Antonio Conte and Jurgen Klopp share inheritance issues
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola was musing about the difficulties of implementing a different way of playing as new eras began. The advantage, he felt, lay with sides who were more attuned to their coach's thinking.
"All the teams have to improve," he said on Monday. "Especially when the managers are new. When you see Liverpool or Tottenham with [Mauricio] Pochettino, they are clear what they do in 90 minutes. The new managers like [at Manchester] United, or us, or Chelsea, I realise how tough it is."
Guardiola's point may be proved on Friday. He had stressed how impressed he was with Chelsea's performance [in the 2-2 draw] against Swansea, but their meeting with Liverpool is a clash of teams at different stages of their development. It is the first year for Antonio Conte, the second, albeit a first full season, for Jurgen Klopp. If Guardiola suggested the Liverpool manager represents a role model for newcomers, he is also an illustration that things take time.
Deprived of the advantage a preseason offers, denied his own signings, with the possible exception of irrelevant loanee Steven Caulker, and drained by runs to two cup finals in a season that eventually spanned 63 matches, Klopp's first league campaign was undistinguished. His 30 league games produced 48 points, an average of 1.6 per fixture. It revealed a predictable inconsistency even if the highs, including a 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge, may have been higher than many anticipated, and the lows, such as the lamentable defeats at Watford, West Ham and Newcastle, were demoralising.
Apart from the small band of Klopp sceptics, most had the understanding to afford him leeway, if not a free pass. An exception, it appears, was the German himself. He said last month: "I decided before I signed the contract that this would be my new team. I know it was something like an excuse for me that I hadn't signed all the players, but I never felt like that. That's not my kind of thinking."
It was a laudable attempt to accept responsibility that ties in with German's collectivist principles but, like Conte now, it is an understatement to say Klopp inherited some players who were not ideally suited to his style of play.
A manager who wants his pressing game to begin at the front was bequeathed strikers, in Christian Benteke and Daniel Sturridge, who tend to be more static off the ball. One who likes energy took over a team with some players who not fit or fast enough. One who requires a goalkeeper who can double up as a sweeper was gifted Simon Mignolet, a sporadically good shot-stopper but who is reluctant to leave his line.
Conte has similar issues in his first season, compounded by a transfer window when Chelsea only managed to sign two players before the final day and left their late acquisitions, Marcos Alonso and David Luiz, scarcely looking as if they were their manager's prime targets. When Conte took over at Juventus, he was able to shape a side with summer arrivals of Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Simone Pepe and Mirko Vucinic, all pivotal figures. There has been no such overhaul at Stamford Bridge. Continuity has been enforced.
The Italian spent preseason talking about his determination to play 4-2-4. When the season started, however, Chelsea were configured in the 4-2-3-1 formation that has been their default shape for a decade. While Michy Batshuayi had been signed, Conte needed another forward -- such as mooted targets Romelu Lukaku and Alvaro Morata -- to have a strike duo and a third potent finisher on the bench.
He looked to play an up-tempo game with a high defensive line, but began the campaign with the 35-year-old John Terry as one of his two centre-backs. Luiz at least offers more athleticism, but a manager who is accustomed to the excellence of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli was presented with an altogether more erratic performer.
A manager who prospered using 3-5-2 with both Juventus and Italy did not even have the option of a third centre-back until Luiz arrived (along with Alonso, who could allow Branislav Ivanovic to adopt a central role if Cesar Azpilicueta switches to the right). That said, the presence of attacking wingers, in Eden Hazard and Willian (and the exit of Juan Cuadrado on loan to Juventus) rendered that shape unlikely anyway.
But in midfield, Conte's plans to operate with an all-action duo required the recruitment of a box-to-box marauder in the mould of Roma's Radja Nainggolan. Instead, N'Golo Kante arrived from Leicester to be joined by the old firm, in the form of Nemanja Matic and Oscar. The dropped Cesc Fabregas has the potential to prove his Benteke, first omitted and then sold, or his Sturridge, a footballer whose quality dictates he can play a part despite the reality he represents an imperfect fit for his manager's style of play.
Conte has begun his reign fielding 10 survivors of Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink's regimes in his starting XI. Klopp's feat in reaching the Capital One Cup and Europa League finals when fielding a full complement of Brendan Rodgers' men showed a forthright, full-blooded character can compromise. That he did so when Liverpool only came eighth in the league indicates that Rodgers' (and the transfer committee's, and Rafa Benitez's and Kenny Dalglish's) men did not always bring the best from their manager.
Liverpool now have more the look of Klopp, with signings notable for their physicality, whether the height of Joel Matip or the pace of Sadio Mane. There are quixotic choices, such as James Milner at left-back or Lucas Leiva standing in at centre-back, but they seem Klopp's idiosyncratic decisions. The most uneasy compromises are in goal, at least until Loris Karius replaces Mignolet, and in attack, with the job-share between Sturridge, Roberto Firmino and Divock Origi.
Conte is discovering, like many a predecessor before, that managers come and go at Chelsea while players remain. Apart from during Mourinho's twin spells, their identity has revolved around players, not coaches. So, besides the challenge of a new country, a new league and a new language, he faces a further examination of his adaptability: to refine his plans and to modify his principles to suit the players at his disposal. The Klopp precedent may be simultaneously encouraging and disheartening.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.