At the final whistle of the first duel between Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp in the English Premier League, a scrappy game that Liverpool nailed 1-0 at Anfield in December 2016, the DJ played the Starship track Nothing Gonna Stop Us Now.
Nothing, however, seemed to suggest the fascinating brand of football the two managers would produce to delight the world over the next five years. The match was a turgid affair with just three shots on goal.
City finished third that season, with Liverpool just behind them. The management of English football seemed secure in the hands of fugitive leaders Antonio Conte’s Chelsea and the emerging Mauricio Pochettino. Klopp and Guardiola were afterthoughts than protagonists this season. The path to greatness seemed distant then.
But they have since recast English football in their mould, making England the center of the footballing galaxy. In no time they have made sure they will be remembered for the glorious football they have orchestrated, week after week, year after year over the past four years, and producing a fierce but beautiful rivalry comparable to the peak of El Classico, or the Arsène Wenger-Alex Ferguson era. Almost flawlessly, the pair battled to the heights of expressive, winning football.
Their domination is total, in style and substance; in art and the quest for artistic perfection. In the past four years, City have kissed the league title twice; Liverpool once, but in that time won the slice of glory City so desperately covet, the Champions League. On the last suspenseful day of the league, the two are in contention for the title. City, leading Liverpool by a single point, cannot afford a freeze against Aston Villa, a side managed by Liverpool immortal Steven Gerrard. Liverpool welcome Wolverhampton Wanderers, fueled by dreams of a champagne night, before battling Real Madrid for Champions League glory a week later.
Wherever these trophies end up, how much drama and thrill, joy and pain must unfold, these two clubs are playing football in a different realm, a space unreachable, for their competitors, both at home and abroad. foreign. What makes their rise to greatness unique is the difference in how they approached the top, showing that the antidote to attacking football is not defensive football, but attacking football itself, underscoring the evolutionary truth that there is no saturation point for the evolution of sport. It simply transforms from one form to another. Beautiful football can be played in different ways.
Klopp and Guardiola are both similar and different, similar in the unwavering belief that football should be entertaining, different in the way they choose their vehicle of entertainment. Guardiola is the master of order, each player works like a piece of machinery, the movements and patterns elegantly choreographed; everyone has the space to operate and not to operate. He sees football as a ballet, where the roles are nuclear specific, the movements precise and fast but languid.
A typical Guardiola move involves an elaborate build-up in midfield and an emphasis on positional play. Although he has long since moved away from tiki taka, the fundamental philosophy still revolves around possession. The core of his team, like any other team, is the midfield. Its most creative players have always been midfielders, often dual axis, from Xavi and Andres Iniesta to Bernardo Silva and Kevin de Bruyne. At City, he has a plethora of technically gifted midfield builders, who are not necessarily sharp but intuitive. As a team, they prefer to operate more centrally.
Even their full-backs, like Joao Cancelo, often abandon the flanks, cut and run through the middle, narrowing the lines and wading through traffic with their technical mastery and agility rather than their speed and power. A misunderstood aspect of Guardiola is his experimental streak – although the changes are more subtle than drastic – his predilection for working with his players, deploying them in different positions. For example, Phil Foden has taken on roles ranging from false nine to winger, de Bruyne has played in most roles in the forward line as well as in midfield. There have been instances where certain tactics have failed, but often Guardiola makes them work.
Speed and creativity
In contrast, Klopp is the conductor of organized chaos. A typical Klopp move unfolds at breakneck pace, with overload on the flanks, and players changing position, inevitably, out of breath.
His most creative players are his wingers, Mohammed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right and Sadio Mane or Luis Diaz and Andy Robertson on the left. The midfield is more fire and brimstone, tough killer tacklers and ball winners. More vans than the Rolls Royces of City. Liverpool, in Klopp’s early years, had a larger midfield and were therefore vulnerable to losing balls cheaply and allowing quick counters. To fill that vulnerability, Klopp employed no-frills central midfielders, such as Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, who put in immense work-rate to support the pressing play and fall back for defensive duties when the flying full-backs marauded towards the front. Unlike Guardiola, Klopp is averse to tinkering unless absolutely necessary.
