Klopp was wrong to criticise Conte's tactics in Anfield draw - but can Tottenham really win trophies playing this way?

Antonio Conte Tottenham 2021-22Getty Images

Jurgen Klopp has a history of irritability after his Liverpool team drops points.

It is a trait shared by most winners in football, so we ought not be surprised by his combative comments regarding Antonio Conte’s tactical preferences in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Tottenham.

“I don’t like this kind of football,” Klopp said of Spurs in his post-match press conference. “But that’s my personal problem.

"I think they’re world-class, and I think they should do more for the game. I think they had 36, 38 per cent possession.

“But it’s my problem. I cannot coach it. So that’s why I cannot do it. So yes, world-class players block all the balls, really difficult.”

His comments, said with a dismissiveness that does not come across on the page, have sparked a conversation about defensive tactics in big matches, about the compatability of Conte’s approach and winning silverware, and whether there is a ‘right’ way to play football - a conversation that has rumbled on for nearly 20 years now.

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In fairness to Klopp, he clearly recognised he was being a sore loser and was at pains to acknowledge “my problem”, while on Monday he insisted that he respects the way Conte organises his teams.

Nevertheless, with regards to the 90 minutes at Anfield, the accusations he made were unfair.

First of all, Spurs did not park the bus. They were confrontational in the middle third of the pitch and refused to drop too deep until the game state in the final 20 minutes demanded it.

They also committed bodies forward in pinpoint breakaways that were as exciting and progressive as any other mode of attack one could mention.

The visitors from north London passed out dangerously from the back, a high-risk but aesthetic style of build-up play that seeks to draw the opposition forward in the press – and then evade it, wriggling clear to create an ‘artificial attacking transition’: a situation that looks like a counterattack even though it comes from your own deep possession, like Dejan Kulusevski’s fourth-minute opener against Manchester City in February.

But if Tottenham were too defensive for Klopp’s liking, the obvious retort is: what else were they supposed to do?

Conte’s side are unbeaten against Liverpool and Man City this season thanks to a humble, reactive approach that accepts the quality gap between the sides.

Spurs do not always play this way, either. Since Conte’s appointment, only Liverpool and Man City have scored more than their 51 goals, at rate of 2.04 per game.

Like his title-winning Chelsea and Inter teams, Conte shows that possession football is not the only way to create chances and entertain.

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All of this is widely understood. Conte’s titles speak for themselves, and every Premier League fan has noticed the flourishing relationship between Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Kulusevski.

Yet the debate still raged through Sunday, as many people – including Gary Neville – suggested Conte’s football is not the ‘right’ way for a top club to play.

It is perhaps a legitimate concern. For one-off matches against the best sides in the world, Conte’s system is brilliant, but as the foundation for a season-long strategy there are signs it is becoming an outmoded style in the modern Premier League.

Due to a combination of growing financial inequality between the elite and the rest, as well as the increased tactical sophistication of the middle-class clubs, the Premier League has never been more concerned with possession and territory.

‘Big Six’ clubs can now expect to be forced to hold 60%+ possession in the vast majority of their matches and can expect to face defences happy to sit back and wait for moments to counterattack.

That was not the case in 2016-17, Conte’s last successful year in English football, but in the age of Klopp and Pep Guardiola – when it takes points tallies in the mid-90s to challenge for the title – starting with a midblock and refusing to press high (as is Conte’s way) may not be dominant enough.

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Klopp and Guardiola swarm, counter-press, and pen teams in because that is the forced holding pattern of the division. It is the best way to exhibit complete control.

The issue for Conte is that the desire to hold less of the ball, and to build attacks with a deeper overall shape, means they get stuck when faced with those stubborn defences.

Conte’s tactical coaching is extremely detailed, but largely in a structure that requires transitional space to open up.

A range of defeats in 2022 – from Middlesbrough to Burnley to Wolves – have been defined by Spurs struggling to create momentum when hogging the ball.

And the longer this pattern continues, the more opponents will learn from it; note how Brighton, normally possession heavy and playing into the hands of counterattackers like Spurs, dropped deeper for their recent 1-0 win in north London.

Ironically, what Conte is finding in England is precisely what Klopp was complaining about on Saturday: when your team is rich and powerful by comparison, the opponent will play on the back foot, thus negating carefully-laid plans to hit in the attacking transition.

“He can say what he wants,” Conte said in response to Klopp’s comments. “We played how we had to play. It is naive to think there is ever a way football 'should' or 'shouldn’t' be played.

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“My players did ther job. His players didn't. I am very proud.”

In reference to the match at Anfield, Conte is right. But as part of a wider tactical strategy - one that has fallen out of fashion in England over the last five years - those questioning his system may have a point.

There is, after all, a reason why Klopp has decided he cannot do it.