Pretoria - There were moments, when play broke down, that Jose Mourinho dropped to his haunches in desperate imploration. He clapped furiously, or reached out both arms in a plea to his players to return to their defensive shape against Liverpool in the Premier League on Saturday.
Jurgen Klopp stood, hands in pockets. It’s the same job, but not the same planet for these managers at the moment. Klopp has the Reds exactly where he wants them. Mourinho has no clue how long it will take Tottenham Hotspur to get there - indeed, if he can ever get them there. It depends on the transfer market, the fitness of Harry Kane, on so many factors as yet unknown.
Klopp recalled preparing his Liverpool team in the same hotel meeting room on Saturday, and before his first match with the club, on 17 October 2015. Tottenham away. None of the starting XI that day began this game; Divock Origi and Adam Lallana were substitutes. James Milner probably would have been, too, had he been fit. Hence the calm.
In less than five years, Klopp has transformed this team until it is just where he wants it. He has dispensed with every player who cannot perform to the intensity he demands, and the club has bought stunningly well to secure their replacements.
Even the greatest teams remain a work in progress - Takumi Minamino’s transfer-window acquisition and place on the bench is proof of that - but there is a reason Klopp seems to do less touchline screaming than he used to.
Not that he is any less demanding. In the last 15 minutes when Tottenham looked capable of getting a point from the game, he certainly had his moments. Yet watching how hard Mourinho has to work reminding his team of the basics suggests this is a moment of extraordinary grace for Liverpool, the fruition of a plan years in the making.
Asked why Tottenham’s performance differed so much from first half to second, Mourinho explained that had he asked his players to match Liverpool’s intensity from the start, they would be at the point of collapse before the end.
“Liverpool have been with this coach for about five years, so the players are totally adapted physically to the football he wants to play,” Mourinho said. “We are speaking about probably the best team in the world. We did the maximum we could, and we deserved more.”
Klopp will never admit he is satisfied, or that he cares for records that are already tumbling mid-season. Even so, the hotel visit was a reminder of how far the club has come, and in such a short space of time, considering Manchester United were on their second post-Ferguson manager by then, and have had two more since.
“Same meeting room, same hotel, it was like being in a time machine, really,” Klopp said. “Nothing had changed. But the team has changed, obviously. We have tried to do it piece by piece. Maybe it has taken us too long, or maybe we are on time. I couldn’t write a book about it. We just try to develop every day. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
“We have played a lot of good games but it’s not only about that, you know? It’s about how you build the character of the boys to become like this. We have had defeats, and massive defeats, so getting a proper knock and not staying down, getting up again, that’s all character-building and that’s how we did it.”
It is the riddle of all great teams. How much was the dedication instilled in them by external forces, how much was the fortuitous grouping of like minds? Did Sir Alex Ferguson alone create the mindset that made United so hungry for continued success, or did he strike lucky with a group whose desire simply matched his own?
Credit is also due to the recruitment department. It would be one hell of a coincidence if Liverpool just lucked out on character. To a man, the arrivals have bought into Klopp’s philosophy.
So maybe there was a reason he gave the green light to the sale of Philippe Coutinho in 2018. Not just the money, but the knowledge of the plan for the next two years. Coutinho was a wonderful player for Liverpool, but there is no doubt Klopp’s strategy requires a very defined form of mental and physical strength.
“All the lads here are no different,” said Robertson. “As footballers you invest everything, you invest your life. I put everything in to ensure I play. Lifestyle, eat well, watch what I eat. I don’t drink during the season. Sure, off season, I have a couple of weeks. I’m Scottish. But during it I think that’s important, because you need to invest in your body.
“I couldn’t tell you about the rest of the squad because I’m not round their houses, but I imagine they’re the same. The higher it goes, the tougher it gets because of the amount of games you’ve got. We all try and that’s why you see during the busy times over Christmas, we do look fresh, because our recovery is spot on.”
This is perhaps Klopp’s greatest achievement. When he arrived in England with his plan for heavy metal football - a phrase he now hates, by the way - it was said it could not be done.
That Klopp’s favoured intensity could work in Germany, with 34 league games, one domestic Cup and a defined winter break, but would kill players conforming to an English schedule.
His team would, to use Mourinho’s word, collapse; by the end of the season they would hit a wall. Yet this is an unbeaten league run that has now lasted 38 games - a Premier League campaign. It is the biggest points total after 21 games of any club competing in a major European league at any time in history.
And still no casualties. Still no wall. Maybe it is coming. But the gap at the top might make it irrelevant, even if it does. Daily Mail