This article was produced in association with Paddy Power as part of our coverage ahead of the Champions League final. Paddy Power are offering customers money back as a free bet if Sadio Mane scores in 90 minutes in Madrid.
Since Liverpool interrupted his post-Dortmund sabbatical and persuaded him to join them in the Premier League, Jurgen Klopp has only lost once to Mauricio Pochettino. The Argentinian was the first opposition manager Klopp faced on arriving in England and they have now met on nine occasions.
None of them will be quite like the tenth.
Pochettino’s sole victory against Klopp came thanks to a 3-5-1-1 formation featuring Son Heung-min behind Harry Kane. The Spurs boss could well go with this setup again, but at the same time he could be put off by what happened when he used a similar system at Anfield this season.
For Klopp the song remains largely the same – a pressing 4-3-3 which can become a 4-4-2 diamond when Roberto Firmino drops deep. Which brings us neatly onto the first question ahead of an all-English Champions League final with a global feel…
1) Will Firmino be fit and firing?
Few have summed up Roberto Firmino’s importance to Liverpool’s tactics better than Georginio Wijnaldum did at the club’s Champions League final media day.
The Dutch midfielder was asked if he himself would do a job up front if called upon, as was the case in the away leg of the semi-final against Barcelona. After responding with the stock answer of “I prefer to play in midfield but if manager needs me I can do it,” he went on to give some insight into what he described as “a difficult position to play,” and how well Firmino can play it.
“He’s really important,” said Wijnaldum. “He sets the pressing from the front and we just try to follow him. When we have the ball he is like an extra midfielder. He is really important in both ways. Even when midfielders have the ball, he is trying to come from behind to take the ball off them. He’s an extra defender but also a striker.”
Firmino is emblematic of Klopp’s tactics: the pressing from the front in defence, the quick and inventive link-up play in attack. Klopp said his Brazilian forward will be fit for the final after being out through injury recently, but the No. 9 still trained separately from the rest of the squad on Monday. Liverpool will hope their tactical linchpin is ready to start and raring to go come game-day. He’s 9/4 with Paddy Power to score anytime.
2) Pochettino changed mid-game at Anfield; how will he start in Madrid?
When Tottenham travelled to Anfield earlier this year, they gave Liverpool one of their toughest games of the season, and in doing so produced one of the most intriguing tactical battles.
Pochettino, serving a touchline ban, had an excellent view from the stands of how the game was unfolding, and changed his formation at half-time to great effect.
In the first half his back three/five was troubled by Liverpool full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. They were getting joy behind the Tottenham wing-backs and then stretching the central defenders, which meant Firmino found room to head home the opener from Robertson’s cross.
It was all change in the second half, at least in terms of shape, as Danny Rose pushed up from left-back to the left of a midfield four. This formed what was roughly a 4-4-2 formation with Lucas Moura off Harry Kane up top, Christian Eriksen on the right wing, Kieran Trippier dropping back to full back on the right, and Jan Vertonghen moving across the the left behind Rose.
The move got Spurs back into the game. Their goal came via a quick free-kick – an excellent long ball from Kane, a pass inside from Trippier to Eriksen and then on to Lucas to finish. An unfortunate Toby Alderweireld own goal in the dying minutes of that game gave Liverpool the win, but if Pochettino gets his tactics right from the start in Madrid, Spurs could trouble their opposition for 90 rather than 45 minutes. They’re 13/8 with Paddy Power to lift the trophy.
3) Can Liverpool’s full-backs produce on the big stage?
It’s not just Tottenham who’ve struggled against Liverpool’s full-backs this season. The pair finished the campaign battling it out for the most assists in their side, picking up a remarkable 23 between them. Alexander-Arnold edged it with one on the final day of the season which took him to 12, one ahead of Robertson.
The full-back focus had led to some criticism on the lack of creativity from Klopp’s midfield, but when these wide defenders are so far forward, someone needs to plug the gaps they leave and its down to one or more of those midfielders to provide that insurance policy.
Both Robertson and Alexander-Arnold played in midfield during their youth and bring these skills to their full-back game, which is vital for Klopp’s system.
“This kind of full-back now is much more of a midfield player,” Klopp once said. “The kind of football they play in half-spaces, they are sometimes the winger, sometimes the central midfielder.”
There have been calls for Alexander-Arnold to one day return to a more central, advanced position, but why try to fix what isn’t broken? He and Robertson are perfect for the extra demands managers like Klopp place on full-backs and they continue to prove this at the highest level.
4) Will Son shine?
At some point Son went from the player everyone said was underrated and became a bona fide ‘rated’ footballer; a Spurs star. It’s difficult to pinpoint when, but it might have been when the prospect of military service was lifted from his shoulders thanks to a gold medal with South Korea at the Asian Games last September.
If Firmino drives Liverpool’s tactics then Son can do the same for Spurs, and might be the one Tottenham player best suited for Klopp’s side – should anyone be pondering a combined XI at this stage of the match preview process.
Son can play in place of Kane up top. He can play as a winger, or as an attacking midfielder off the striker as he did in that 4-1 win against Liverpool at Wembley. He can press, dribble, create, and finish. There isn’t really much he can’t do and you wouldn’t bet against him writing his name in the history books in a Champions League final.
5) And what about Kane?
Seeing as this game involves two English teams, much of the focus will be on whether the England captain and Tottenham talisman will be fit to play.
Kane isn’t quite an all-rounder in the way his team-mate Son is, but he has more to his game than was initially thought when he emerged from the Spurs youth academy under the management of Tim Sherwood.
Tactically the team has come a long way since, and it feels like Kane has evolved with them. You now get the impression he prefers that slightly deeper link-up role as a striker which has been perfected by his opposite number Firmino, rather than merely being an out and out goalscorer up top.
It’s safe to say Spurs have done alright without the Englishman as they charged past Manchester City and Ajax to the Champions League final, but Pochettino would rather have him available than not and he is likely to be able to call upon him in Madrid, even if only from the bench. If he is fit, does he start?
James Nalton is on Twitter