Over two days in early May, during the second leg of the Champions League semifinals, Liverpool and Tottenham one-upped each other in raising the stakes of which side could have the most improbable European comeback. Liverpool went first, overturning a 3-0 first leg deficit against Barcelona into a 4-3 win. Tottenham took it a step further the very next day, beating Ajax with a goal in the 96th minute from Lucas Moura. With each team’s unique, singular journey to the Champions League Final, both Liverpool and Tottenham can claim destiny on their side.
The similarities don’t end there, with the two teams having a similar analytics based DNA. Damien Comolli worked as Tottenham’s director of football in the mid-2000’s before eventually moving to Liverpool in the same position in 2010. Comolli poached current Liverpool sporting director Michael Edwards from Tottenham, as well as their chief scout. There was a time when the two clubs were always linked with the same players in the transfer market, although there is now a differentiation in the type of players they recruit over the past years due to Liverpool’s financial dominance and with Tottenham focused on building a new stadium. So while that feeling of destiny and sense of purpose is shared by each team this season, both Tottenham and Liverpool’s journey to the 2019 Champions League was built over the past decade.
The following five matchups will shape the final match:
Moussa Sissoko vs. Jordan Henderson
Comolli admitted this week that he was fired by Liverpool in 2012 for signing Henderson, though Henderson has turned into a foundational piece of Jurgen Klopp’s midfield years later. Liverpool’s midfield is filled with a specific type of all-action, versatile player who can press, pass, and provide a physical presence in both offensive and defensive transitions. And while Henderson has moved throughout various roles in Klopp’s midfield three, his recent role further up the field has unlocked his playmaking ability and added a nuanced wrinkle to distinguish himself. Comolli lost the initial battle but won the Henderson war.
With his ability to cover space, Sissoko is the most Liverpool-esque midfielder on Tottenham’s squad. Sissoko is not the most skilled or creative or most defensive Tottenham midfielder, but his tireless, box to box ability provides an essential balance to Tottenham’s play. That mobility and physicality will be required in the final, especially with Firmino’s style of dropping in between the lines to feed Mo Salah and Sadio Mane. The easiest answer for Mauricio Pochettino would be to have a defensive midfielder like Victor Wanyama or Eric Dier to cover the space, but each player is not as mobile going forward as Sissoko. If Pochettino implements an attacking setup with Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli in a midfield 3, the space that Sissoko will be relied on to cover becomes where the match will be won or lost.
Andy Roberton vs. Kieran Trippier
With their team’s reliance upon their fullbacks to push into opposition territory and give attacking options, Roberton and Trippier each embody the aggression and modernity of their respective managers’ style. And while tangible numbers in the sport have as much to do with context as it does player quality, the impact of Robertson can be seen in his 11 assists during his Premier League campaign. Though Trippier, with only three assists this season, admitted that injuries have lead to a drop in form this season coming off a World Cup in which he created the most chances out of any player in the tournament.
Regardless, watching Robertson and Trippier battle up and down the field in transition throughout the match will be exhausting. There’s no better examples of each side’s impressive physicality that has overwhelmed opponents on their way to the final than in analyzing the fullback battle between Robertson and Trippier on Liverpool’s left side, and Trent Alexander-Arnold and Danny Rose on the other wing. It will be a 1 v 1 competition of athleticism exemplified by how much distance each player will cover, but also guile in finding the right touch as they look for teammates inside the box. All four players must defend, cross, battle, and create from everywhere on the field, without fading, for 90 minutes.
Virgil van Dijk & Jan Vertonghen vs. Son Heung-Min, Lucas Moura & Mo Salah
Virgil van Dijk’s defending late during Liverpool’s 2-1 win over Tottenham in March became a viral moment. With the match tied at 1 and Liverpool chasing a goal to stay in the title race, van Dijk found himself on the wrong end of a 2 on 1 break with Sissoko on the ball. Instead of diving in, he calmly forced Sissoko to shoot with his left foot while cutting off a potential pass to Son. With the aggression of each side’s press and the threat of Salah, Mane, Son, and Moura on the counter, the four centerbacks in the match must be comfortable defending multiple attackers in space without panicking.
Harry Kane may be the best pure #9 in the world, but the mobility of Son and Moura in his absence presented a different challenge of opposition backlines. Instead of battling Kane with his back to goal, center backs were forced to defend their channels. Moura’s last minute goal against Ajax was created by an off ball run in the space between the left back and center back. It was something Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid exploited when they beat Juventus in the 2017 final, eschewing crosses that would have been easily cleared for cutbacks on the ground. This comfort in defending channels and open space is the defining characteristic of a modern centerback.
Alisson vs. Hugo Lloris
Liverpool learned their lesson from last year’s final, in which Loris Karius made two costly mistakes, that they could spare no expense at any position. After a record-breaking transfer for van Dijk in the previous window, Liverpool completed their defensive transformation with a then-record transfer for a keeper in Alisson last summer. There was a tangible impact with Alisson statistically rating as the best keeper in the Premier League by Opta’s Expected Goals Conceded (xGC) metric. There was also nuance with his and van Dijk’s calmness on the ball that allowed Liverpool to control the ball late in matches, eliminating the wild swings in momentum that defined Liverpool matches in Europe as Klopp rebuilt the side.
While Alisson receives the accolades, our perception of Lloris remains inconsistent especially for a keeper who’s won the World Cup. Statistics back Lloris, who finished with second highest save percentage among Premier League keepers behind Alisson. Yet we remember his blunders, and we’ve already seen Lloris make a mistake that cost Tottenham a match against Liverpool months earlier. Alisson said he was “saddened” by Karius’ mistakes from last year’s final, yet added how those mistakes - and how we judge keepers because of them - is the nature of the position. But with the quality of Alisson and experience of Lloris, this final is likely to be decided elsewhere on the field.
Mauricio Pochettino vs. Jurgen Klopp
“To lose three Champions League finals...phew...that has to be really hard,” said Jose Mourinho in the buildup to the final, laying out the stakes for Klopp as only he can. Mourinho’s comments reveal the unrelenting ladder of a European manager at a big club. Even as Klopp rebuilt Liverpool’s reputation in the Champions League, there is still a voice that says he needs to actually win a final. And while one can defend Klopp by acknowledging how difficult it is to get to a final in the first place as a testament to his ability as a manager, Klopp has lost 6 consecutive finals.
Having faced off nine times before and with Liverpool winning both league matches 2-1 this season, there’s no secrets between Klopp and Pochettino. Ajax or Barcelona would have introduced an interesting wrinkle by adding an unfamiliarity to the match, but we should also appreciate the unexpected nature of this all-English finals. For Klopp, this final represents overarching, big picture ideas of defining his legacy during an era he largely influenced. Pochettino can still be focused on the tactical nuances, of questions of whether or not he should start Kane. For Pochettino, this phase is still a dream.