They’ve managed 381 games between them with their current clubs and won zero trophies, and yet the clash between Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino this weekend is quite rightly being hailed as a meeting of two of the greatest managerial minds of the modern game.
Tottenham host Liverpool at Wembley for the early kick-off on Saturday, and if last season’s encounters are anything to go by, we should be in for a treat. If either team really clicks into gear, they could demolish the other as Spurs did against the Reds in their 4-1 meeting last October; if it’s a more even contest, we could get a 2-2 thriller like the one we had at Anfield. Both sides are sufficiently drilled to perfection and relentless in their approach that just one player having an off-day, or an off-moment, could be enough to turn a game between two even sides into a bloodbath.
Whatever the result, one certainty is that both managers will end the game perfectly comfortable in the safety of their job – indeed, that could likely be applied to both whatever happens to both clubs come May.
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Ask most neutrals – perhaps even some brutally honest Manchester United fans – and they’d take the evolution provided by Klopp and Pochettino over the revolution of someone like Jose Mourinho, a trophy-winning machine in an era where actual silverware is no longer the most valuable currency.
While the Special One boasted of three trophies in his first season at Old Trafford, and is all too eager to remind us that he has three Premier League title wins to his name (more than any other manager in the division put together, you know), one increasingly senses the modern football fan can’t be bought off that easily.
Perhaps it’s the rise of social media, or the overall higher standard of punditry, particularly from the likes of Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, but the modern fan can see past a team that is winning but not going anywhere.
So too, and perhaps just as crucially, can the people behind the scenes: a manager like Pochettino is an absolute dream for Spurs chairman Daniel Levy. In the last few years the club have spent far less than their Premier League rivals but managed to compete, with the Argentine showing a real knack for developing youth and prioritising familiarity and team spirit in an era when spending is king. The north London side did not make a single signing this summer, but there are few complaints now, with the team winning three out of four at the start of the season, including outplaying Manchester United with a 3-0 win at Old Trafford.
Some have criticised Pochettino for talking down trophies and for not appearing to give his all in the domestic cup competitions, but there is something altogether more impressive in the works at Tottenham than a simple FA Cup here or there could provide.
After all, with the 24/7 coverage of the game now, past glories become yesterday’s news that much quicker. Wigan might’ve won the FA Cup final in 2013 and provided their fans with one of their best days out, but the team have slumped down the divisions since then. Louis van Gaal might’ve guided United to success in the competition in 2016, but news of his sacking pretty much filtered through before he got his hands on the trophy. At last season’s final, there was very much the agreement that United and Chelsea were playing for a mere consolation prize – with even victory for Antonio Conte not saving him from the axe a couple of months later – the only surprise being that it actually took so long. Two trophies in just two seasons – more than Klopp and Pochettino between them in a much shorter time period, weren’t enough to save a man who clearly demanded more in the transfer market instead of working with what he had, resulting in some uninspiring performances that were fooling no one – the team was going backwards.
Neither Chelsea nor United had had a good season and winning the cup final wasn’t going to change that. Liverpool, by contrast, finished empty-handed again, extending their trophyless run to six years, but few could argue that huge progress was made by Klopp’s side as they embarked on a thrilling run in the Champions League, suffering in the end a pretty unlucky defeat to Real Madrid in the final.
In an era where the past fades so quickly, fans want to be entertained and want the sense of an exciting future just around the corner. Club owners know this and look to sell this, and so the cycle continues.
It’s also becoming something of an accepted truth that in each major league in Europe one or two teams pull away due to the incredible financial inequality at play, with Manchester City really asserting their dominance last season by putting together a squad that left everyone else trailing in their wake. To be even competing at all with a side like that, for Tottenham in particular, is recognised as a big achievement. Perhaps with football less even than it used to be, supporters are increasingly minded to accept the fact that, perhaps, their team will never win a big trophy.
But then, if they pay their high ticket prices and get an entertaining team full of young players they sense are punching above their weight, they’ll be satisfied customers. And that is why, whatever the result tomorrow, both managers are already winners again.