Separated by a few yards at Stade de France on Saturday would be two football managers with personalities as different as night and day. Usually in trainers and with a cap pulled firmly over his head, Juergen Klopp goes through a whole range of emotions on the touchline. Once described as timeless as a blue or a grey suit, Carlo Ancelotti is often in one and survives high-pressure games of football with enviable calm.
Their clubs too have taken dramatically different routes to the Champions League final. Liverpool’s search for a seventh European title has seen them go down only once in 12 games. Real Madrid have returned from the brink against PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City losing once to each and to Sheriff Tiraspol in the group league. Real’s bid for a 14th European crown will be their 56th game of the season and comes over three weeks after they won La Liga. That’s seven less than Liverpool who for most of the past few weeks have also had to focus on the Premier League and FA Cup.
“Liverpool have had more difficulties than us, playing important matches. We have had more time to think about it (the final),” Ancelotti has said. “But in the end, I don’t think it will affect the teams.”
Their approach too is different. Gegenpressing is now an accepted football word thanks to Klopp’s coordinated counter-pressing teams. Liverpool can be relentless, playing a high line and always looking for turnover and transitions. If Thiago Alcantara lends a sense of calm to that frenzied chasing, it is possibly because Klopp has realised that “heavy metal” football alone can burn out players like it often does to Marcelo Bielsa’s teams. Ancelotti’s Real have used a “deep defensive block” sacrificing possession to make the best use of Vinicius Jr’s speed. They have also pressed aggressively at times.
So much for the differences. The reason why Klopp is in his fourth Champions League final and Ancelotti his fifth is that they both get people. “When the players show up, they’re happy, and when that happens, the team can achieve great things,” Ancelotti has said of Real but he could be speaking of Liverpool too. Ancelotti has created an environment where Real Madrid’s superstars are comfortable as are young players such as Vinicius Jr, Rodrygo and Eduardo Camavinga. And he never shies from seeking out players for advice.
As for how influential Klopp is at Liverpool, here’s a quote from an interview in The Athletic of club chairman Tom Werner. “Nobody wants to think of the day when Jurgen is no longer manager of this club,” he has said. Here’s another from Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher. “The players deserve unbelievable credit, but it is all down to that man… What he has created right through this club is the standard that he expects, that spirit, that mentality. He is just an absolute revelation.”
What also unites Real and Liverpool is how they have dealt with transition. The fact that there can be a debate about who among Joel Matip and Ibrahima Konate will partner Virgil van Dijk is proof of how far Liverpool have come from last season when Nathaniel Phillips and Ozan Kabak were in central defence against Real. Matip is 30, has been at Liverpool since 2016 and has won a Champions League final. Konate is 23 and has not lost in any of the last 28 games he has played. Both can dribble and though Konate is faster, they can also provide cover for right back Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino may leave at the end of 2022-23 but in 25-year-olds Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota, Liverpool have able replacements. And forward Fabio Carvalho, 19, is due to join next season. Van Dijk is 30, Alisson Becker is 29 and in Kostas Tsimikas, Liverpool have a 21-year-old left-back cover for Andrew Robertson. Midfielder Curtis Jones is 21 and Klopp is known to rate midfielder 19-year-old Harvey Elliott highly. Since joining in 2015, Klopp and outgoing sporting director Michael Edwards have ensured that Liverpool’s transition does not come in the way of their efficiency. Proof of that lies in Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Matip and Firminho being among the few players who remain from 2015-16.
Real Madrid’s success stems not just from how the older players have been able to stay fit and hungry but also in how GenNext has contributed. Camavinga is 19 but plays with the maturity of someone older. He is strong, has speed, control and an excellent sense of position. If Camavinga is good enough to replace Luka Modric, Rodrygo (21) came in for Toni Kroos in a must-win semi-final Real were chasing. The team’s core has Valverde who is 23, Marco Asensio 26, Eder Militao 24, David Alaba 29 and Thibaut Courtois 30. Most are results of a Real project that focused on young players instead of galacticos, a shift necessitated by lack of funds. Even if Kroos, Benzema and Asensio leave after 2022-23, Real, smarting from being ditched by Kylian Mbappe, should be able to cope.