polar opposites Liverpool’s empire builder Jurgen Klopp faces Spurs' angry wanderer Antonio Conte
The managerial announcements came on a daily basis last week. First, Jurgen Klopp signed a four-year contract to stay at Liverpool. Then Antonio Conte channelled his inner Donald Trump to describe reports suggesting he was bound for Paris Saint-Germain as “fake news.” Time will tell if the word “fake” was superfluous and Conte trades the British capital for its French counterpart. Few should be surprised if he does.
When they meet at Anfield on Saturday, it is as two of the world’s elite managers and as opposites, separated by far more than the distance between the dugouts or the contrasting fortunes in the race for Luis Diaz in January.
Klopp offers continuity, Conte perpetual change. The German can seem a whirlwind, whipping up the crowd and playing 100mph football, but he is already the Premier League’s longest-serving manager. Stay at Anfield until 2026, as he is now contracted to, and no one will have lasted longer there since Bill Shankly.
Should Simon Weaver, Gareth Ainsworth and John Coleman find alternative employment in the meantime, he will be the longest serving in the Premier League and the Football League. He will, like Arsene Wenger, be the exotic import who became part of the furniture.
Conte’s career trajectory is very different. Klopp’s shortest reign anywhere is seven years, Conte’s longest three. He fuelled doubt about his future at Tottenham from the start by signing an 18-month contract.
His melodramatic threats to walk out have been features of his reign; Klopp has proved able to lose away at Turf Moor without suggesting he will quit. He was content to fight for fourth place before challenging for the league whereas a perpetually annoyed man can be a face of incessant impatience.
Conte’s capacity to fall out with anyone and everyone, from players to owners, means that his is a form of confrontational leadership. Klopp’s is more charismatic leadership, but it draws on chemistry and cohesion. The Italian may think creative tension works. The German prefers a happy camp.
Each may argue that results vindicate him. Conte could be the outstanding short-term manager in the game now. Perhaps the most dramatic transformation in Premier League history came when he inherited a Chelsea team in 10th, had a stuttering start to the season with a back four, suddenly shifted to 3-4-3, won 13 consecutive games and the title with 93 points.
Klopp’s arrival in England predated that and progress was soon apparent but more gradual; his first trophy, the 2019 Champions League, came 43 months after his appointment.
But a man with the patience for the long term has scaled greater heights, albeit not immediately. In the time he has managed Liverpool, Conte has been at Italy, Chelsea, Inter and Tottenham; there may yet be further additions to that list.
Conte’s advocates could claim he is the better manager in domestic leagues. Klopp’s three titles have all been seminal: two with Borussia Dortmund came at the expense of Bayern Munich, one with Liverpool was their first for three decades and stemmed from winning 26 of their first 27 games in a historically brilliant run.
There may yet be a fourth title this year, but Conte has five. He ended a drought at Inter and repositioned Juventus as Italy’s dominant force.
And yet a major difference lies on the European stage. Conte is an underachiever, a serial European Cup finalist as a player but has yet to even secure a place in the last four as a manager, while Klopp has established himself among the all-time greats.
When he reached a fourth Champions League final, it equalled a record, albeit for 24 hours until Carlo Ancelotti advanced into his fifth. He is shaping a golden age at Liverpool whereas, even when Conte turned Juventus into winners, Massimiliano Allegri went on to collect more silverware.
There is a contrast in methodology. Conte perennially thinks he should have more players; Klopp can be reluctant to sign, trusting in those he already has. Klopp believes in people, whereas Conte criticises them.
The Liverpool manager has an awareness of the game’s underlying economics, realising he does not have a bottomless pit of money. Conte complains when he can’t buy absolutely everyone and some of his many former targets – Diaz, Virgil van Dijk, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – are instead found at Anfield.
Klopp can bring humour and his own brand of cool while remaining a company man: he tends to keep his disagreements private, even though he was unhappy Liverpool signed up for the European Super League and is unafraid to praise his employers.
“From the first day I came here, I was really happy with our owners, and in these times I’m even more happy with our owners,” he said when the British government sanctioned Roman Abramovich. He reflected on Chelsea, saying: “I think it’s pretty obvious where the money is coming from.”
Conte almost certainly did not ask where it came from but did ask why it wasn’t going on Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Alex Sandro, Leonardo Bonucci and Van Dijk and the rest of football’s longest shopping list in 2017.
Perhaps he is not alone in that. Perhaps football conditioned him that way. Maybe his crash-and-burn style of management is a consequence of the game, though he seems to feel his tactical brilliance and status as a serial winner means he is entitled to demand everything all the time. Klopp offers another model.
After seven years each at Mainz and Dortmund, he has signed up for 11 at Liverpool. Last week, he called Merseyside home, whereas north London seems another staging post for Conte, a manager always coveting what he does not have. Klopp may engender loyalty by displaying his own.
Maybe Conte’s immediacy helps him get results straight away, but they renew acquaintances as management’s permanently angry wanderer, a specialist in burning bridges, and Anfield’s great empire builder.
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