The Premier League’s current managerial lineup is the strongest the division has ever witnessed. The arrival in 2016 of Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola created an all-star quartet at the top, along with Jose Mourinho, a familiar face in English football and recently appointed at the time at Manchester United, and Jurgen Klopp, already at Liverpool but about to begin his first full season at the club. Others were in the picture too, but Mauricio Pochettino was on the way up, rather than an established, successful top-level coach, with Arsene Wenger seemingly on the way down. It was basically about the aforementioned four.
The effects have been obvious: a higher tactical level, better progress in Europe this season, and the top clubs winning far more points than beforehand — the 2015-16 league table is remarkable in hindsight, not simply because Leicester won the league, but also because of how far they were clear of the chasing pack. Two of the four have succeeded: Conte last season and Guardiola (almost certainly) this season. That leaves Klopp and Mourinho, the two managers who meet this weekend, still searching for their first title with their current clubs.
Comparing them is a relatively futile exercise, because the contrast is obvious: gegenpressing versus parking the bus. The more pertinent feature of this rivalry is much simpler: both are at the perfect club. It’s difficult to imagine Mourinho at Liverpool, perhaps even tougher to see Klopp at Manchester United. In very different ways, Liverpool suits Klopp, and Manchester United suits Mourinho, and neither had to change the culture at their club, the way, for example, Wenger did at Arsenal.
Klopp is the more animated of the two. He’s high-energy, excitable and passionate, presenting himself as a man of the people, someone the supporters feel is one of their own. His experience at Dortmund, for example, was notable as much for his relationship with the crowd as his league title successes. The “Yellow Wall” was barely spoken about much before 2010, for example, but Klopp’s achievements in turning them into German champions, then European Cup finalists, meant the Westfalenstadion became the go-to European stadium for eager groundhoppers.
Klopp, of course, is the perfect man for Liverpool. Anfield remains the most hallowed ground in English football — the sign in the tunnel, the Kop end, the European nights, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the applause for opposition goalkeepers. Anfield has changed dramatically over the past couple of years, but it remains Anfield.
The supporters retain their reputation as the most “knowledgeable” in the game, which is an entirely impossible concept to measure, but contributes to the nature of the club, the celebration of the fan base, the sense they’re part of Liverpool more than the players — especially in an era with no obvious local lads as key players. It didn’t take long for Klopp to introduce the practice of his players joining arms and saluting the crowd at the end of a match, which was famously first witnessed after a disappointing draw. But the result wasn’t the point. The point was the relationship between the fans and the team or, more pertinently, the relationship between the fans and the manager.
In stark contrast, Mourinho’s period at Old Trafford has been defined by his constant jibes at the crowd. This isn’t an entirely novel concept — Roy Keane’s remark about prawn has entered the English football lexicon — but it summarises the different nature of Mourinho, the different nature of United. This is a more businesslike club and a group of supporters who have become accustomed to winning matches and winning trophies. Everything else has become secondary: The atmosphere at home games is sometimes fantastic, sometimes atrocious, but it’s never considered as much of a factor, in good times or bad, as at Anfield.
Attractive football, too, is less of an issue. United are about getting the job done, and whether that means playing all-out-attack football, or sitting back and frustrating the opposition, they will. That’s what they continually did under Sir Alex Ferguson, and there has been a slight revisionism about those 25 years under the most successful manager in English football history, an attempt to portray United as a marvellous footballing outfit who entertained game after game, year after year. Realistically, they were defined largely by snatching victories they barely deserved — much in the manner of United’s 3-2 win at Crystal Palace on Monday night.
Mourinho once revolutionised English football with his 4-3-3 but is no longer a man for new, foreign footballing concepts. Even if he was, you suspect the Old Trafford regulars wouldn’t embrace the term gegenpressing as much as those at Anfield.
The fact both managers are in the “right” posts is largely why both have made good progress. Yes, both clubs are miles behind Manchester City, but compared to recent seasons, their current efforts are more than respectable. Both are on course to finish with around 80 points, not quite title-winning form in most seasons, but a pretty good effort. Mourinho has won both the League Cup and the Europa League. Klopp has taken Liverpool to the Europa League final and has already taken them into the Champions League quarterfinals for the first time since 2009. Next week, Mourinho will probably take United there for only the second time in seven seasons. Football coverage trades on negativity, but both these clubs have overseen a clear upturn in fortunes since appointing their current bosses.
Just two points separate United and Liverpool in the current league table, but the battle for second isn’t particularly enthralling. It remains to be seen whether either can push on and mount a serious title challenge next season. For now, though, the pattern is clear: Klopp is very Liverpool, Mourinho is very United, and the long-standing rivalry between England’s two most successful clubs retains its traditional dividing lines ahead of Saturday’s instalment.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.