The Klopp-Keane exchange tells us much about how football has changed

Jonathan Wilson on 29 September 2020

Football has changed. Most disagreements between managers and pundits are tedious affairs, rooted in complex and broadly impenetrable codes of respect and of concern only to professional axe-grinders. But the slightly spiky exchange between Roy Keane and Jürgen Klopp after Liverpool’s 3-1 victory over Arsenal on Monday was fascinating, less for the soap opera element of a bullish Klopp interrogating an awkwardly smirking Keane, or for Keane’s dry “touchy … imagine if they’d lost” rejoinder, but for what it revealed about how the two men view the game, and what that says about its evolution.

In the Champions League quarter-final in 2000, Keane scored an own goal as Manchester United, having drawn the first leg 0-0, lost 3-2 at home to Real Madrid. At the time the tendency was to celebrate the crispness and efficiency of Madrid’s counterattacking, and Fernando Redondo’s backheel nutmeg of Henning Berg, a moment of genius that fitted a prevailing narrative of sophisticated foreign clubs outwitting the honest toilers of the Premier League.

But that wasn’t really how it was. Ruthless as Madrid had been, they were also lucky. Aitor Karanka should have been sent off in the first half for a handball on the goalline but even without that incident, and the penalty that should have resulted, United had more than enough chances to have won. But that was no longer enough, not after the way United had gone out of the Champions League against Borussia Dortmund in 1997 and Monaco in 1998 to early away goals conceded at Old Trafford.

United might have been able to rely on comebacks in the Premier League. The cavalier approach may even have been enough to win the Champions League the previous season – although they were reliant then, as Keane has said, on Bayern “bottling it”. But it was too risky; too many opportunities were lost. Teams are at their peak for very short periods of time. Age and experience, perhaps, lead inevitably to caution.

Over the following decade, United’s approach changed. The attitude, especially in Europe, effectively shifted from, “If we have 20 chances and they have five, we’ll win most games” to, “If we have five chances and they have none, we can’t lose”. And it worked, bringing another Champions League and two further finals.

Roy Keane lies in despair after scoring an own goal in Manchester United’s 3-2 defeat by Real Madrid in the Champions League in 2000.
Roy Keane lies in despair after scoring an own goal in Manchester United’s 3-2 defeat by Real Madrid in the Champions League in 2000. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

It’s not that one approach is right and one wrong, and game management is anyway a sliding scale. But Klopp is prepared to allow a greater element of risk than late-period Alex Ferguson. It’s clearly something to which he has given significant thought. He described sitting deep against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, bunkering down and hoping for a counterattack, as being like buying a lottery ticket. Better, as he sees it, to engage high up the pitch, accept the possibility of a heavy defeat (and his Liverpool have lost 5-0 and 4-0 to City) and, at least for a side of Liverpool’s quality, increase the chance of victory.

Klopp’s point on Monday that the directive to linesmen only to raise their flags for clear offsides gives a slightly false impression was apt. A lot of what appeared promising Arenal breaks probably were offside and in previous years would have been stifled before any sense of danger had developed. It’s also true that Alexandre Lacazette’s goal came from a break of exceptional quality, at least until the cross, and then a freakish error from Andy Robertson and a bizarre and fortuitous finish. But still, Lacazette had a one-on-one to equalise.

And it wasn’t like this game wasn’t part of a pattern: Arsenal had twice played through the Liverpool press to win at the Emirates in July and in much the same way had forced a draw in the Community Shield before winning on penalties. And Liverpool had conceded three in each of their previous two home league games. It may not be “sloppy”, the word to which Klopp so objected, but there is jeopardy inherent in the way they play.

Alisson saves from Alexandre Lacazette to deny Arsenal an equaliser on Monday after space was found behind Liverpool’s defence.
Alisson saves from Alexandre Lacazette to deny Arsenal an equaliser on Monday after space was found behind Liverpool’s defence. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/PA

But that is how football is now played. Operate with a high line as pretty much every elite club now does and the possibility of a ball played in behind is always there. Bayern won the Champions League despite perpetually seeming on the brink of being exposed. A slight deficiency in the press, a moment when the player on the ball isn’t placed under immediate pressure, can mean a simple through-ball. Manchester City were undone on Sunday by the way Leicester’s Nampalys Mendy and Youri Tielemans were able to pass the ball at speed through the press. For all the discussion of handball, the most common reason penalties have been given in the Premier League this season has been forwards having their legs clipped by retreating defenders finding themselves on the wrong side having been undone by a ball played behind the line.

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It’s very early days, and there will almost certainly be some regression to the mean, but the Premier League is averaging 3.67 goals per game at the moment. Over the previous decade, the average is 2.75. It may be that the curtailed pre-season has disrupted organisation, but it also feels that the dynamic of football has changed, that high-risk football with a high line and a hard press has become the default. Klopp, in a more expansive age, is still happy to gamble in a way that Ferguson ultimately was not, and still believes in his side’s capacity to outscore the opposition.

It may be that Keane’s concerns are borne out, that Liverpool’s openness does end up costing them a vital game, but this is modern football.

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