If this is a sign of what’s to come then the Premier League’s newest managerial rivalry between unlikely couple Jurgen Klopp and Arsene Wenger could rapidly become the biggest show in England.
It was a pulsating game that will go down as one the greats, featuring 36 shots, six goals, more drama than a James Bond boxset and two managers who seemed to relish the occasion, even if for Wenger Joe Allen’s late equaliser was a hugely frustrating way to end the night.
Perhaps we should have guessed what was coming. After all, it was no surprise to see this fixture billed as a fascinating tactical battle between two hugely successful but contrasting managers.
What caught the imagination was the prospect of two men, so similar in some ways and yet so vastly different in others, going hammer and tongs in the Premier League having honed their friendly rivalry in Champions League football over recent seasons; and the head-to-head did not disappoint.
The first half was so hectic, so full of wonderful attacking — and equally ridiculous defending — that Wenger and Klopp could afford to laugh and joke amiably inside the Liverpool technical area as Olivier Giroud missed a sitter that would have made it five goals in 35 minutes.
In fact,the Frenchman subsequently had to tell his rival to calm down as the drama of the occasion seemed to get the better of him.
Even the goal celebrations were a psychologist’s field day —Klopp haring off down the touchline to mark a stunning strike from Firminho while Wenger, more reserved but equally intense, held up two clenched fists as if celebrating just to himself.
Although the pair hail from similar parts of the world, only 66 miles separates the border towns in France and Germany where they were brought up, their contrasting styles meant this kind of game was always possible.
We were looking for the heavy metal music of Klopp against the melodic harmony of Wenger; high-energy pressing against high-octane passing, the motivator against the professor. In fact it ended up more like one of those Liverpool v Newcastle games in the Keegan era, full of attacking threat and defensive calamity in equal measure.
Before kick-off Klopp was happy to describe his counterpart as one of the best in the world and embrace the difference between their respective styles, speaking of Arsenal’s “possession football” while Wenger’s words, although equally reverend, contained very different phrases — talking of “ferocious battles” and “personality” at Anfield. The match contained all of that, and more, but also highlighted weaknesses in both teams and showed that stereotypes don’t always hold water.
Wenger, after so many years without a title, has slowly altered his team’s style to something a little more pragmatic than Klopp described pre-match. This current Arsenal team is not unused to ending a game with less possession but more goals than the opposing side, something that was unthinkable a few years ago. They are also not afraid to use corners and set-pieces to create chances — as Liverpool keeper Simon Mignolet found to his cost.
Klopp, by contrast, has recently found a way to make his team run further and fight harder but, until now, struggled to help them score goals; just 14 in 12 league matches before this game and only five victories. A statistic that would, were he not still in his honeymoon period at Anfield, be earning him the same kind of headlines as a certain Louis van Gaal just up the road in north west England.
Fortunately for Klopp, the drama of this remarkable match means any accusations of being boring are certainly on hold. But what will be asked is why his goalkeeper — recently offered a new five-year contract — made so many mistakes and why the Liverpool defence so often lost concentration at key moments.
The home side began the match at such break-neck pace, and scored so early, that you wondered if they could possibly steam-roller Arsenal in the way they hurt Man City earlier in the campaign. But Firminho’s early goal was cancelled out when the home defence lost Aaron Ramsey as he ran onto an excellent pass from Joel Campbell.
Roberto Firmino has more goals in 19 mins vs. Arsenal (2) than his other 17 Premier League games combined (1). pic.twitter.com/vlA8jBYL2f— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 13, 2016
Then, when Firminho scored again with a wonderful strike, they were even more culpable in allowing Giroud to divert home from a corner.
Giroud’s second goal, which featured another excellent contribution from Campbell, will leave Liverpool wondering whether Kolo Toure, so easily turned by his opponent, is really still a top class defender capable of playing at this level. Equally, Arsenal will wonder how, having been the better side in the second half, they managed to allow Liverpool enough momentum to grab that late equaliser which leaves Wenger’s side level on points with Leicester at the top of the table.
But perhaps we should worry less about the imperfections and just enjoy the spectacle — and the prospect of future replays. The opening episode of Klopp v Wenger was a very enjoyable watch indeed.
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