You could forgive Pep Guardiola for secretly scoffing at all this talk about a personal contest with Jurgen Klopp ahead of Manchester City’s visit to Liverpool on Sunday.
A rivalry? Sure, the German has a better head-to-head record in thirteen previous meetings. But in terms of silverware won, Klopp can’t pretend to be on the same page. The last of his three major trophies (two Bundesliga championships, one DFB Pokal) dates back to 2012, while the two-time Champions League winner from Santpedor is out to win his eighth league title in ten years of coaching.
In Germany, Guardiola’s arrival to Bayern Munich in 2013 coincided with Borussia Dortmund losing ground as player departures and injuries started to bite, and opposition teams found ways to negate BVB’s pressing game. Klopp’s men could still win the odd game against the Bavarians — their superb Umschaltspiel (i.e., transition) ruthlessly exploited the tiniest of failings in Bayern’s high-possession game — but it was no coincidence that all three of Klopp’s wins either came in the early-season Supercup, when Guardiola’s men were not at their sharpest or after the record champions had already wrapped up a title.
None of those defeats truly hurt Guardiola. He took his side to new heights of total supremacy, while Klopp’s full throttle approach had all but run its course after nearly seven years in the job and his Borussia squad, exhausted and depleted, were no longer in a genuine position to challenge home or abroad.
The Swabian and his club bosses were much angrier about Bayern poaching two of their best players, Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandwoski, then they let on at the time. But the hostility never spilt over into the two dugouts. Guardiola and Klopp remained unfailingly polite and fair in their dealings with each other. Their different footballing and coaching backgrounds as well very contrasting philosophies seemed only to increase the professional respect they felt for each other, even if a lack of common ground or emotional connection has precluded their relationship from moving beyond the purely collegial.
The financial and qualitative imbalance between the two teams at each man’s disposal carried over into the Premier League in 2016, with by and large the same outcome. No other team has caused Man City repeatedly as many problems as Liverpool in the last two seasons, culminating in the run-away-league-winners painful elimination in the Champions League quarterfinals this spring. The inherent vulnerability of Guardiola’s approach to the high pressing and vertical game Klopp’s Reds excel in hasn’t altered the basic dynamic thus far, however.
The same tactics that have seen City lose a few battles against Liverpool, their very own footballing kryptonite, have also helped them win the war in the 2017-18 season. City’s sophisticated passing game and incredibly talented squad have produced better, more consistent results, with the 100 points championship as their crowning achievement. A more fortunate draw pitting them against more amenable opposition could well have brought success in Europe, too.
It’s to Klopp’s credit that his team are seen as capable of breaking Guardiola’s stranglehold in the current campaign. His Liverpool have made giant strides forward in all areas of the pitch, and despite the set-back they suffered in Naples in mid-week, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if they were to ambush the champions’ metronomic brilliance with some well-timed guerrilla attacks on Sunday.
The danger of history repeating itself must be clear enough for Guardiola to at least consider the most dramatic of measures: a retreat to a more pragmatic approach.
“Success without playing the way you like to play means nothing to me,” he reiterated not long ago. But at Bayern, he twice felt the need to compromise his own principles when faced with Klopp, his tactical nemesis. In his first Bundesliga away game at Dortmund, he bypassed the home side’s pressing with long ball towards Javi Martinez, who was hunting down second balls high up the pitch as an ingenious “false ten” before killing BVB off with some choice second-half substitutions. He won 3-0 that way.
Later that season, in the 2014 DFB Pokal final, Bayern, short on morale and numbers, played an unashamedly reactive game, absorbing pressure to come away with a fortunate 2-0 win in extra-time. Getting Guardiola to temporarily forsake his ideals was a pyrrhic victory for Klopp. He’d much prefer the Spaniard to play his usual game at Anfield, no doubt, and take a win in return.
Irrespective of the outcome of this thrilling clash of two opposing but equally pleasing styles — juxtaposing the measured with the frenzied, and the methodic with the explosive — the larger challenge for both coaches lies in becoming a little more like each other, ironically enough. Whereas Klopp’s title ambitions necessitate continued improvement of Liverpool’s possession and combination game, Guardiola would in turn do well to teach his players to thrive without the ball occasionally and to also hone his man-management skills. Without the strong emotional bond he enjoyed with his team in Barcelona — where players fully bought into him as well as his ideas — the dream of total dominance at the Etihad will be much harder to achieve.