So, as dedicated as the two teams are to attacking football, they are also antithetical. Just like the personalities of the coaches. Although Guardiola has swapped his blazer and waistcoat for a black long sleeve t-shirt and jeans, he continues to be a fashion icon, the stubble and bald look is all the rage. Klopp often shows up in a tracksuit and trainers, his black LFC cap often turned around like a baseball player. Klopp wanted to be a doctor while Guardiola wanted to be a footballer since he remembered. The latter is an art enthusiast and loves his golf. Klopp loves Rocky movies and doesn’t hesitate to make a strange analogy (one of his favorite lines: “Liverpool is always Rocky Balboa, not Ivan Drago). Guardiola is an introvert; Klopp an extrovert.
But unlike the peak of the Wenger-Ferguson rivalry, there’s hardly any hard feelings between them, but they wouldn’t be seen sipping coffee or wine together. “Our relationship is good but he’s right – how can we be friends? We never meet, but we have each other’s numbers. We had some of the same personal issues and we shared messages, but we don’t call each other,” Klopp said recently.
Their relationship is essentially a professional relationship tied by a thread of mutual respect. A mirror of the success of the other. “He helped me, his teams helped me, to be a better manager. He put me on another level to think and prove to myself what I have to do to be a better manager. That’s the reason why I’m still in this business. There are managers, and Jurgen is one of them, who challenge you to take a step forward,” Guardiola said.
Their football journeys have also unfolded differently. Barcelona picked up Guardiola when he was barely a teenager; he took all the ideals of Barcelona godfather Johan Cruyff and applied them at elite level for 15 years as a deep playmaker with finesse. Klopp started as a sloppy striker and ended up as a right-back. A run of 52 goals in 325 games for Mainz (mostly in the second division) tells the story of his position swap. At one point, Klopp was so worried about his footballing future that he tried sports reporting for a local TV channel. Guardiola has chiseled his footballing intelligence under some of the game’s deepest thinkers (Cruyff, Louis van Gaal, Bobby Robson). Wolfgang Frank, whose best moment was preparing for the Mainz promotion) was Klopp’s inspiration. Frank, however, was a revolutionary ahead of his time as he demystified German football practices of his time. He dispelled the sweeper and honed his men to press when they lost possession. Later, Klopp was to refine the press game and turn it into a nuke of new-age football.
Orchestrate an experience
United, they are on the final goal of the game. “As Jürgen has said many times before, titles are like numbers, it’s the emotion that people feel during the 90 minutes they watch us that is the real reason we are at work,” Guardiola told a managers’ meeting. . A quadruple for Liverpool counts; just like the title of champion of City. But in the end, it is for the football they produce that they will be remembered.
No better proof of acceptance of the tactic than Guardiola embracing it, but not as relentlessly as Klopp. Although passing and possession are the lifeblood of Guardiola’s teams, pressing has also become an essential part of his team. Simultaneously, Klopp encouraged his teams to keep the ball longer than ever. Incessant pressing could tire his own team, moreover there was a time when opposing teams deliberately lost the ball to disrupt the game of pressing and throw them out of their comfort zone. During his Borussia Dortmund days, Klopp almost always played with a striker, but in England he preferred the False 9 (a Guardiola fetish). For much of Guardiola’s English reign, he fielded a conventional striker (Sergio Aguero). When the Argentine left he was desperate for the elusive signing of Harry Kane and has now landed at Erling Haaland. Likewise, Klopp has a more progressive midfield in Thiago Alcantara, in addition to a more attacking Curtis Jones. When Jones appears, Alexander-Arnold drifts into central midfield as a defensive screen.
The end result is two teams playing irresistible football, led by two of the game’s deepest thinkers. Passing death is inflicted; the other pronounces death by pressure. And DJs from Etihad and Anfield can sing the song: “Nothing Gonna Stop Us Now”.