Klopp and Pochettino go back to English basics in final that fails to fire

The Champions League final carried echoes of the scrappy showpieces at which English teams triumphed in 70s and 80s

For Liverpool this has been a season of two extraordinary statistics: 11.7mm and 64%. It was the former that denied them a goal (albeit a freakish one via John Stones and Ederson) away to Manchester City in January, and it was with the latter they won the Champions League. Neither makes much sense. That games can be swayed by margins as fine as that defies comprehension. But it feels at least as incredible that Liverpool could win a Champions League final with 64% pass accuracy.

Liverpool worry about pass accuracy far less than many sides. Their pass completion rate of 79.9% in the Champions League was the 21st highest of the 32 teams who reached the group stage and beyond this season. They are happy to take risks. They play at high tempo. They are exceptionally good at winning back the ball, which possibly means they protect possession less assiduously than certain sides. They get the ball forward quickly.

Speed is prized over precision – or, at least, that is how they used to be; that is how the template tells us it should be. This season, though, Liverpool have been notably more controlled. In the league their pass completion was 84.4% as opposed to 83.8% last season. They have not pressed so hard. Regains in the opposition’s final third are down almost 9%. Passing sequences of 10 or more resulting in a shot are up 21.5%. They have not gone quite so hell for leather.

Neither mode, neither the tumultuous storming of the past nor the more deliberate recent style, was much in evidence on Saturday. Liverpool’s greatest triumph in 14 years, the win that ended Jürgen Klopp’s run of six successive final defeats, that ensured this stirring period in the club’s history would not be characterised by near misses, came with 64% pass completion. To put that in context, that is 0.1% more than Cardiff over the course of this season, and less than any other Premier League club. It is also 7% less than Red Star Belgrade, who had the lowest pass completion of any side from the Champions League group stage onwards.

The statistic tallies with the general impression of the final as a bitty affair when neither side produced anything like their best form and perhaps in part explains Klopp’s reluctance to discuss the mechanics, his laughing dismissal of concerns that Liverpool had not really played all that well. Sometimes resilience, digging in, is what it takes, and Liverpool did that.

Quite why it was such a scrappy game is another issue. It can be an inevitable danger when two sides who like to press meet: they end up locked in a tussle when there is insufficient time for creativity. Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino have, in their own ways, reawakened the spirit that underlay English club’s dominance of Europe in the late 1970s and early 80s; it is unsurprising then that they should also produce a final to evoke memories of those attritional days when it felt that every final finished 1-0.

So, too, would this one but for Divock Origi’s late goal, one that seemed almost a pastiche of the most mocking interpretations of the English game, a corner bobbing about, bouncing off head after head before falling for him to slam his finish into the bottom corner.

Spurs v Liverpool
Liverpool’s Divock Origi makes it 2-0 – a goal ‘that seemed almost a pastiche of the most mocking interpretations of the English game’. Photograph: Manu Fernández/AP

Yet that is not an adequate explanation why this was such a scruffy game. It was the 10th meeting of Klopp and Pochettino and the majority have been entertaining, high-quality affairs. Perhaps it was tension, perhaps the heat or the three-week break since either side last played – something that also seemed to hamper the first half of the Europa League final.

There is also a sense of familiarity. These are two managers who know each other well, who know how to interfere with each other’s plans and who have had three weeks to plot doing so. Klopp was always going to start with a 4-3-3 but it was telling that Pochettino eschewed the back three he had deployed from the start at Anfield in favour of a 4-2-3-1. That pushed Son Heung-min tight against Trent Alexander-Arnold and his efforts perhaps explain why Alexander-Arnold completed eight of his 28 passes and one of eight crosses.

In a sense, though, once Liverpool had gone ahead through the penalty, that mattered less than his defensive performance. Not that it was policy but the disjointedness of the game ended up suiting Liverpool.

“Something changed in the world of football,” Klopp said in February after the 0-0 draw at Old Trafford in February, which came five days after the goalless draw at home to Bayern Munich. “Everyone adapted to it and we have to make sure we adapt.” This is not a new defensive age – far from it – but by discovering a capacity to resist, and by pairing central defenders in Virgil van Dijk and Joël Matip who excel at the traditional virtues of defending – heading, marking, tackling – at least as much as playing the ball out, Liverpool have discovered a competitive advantage.

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