably not that Pochettino is different than AVB but that in many ways he is actually very similar to AVB. In hiring Pochettino Levy announced that he still believed in AVB’s general tactical philosophy; he just didn’t believe in AVB.
And this now brings us to Liverpool’s decision to hire Klopp. If you focus exclusively on Klopp’s record and assume that the Reds hired him simply because he was the best man available you’ll have missed the point. Much like Spurs, Liverpool have learned in painful ways about the limitations of a British manager whose teams look their best when playing on the counter.1)Yes, Rodgers is known for a more pro-active possession-based approach. At Swansea that was certainly his calling card. But he never really implemented that system with much success at Anfield. His Liverpool teams always looked most dangerous when playing on the counter.
Like Tottenham, Liverpool had been gutted as two of their four best attacking players from their best season recent campaign left the club in subsequent summers. And now, like Tottenham, the club is hiring a very specific sort of continental manager in hopes of turning things around and chasing down their financially superior rivals.
Jurgen Klopp is, obviously, a far more accomplished manager than Mauricio Pochettino. By any reasonable standard, Klopp’s is the more impressive name. But note the similarities: Both managers play an extremely aggressive 4-2-3-1 that emphasizes winning the ball as far up the pitch as possible and attacking as quickly as possible. Both are legendary man managers who have worked with difficult characters. Both are known for promoting promising talent from within the club. Both emphasize the importance of belief and character in the team and don’t mind exiling talented players who don’t fit their philosophy. And both possess a remarkable confidence that should guide them through the darker hours of working at clubs in the odd position of being well ahead of most their domestic foes but well behind the four wealthiest clubs.
“Becoming” Tottenham? No. Liverpool already is like Tottenham. To be sure, they are a wealthier, more lucrative Tottenham with a far larger trophy cabinet, but the similarities in how the two clubs are tackling their many disadvantages when set next to the new big four are unmistakable. And while it may be Daniel Levy and Spurs who have developed the system, perhaps the superior resources of Liverpool will be sufficient to perfect the system. We’ll soon find out.
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|1.||↑||Yes, Rodgers is known for a more pro-active possession-based approach. At Swansea that was certainly his calling card. But he never really implemented that system with much success at Anfield. His Liverpool teams always looked most dangerous when playing on the counter.|