The Champions League final is just five sleeps away, which is both crazy and terrifying. Since this final features not only two Premier League teams but also two clubs with prominent SB Nation blogs, it made sense to do some collaboration. Noel Chomyn, the managing editor of The Liverpool Offside, and I got together on Sunday evening for a long chat on Slack where we talked about a lot of things — the weight of expectations, the promise of terrible banter, and funky midfields (or the lack thereof).
Here’s the weird thing about sports fandom: it’s not all encompassing. I’m obviously not a Liverpool fan, but much like our Arsenal counterparts over at The Short Fuse, I quite like Noel and his staff at TLO. The mutual respect that we have for each other meant we ended up with what I thought was an interesting, and sometimes self-reflective, chat.
The first part of our conversation is featured on The Liverpool Offside. This is Part 2.
Dustin: I’d like to say that if we manage to win on Saturday that Spurs fans will be too busy celebrating our first-ever Champions League title to engage in the banter. But I know better. And it won’t stop on Saturday. Still, that’s part of why there’s more tension and excitement for this final than if we’d been facing almost anyone else.
Noel: I mean, it’s probably safe to say that between us we have the two most insufferable fanbases in the Premier League. At least that’s the perception amongst fans of other clubs—and insufferable would probably how each of us would describe the other.
So. I bristled at people not wanting us to win the league because we’d be insufferable, but if we had won? We would have been insufferable. And if we win this? We’ll be insufferable.
Dustin: Us too! I mean, fans are bad.
Noel: More often than not. But I definitely think there’s something about how Spurs and Liverpool fans embrace what successes their clubs have had in recent years that rubs a lot of people the wrong way.
Dustin: Spurs aren’t supposed to be here. Not this early. The original plan under Pochettino was to get to the point where Spurs were regularly qualifying for the Champions League by the time we opened the stadium, not in a position to win it. It’s an opportunity to finally say Spurs have arrived, that they can sit at the adult table. We’ve had an inferiority complex for decades. We’re one win away from burying that forever.
Noel: I’ve been trying to figure out if we should be calling it the Insufferable Derby or the Pinocchio Derby—winner gets turned into a real boy. Or football club. Or something. And either way is going to be very, very smug about it.
Dustin: If I could cheekily try and summarize the perception of our respective fanbases, for Liverpool it’s “We deserve to win things every season because of history.” For Spurs it’s “Please like our football club.”
Noel: If I could quibble, I think it’s less “deserve to” and more “believe we will.” For all that it can manifest as a kind of delusion of grandeur, I don’t know any Liverpool fans who think we’re deserved anything on account of history. Really, for most of the past decade (or three) we’ve been about tricking ourselves into believing we’re better than we are and then being surprised when reality hits.
Only it does feel a bit like we might be somewhere close to that place that Liverpool used to occupy, back in the before times, but for real now. This is the strongest we’ve been in the Premier League era—finances, manager, squad, stadium, etc.—and it feels a bit like all we’re missing is a major trophy. Get that and our battle station is fully armed and operational and the rest of the league, bar City at least, get to cower in fear again.
Dustin: And to critically self-examine Spurs, one of my biggest beefs with the fanbase is how quick we are to put our heads down at the first sign of adversity. I think I can say unequivocally that Spurs are no longer “Spursy.” We haven’t been for a while. We are, however, extremely sensitive about having that used as a stick to beat us with to the point we tend to be the first to trot it out whenever we lose a game that we maybe could have won. It’s maddening. If we lose on Saturday, I wonder if it’ll happen again.
I don’t know if this is the best team we’ve had during the Pochettino era—the lack of a midfield is pretty important and it feels at times like he’s dragged the exhausted carcasses of this team to the point we are today. But it’s a good team.
Noel: You say Spurs lack a midfield, but with Alli and Eriksen I think most would pick yours over ours. Is that just a reflection of everybody else really not understanding what makes this Spurs side click?
Dustin: It’s kind of odd that both Spurs and Liverpool have tactics this season that minimize the importance of, or (in Spurs’ case) often abandon midfield entirely. Liverpool shunt the ball to the fullbacks to kickstart the offense from wide areas while Spurs have been playing with what we call the “air-raid offense,” with deep passes from the center backs over the heads to the attacking midfielders.
I don’t get the sense that this is really how Pochettino wants to play, but he’s managed to shoehorn a Moussa Sissoko-shaped object into midfield and let him run around and kick people, and it’s worked.
Noel: It’s a weird tactical parallel but definitely true. For us it feels like everyone has spent the season shaking their heads at our boring midfield without understanding that with how we’ve set up, boring is a feature and not a bug. We had 89 league goals this season—more than in the last one. Our fullbacks both broke the Premier League defender assist record. That the midfield allowed them act as quasi-wingers in turn allowed our forwards to play narrow. Plug in a not-boring AM and maybe it all breaks down.
As to whether or not Klopp wants to play like that I have no idea, but it’s worked a charm and developed into something that can be a lot of fun.
Dustin: I mean, when you have wingbacks as good as Robertson and Alexander-Arnold, you play to your strengths, but that has been Spurs’ Achilles heel this season so we’ve had to find other ways to push the ball quickly into attacking positions. For us it’s come from the passing ability from deep of Toby Alerweireld and Jan Vertonghen.
Noel: I’d maybe expected a little more positivity from the Tottenham side—after all, like you said, you’re ahead of schedule. Then it’s all “exhausted carcasses” and “lack of a midfield” and you seem almost as nervous about it as I am. I guess, though, that where Spurs are now, it isn’t that different to us with Klopp. All the great work Levy has done horse trading over the years, what Poch has done—but it’s missing a trophy to prove you deserve to be in the conversation as one of England and Europe’s top clubs.
As Liverpool fans—and I imagine it’s the same for Arsenal—we sometimes laugh at the way Spurs are proud of finishing ahead of us a few times because we feel, push comes to shove, we still matter more. We’re sleeping giants and you’re the plucky upstarts with an inferiority complex. Only if you win this, you’re not upstarts any more. Win this, and any time someone says “Spursy” you can point to your European Cup. Ahead of schedule or not, the chance to take a step like that is big, and that adds a lot of pressure.
Dustin: I think you’ve put the finger on why this means so much, and not just because it’s a European Championship. It’s that sense we’re trying to gatecrash what has been a pretty exclusive club, one that has been defined more by money than by anything else. Which is kind of ironic considering Spurs are now the tenth richest club in the world.
And since we’re saying nice things about each other’s team, I have to say that I have really, really enjoyed watching this Klopp team play. It felt unnecessarily cruel to see them go through a 90+ point season with one loss and still lose the title. If we’re worried about this game it’s as much because Liverpool is really good as it is worrying about Harry Kane’s ankle and Jan Vertonghen’s hip.
Noel: I mean, when you get down to it there are a lot of similarities in how the two teams have been built. An assist to analytics, cult-of-personality managers, rich by almost any measure but not rich like City or United or Madrid—both still have to sell to buy and work every angle to keep up. It’s probably the root of that Spurs-Liverpool enmity, really, because I know that as much as I want to win and get the trophy that proves we’re back, I don’t want a Spurs side with so many similarities to win and earn their place at the adult table at our expense.
Thanks to Noel for the chat. Check out The Liverpool Offside for the view from the other side of this Champions League final, and if you missed it you can read Part 1 of our conversation over there.