Pochettino vs. Klopp a battle of Premier League's brightest minds
From the multitude of talented foreign coaches currently operating in the Premier League, Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp are the ones who have contributed most to the division's current tactical feel. We've long since moved past the defensive era defined by Jose Mourinho, and the possession-based approach epitomised by Pep Guardiola was actually more popular several seasons ago, before he joined Manchester City.
This is the Premier League's pressing era, and it's Pochettino and Klopp, more than any other coaches, who arrived in the Premier League and immediately demanded that their sides committed to the press.
Pochettino took inspiration from Marcelo Bielsa (now surprisingly at Leeds) when transforming both Southampton and then Tottenham. Klopp's approach, a more German-based "gegenpressing" style, was evident from his first game: a 0-0 draw at Tottenham in November 2015, a goalless draw between two sides who disrupted the obsession's passing more than creating much themselves.
This weekend Liverpool travel to Tottenham -- or at least their temporary home of Wembley -- attempting to gain revenge for last season's heavy defeat. Pochettino's side won 4-1 last October in a game notable for Tottenham's guile and patience, with Harry Winks tucked in behind Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen, the most technically proficient and un-physical midfield trio Spurs have played under Pochettino.
That match, surprisingly, wasn't really about pressing but this weekend's game will surely revert to type, and it's Liverpool who have appeared more fearsome, more proactive and more aggressive in midfield thus far in 2018-19. The signing of Naby Keita has improved their transitions in both respects -- he's demonstrated an ability to launch quick breaks from deep and an understanding of how to pressure opponents in the opposite half. Having arrived from a Bundesliga side, RB Leipzig, that has excelled at transitions in recent years, he's had little difficulty in adapting to Klopp's methods.
Alongside him has been James Milner, so often the jack-of-all-trades, the permanent back-up, the utility man deployed wherever his side were undermanned. This season, though, Milner has been hugely impressive in his favoured central midfield position, regularly breaking past Mohamed Salah into attack and backing up the front three to win possession quickly.
Salah's winner against Brighton was probably the most typical goal Liverpool have scored under Klopp: as the opposition attempted to play out from the back, multiple players surrounded Yves Bissouma, Milner slid in to dispossess him. Then Sadio Mane combined with Roberto Firmino, who laid the ball perfectly for Salah to bend it into the far corner. The front three combined well but it was Milner who initiated the attack with his tenacity.
In the deepest midfield role Klopp can choose from Jordan Henderson, a regular in that position last season, and Georginio Wijnaldum, who has been brought back from a box-to-box position to excel as the holding midfielder. Klopp played both last time out, against Leicester. Neither would have considered themselves purely defensive midfielders a couple of seasons ago but in backing up the press of two midfield colleagues, they can showcase their energy in a different sense.
This could cause Spurs real problems judging by their performance against Watford in a 2-1 defeat before the international break. The concerning factor wasn't necessarily the defeat, but the nature of the defeat: Tottenham, the side that's looked physically fearsome over the past couple of years, were physically overpowered. Davinson Sanchez was barged off the ball by Troy Deeney; Isaac Success did likewise on Ben Davies.
In midfield, Christian Eriksen and Mousa Dembele were overwhelmed, the former struggling to find time on the ball, the latter lacking the swagger and mobility of his peak seasons. Eric Dier remained on the bench despite Tottenham's evident struggles. It would be a surprise if Pochettino didn't recall his most aggressive defensive midfielder for a clash that should be high-energy and physical, an old-school Premier League scrap.
It's not all about fighting fire with fire, of course. Winks was outstanding in this fixture last season, offering a composed and mature performance in front of the Tottenham defence. Winks' defining attribute is his ability to receive the ball intelligently and anticipate when to turn or when to play a return pass. His head swivels are a thing of wonder, and this is a contest where Tottenham's midfielders will need to have eyes in the back of their heads.
Pochettino has options in midfield, with Mousa Sissoko available as well as Dier, Winks, Dembele, Alli and Eriksen. We could see four of them start in the same system, in some format, with Pochettino likely to switch to a four-man defence after the failure of the back three at Vicarage Road and the threat of Liverpool's front trio. The duo of Harry Kane and Lucas Moura likely to continue up front despite Son Heung-min's return from extensive international duty. Spurs are capable of big performances in big games, partly because Pochettino remains excellent at scouting the opposition and plotting their downfall.
Liverpool start this weekend's trip to Wembley as favourites, which feels remarkable considering the comprehensive nature of Spurs' victory here last season. But Klopp & Co. upped their game since their last trip to Wembley, improving their defensive performance partly because of fine acquisitions in Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker but also because their press has been re-energised higher up the pitch.
Like Klopp's first Premier League game, against Pochettino's Spurs three years ago, pressing should be a key feature this weekend but it would be a major surprise if the scoreline was the same. Expect a good open game and plenty of goals.