Manchester City dominated the domestic season with football of classical beauty: pure, cool, austere, beautifully imagined and immaculately executed. Liverpool went the other way – they lit up the footballing year with an approach based on romantic beauty.
It has been wildly emotional, prone to devastating mood swings, as fallible as humanity and packed with warmth. Gloriously and quite unexpectedly, this approach has taken them to the Champions League final in Kiev, where they play serial champions Real Madrid.
On their way to the final, Liverpool played Manchester City off the park home and away, and did so by surfing a tsunami of emotion.
In the semifinals they beat Roma by the odd goal in 13. This, then, is not an ordinary football team.
They are managed by Jürgen Klopp: never make eye contact with this man unless you are in urgent need of a hug. He entered the angst-ridden Premier League from the German Bundesliga and seems to be having the time of his life. Feuds with fellow managers are not his gig.
The traditional tactic of the great managers is fear. They want players to fear the boss far more than any rival. They create an atmosphere of terror: they catch the players off their guard, never letting them take a thing for granted.
It was the method of Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson, and today is embodied by Jose Mourinho. Klopp makes all this look oddly old-fashioned. After all, it’s hard to bully multimillionaires: if you alienate a top player these days, he’ll shrug his shoulders and go elsewhere.
A more co-operative approach is required – and no one puts that into action more obviously than Klopp. He’s the manager you’d choose to play for if you wanted to enjoy your sporting life.
All the same, it’s a highly purposeful form of fun. It’s never messing about. Perhaps enjoyment is the missing ingredient in 21st-century football, and Klopp’s greatest skill is to bring it back.
Felipe Scolari managed Brazil to victory in the World Cup of 2002. When he went on to manage Portugal, he said, “My priority is to ensure that players feel more amateur than professional. Thirty to 40 years ago the effort was the other way round. Now there is so much professionalism, we have to revert to returning players to like the game, love it, do it with joy.”
And that’s what Liverpool can look like – even in defence. For them, defence is not primarily about drills and discipline: it begins in the opposition half, when Liverpool challenge for the ball again and again, harassing the opposition and spoiling their attempts to build up brilliant passing moves from the back.
The tactic is called gegenpress and it looks like chaos: the team seem to be mad red molecules in the Hadron Collider. Liverpool in full harassment mode look wonderfully exuberant, and when the opposition gets rattled, it fills Liverpool with a sense of joyous power.
It was the tactic that drove Manchester City first to distraction and then to defeat. Real Madrid will provide a different threat, mostly because they simply expect to win: they are football’s Lord Snooty and his pals. They tend to have their opponents one down before kick-off – at least in the Champions League. So Klopp and Liverpool must rattle them. Liverpool must make Real Madrid believe that football is a thing of joy all right – but only if you are wearing a Liverpool shirt.
Champions League Final: Real Madrid v Liverpool Sat 7pm (k/o 7.45pm) BT Sport 2, 10.30pm (highlights) ITV, 7.45pm 5 Live.
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