Football Features

The XIs from Klopp’s first game show why Liverpool have left Spurs in the dust

By Steve Jennings

Published: 16:22, 8 October 2019

In October 2015, Jurgen Klopp took charge of Liverpool for the very first time, watching his new players draw 0-0 against Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur. Just under four years later, the two clubs went head-to-head in the Champions League final.

Spurs weren’t significantly outplayed by Liverpool in the final, but the fact Klopp’s side ran out 2-0 winners is perhaps indicative of the clubs’ very different trajectories. The Merseysiders have returned to Europe’s top table, while Spurs – despite their huge rise in stature under Pochettino – are currently floundering.

One look at the starting line-ups from Klopp’s first game in charge is enough to recognise why one of these clubs is flourishing and the other is fading. Liverpool have made drastic changes to a team that simply didn’t possess the quality to challenge for major trophies. Spurs, on the other hand, already boasted the bones of an elite team, but they have since failed to add any flesh.

Below, we’ve dived into those XIs from October 2015 and compared them to the current crop of players at each club to determine exactly why Liverpool have left Spurs in the dust.

Goalkeeper

One of the biggest upgrades Klopp has made over the last four years is between the sticks. Too many mistakes saw Simon Mignolet replaced by Loris Karius, who proved to be even more costly in the calamity department, with his two horrendous errors costing Liverpool Champions League glory in 2018.

Klopp knew he had to act and swiftly brought in Alisson Becker from Roma. The Brazilian has emerged as one of the Premier League’s best goalkeepers, rapidly overtaking Spurs captain Hugo Lloris among the world’s leading players in his position.

Sadly, Lloris is arguably more comparable to Karius than he is to Alisson these days. Numerous high-profile mistakes have blighted his otherwise impressive performances over the last couple of years, yet Spurs have opted against pursuing a short-term or long-term replacement. The Frenchman’s status as captain has likely played a part in that decision, but the goalkeeper is a position the club must now begin looking at, particularly with Lloris currently sidelined because of a dislocated elbow.

Defence

Full-backs

An accomplished utilisation of full-backs was once the cornerstone of a Pochettino side, culminating in the excellence of Danny Rose and Kyle Walker for two seasons at White Hart Lane. The pair often provided the majority of the attacking drive for Spurs, overlapping the forwards and causing havoc for the opposition.

It’s ironic, then, that full-back is now Pochettino’s biggest problem position at Spurs. While Walker is winning everything in sight for Manchester City, Spurs are rotating at right-back every week after the sale of the divisive Kieran Trippier. Serge Aurier remains disastrous defensively, while Juan Foyth and Kyle Walker-Peters aren’t yet trusted.

In contrast, there is a sense of continuity on the left, but Rose is not the player he once was and Ben Davies is no longer pushing his teammate to improve. Meanwhile, Klopp has replicated the Pochettino of old at Anfield, making his brilliant full-backs a vital component of Liverpool’s attacking play.

The Reds have come a long way in that department since the average displays of Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno, with both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson proving two of the continent’s most dangerous attacking full-backs.

Centre-backs

As recently as last season, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen’s partnership was considered one of the best in Europe. But a summer of discontent – Alderweireld was heavily linked with an exit while Vertonghen appeared to fall out with Pochettino – has affected their form this term.

Spurs have Foyth and Davinson Sanchez in reserve, and there is a possibility those players will grow into top-quality defenders. But centre-back is perhaps the main position in which Spurs have been made to pay for their transfer inactivity in the summer of 2018. With Vertonghen and Alderweireld approaching the end of their contracts, the Londoners should have signed a new, experienced centre-back to help transition the Belgians out.

And once again, Liverpool’s transfer activity makes a mockery of Spurs’ idleness. Klopp had to ride out some woeful defending in his early days at the club before Virgil van Dijk arrived and changed everything. The Dutchman has proven that sometimes spending big is the best way forward.

Midfield

Holding players

Pochettino settled on a central midfield pairing of Eric Dier and Mousa Dembele in 2015/16, though Dele Alli (more on him later) dropped deeper to play against Liverpool for the match in question as Dier was injured. Dembele and Alli were up against a midfield three that wasn’t capable of transitioning the way Klopp’s current trio is.

James Milner’s experience and professionalism means he is still an important part of the Liverpool squad, but an ageing Lucas Leiva was shipped out before Emre Can let his contract run down. Over at Spurs, Dembele was used until his legs couldn’t take it any more – the Belgian left for China in January – while a rusty Dier is now finding game time hard to come by having fallen behind the tidier Harry Winks.

Pochettino moved to resolve his midfield issues in the summer by breaking the club’s transfer record to sign Tanguy Ndombele, and the early signs are promising if a little inconsistent. A reliance on the useful yet limited Moussa Sissoko continues to both help and hinder Spurs. Indeed, yet more movement in the market is required for Pochettino to catch up with Liverpool in central midfield.

Attacking midfielders

Further forward in the more attacking midfield roles, Spurs are beginning to stagnate. Alli’s injury struggles have halted his development, while Christian Eriksen’s form has fallen off a cliff after a summer of transfer speculation.

Pochettino still trusts Erik Lamela to step in when necessary, but the fact the injury-prone Argentinian is still at the club is emblematic of a lack of change and progress. Summer arrival Giovani Lo Celso could make an impact when he returns from a hip injury. A less predictable form of creativity is required if Spurs are to get back to their best.

Conversely, Klopp transformed Liverpool by dispensing with traditional attacking midfielders. Philippe Coutinho’s sale gave Klopp one fewer attacking option, but it resulted in the forming of a regular, consistent front three. The German can also choose to throw in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Xherdan Shaqiri when he does want more of a link between the holding midfielders and the forwards.

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Forwards

On the face of it, up front is where Spurs’ lack of major change has been a positive rather than a negative. Despite a few worrying ankle injuries, Harry Kane remains one of the most reliable goalscorers in the game, and his leadership qualities have only gotten better since he began leading the line.

Son Heung-min’s improvement has made Spurs even more potent in the final third and Lucas Moura’s capacity to pop up with important goals has given the squad strength in depth. Compared to Liverpool, though, Pochettino does not have a recognised starting unit to turn to week in, week out.

Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane have formed one of Europe’s best goalscoring tridents. Their interplay makes all three players undroppable, while Pochettino is often switching between attackers, still searching for the most effective relationships in his front line.

It’s possible Spurs’ summer pursuit of Paulo Dybala was a strategy to replicate Liverpool. A Son-Kane-Dybala front three would have softened the blow of losing Eriksen had the Dane left, and may have even transformed Spurs in the same way Liverpool flourished after selling Coutinho.

Ultimately, it’s yet another example of Liverpool acting on their problems while Spurs stood still, all of which has resulted in the clubs experiencing very different trajectories.