Managerial announcements have arrived daily for the past week. Jurgen Klopp first signed a four-year contract to stay at Liverpool. Then Antonio Conte channeled his inner Donald Trump to describe reports suggesting he was bound for Paris Saint-Germain as ‘fake news’. Time will tell if the word “false” was superfluous and Conte trades the British capital for its French counterpart. Few people should be surprised if he does.
When they meet at Anfield on Saturday, it’s as two of the world’s best managers and opposites, separated by much more than distance between dugouts or contrasting fortunes in the race for Luis Diaz in January. Klopp offers continuity, Tales perpetual change. The German may seem like a whirlwind, whipping through crowds and playing football at 100mph, but he’s already the longest-serving manager in the Premier League. Stay at Anfield until 2026, as he is now under contract, and no one will have lasted there longer since Bill Shankly. If Simon Weaver, Gareth Ainsworth and John Coleman find other jobs in the meantime, he will be the oldest in the Premier League and Football League. He will be, like Arsène Wenger, the exotic import that entered furniture.
Conte’s career trajectory is very different. Klopp’s shortest reign is seven years, Conte’s three longest. He immediately fueled doubts about his future at Tottenham by signing an 18-month contract. His melodramatic threats to come out were hallmarks of his reign; Klopp proved he was capable of losing at Turf Moor without suggesting he would quit. He was content to fight for fourth place before battling for the league when a perpetually annoyed man can be the face of relentless impatience. Conte’s ability to fall out with anyone and everyone, from players to owners, means this is a form of confrontational leadership. Klopp is a more charismatic leadership, but he relies on chemistry and cohesion. The Italian may think the creative tension works. The German prefers a happy camp.
Anyone can argue that the results justify it. Conte might be the best short-term manager in the game right now. Perhaps the most dramatic transformation in Premier League history came when he inherited a Chelsea side in 10and, had a hesitant start to the season with a back four, suddenly went 3-4-3, won 13 straight games and the title with 93 points. Klopp’s arrival in England preceded this 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 haul reached greater heights, but not immediately. Since managing Liverpool, Conte has been in Italy, Chelsea, Inter and Tottenham; there may still be more additions to this list.
Conte’s defenders might argue that he is the best coach in the domestic leagues. Klopp’s three titles have all been defining: two with Borussia Dortmund have come at the expense of Bayern Munich, one with Liverpool was their first in three decades and stemmed from winning 26 of their first 27 games in a historically brilliant run. There may still be a fourth title this year but Conte has five. He ended a drought at Inter, repositioned Juventus as Italy’s dominant force.
And yet, a major difference is on the European scene. Conte is an underachievers, a serial European Cup runner-up as a player but hasn’t even secured a place in the bottom four as a manager yet, while Klopp has established himself among the greatest of all time. When he reached a fourth Champions League final, it equaled a record, but for 24 hours until Carlo Ancelotti qualified for his fifth. He fashioned a golden age at Liverpool as, even when Conte turned Juventus into winners, Massimiliano Allegri continued to collect more silverware.
There is a contrast in methodology. Conte still thinks he should have more players; Klopp may be reluctant to sign, trusting those he already has. Klopp believes in people, while Conte criticizes them. The Liverpool manager is aware of the underlying economics of the game, realizing he has no bottomless money. Conte complains that he can’t buy absolutely everyone and some of his many former targets – Diaz, Virgil van Dijk, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – end up at Anfield instead.
Klopp can bring humor and his own brand of cool while remaining a businessman: he tends to keep his disagreements private, even if he was unhappy that Liverpool signed up for the European Super League, and didn’t not afraid to praise his employers. “From the first day I arrived here I was really happy with our owners, and in that time I’m even happier with our owners,” he said when the British government sanctioned Roman Abramovich. He reflected on Chelsea saying: “I think where the money is coming from is pretty obvious.”
Conte almost certainly didn’t ask where it came from, but asked why it didn’t go over Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Alex Sandro, Leonardo Bonucci and Van Dijk and the rest of football’s longest shopping list in 2017. Maybe he’s not alone in this. Maybe football conditioned him that way. Perhaps his crash-and-burn management style is a consequence of the game, although he seems to feel his tactical genius and serial winning status mean he has the right to demand anything all the time. Klopp offers another model.
After seven years each at Mainz and Dortmund, he signed up for 11 at Liverpool. Last week he made Merseyside his home, as north London seems another staging post for Conte, a manager who always covets what he doesn’t have. Klopp can engender loyalty by displaying his own. Maybe Conte’s immediacy helps him get results right away, but they reconnect as the management’s permanent angry drifter, scorching bridge specialist and great empire builder of Anfield.