At the final whistle of the first duel between Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp in the English Premier League, a scrappy game Liverpool nailed 1-0 at Anfield in December 2016, the DJ played out the Starship track Nothing Gonna Stop Us Now.
Nothing, though, seemed to suggest the mesmerising brand of football both managers would produce to enchant the world over the next five years. The match was a turgid affair with just three shots on goal.
City finished third that season, Liverpool just behind them. The steering of English football seemed secure in the hands of Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, runaway leaders, and the emerging Mauricio Pochettino. Klopp and Guardiola were afterthoughts than protagonists that season. The path of greatness then seemed distant.
But since then, they have recast English football in their mould, making England the centre of the footballing galaxy. In a short time, they have ensured that they will be remembered for the glorious football they have been orchestrating, week after week, year after year in the last four years, and producing a fierce but beautiful rivalry comparable to the El Classico peak, or the Arsene Wenger-Alex Ferguson era. Almost without fail, the pair have fought over the high ground of expressive winning football.
Theirs is total domination, in style and substance; in art and the quest for artistic perfection. In the last four years, City have kissed the league title twice; Liverpool once, but have in that span won the slice of glory that City so desperately covet, the Champions League. On the suspenseful final day of the league, both are in contention for the title. City, leading Liverpool by a lone point, cannot afford to freeze, against Aston Villa, a side managed by Liverpool immortal Steven Gerrard. Liverpool host Wolverhampton Wanderers, fuelled by dreams of a champagne night, before they wrestle with Real Madrid for Champions League glory a week later.
Wherever those trophies end up, how much drama and thrill, joy and hurt are to unfold, these two clubs are playing football on a different realm, an unattainable space, for their competitors, both home and abroad. What makes their ascent to greatness unique is how differently they have approached the peak, showing that the antidote to attacking football is not defensive football, but attacking football itself, thus stressing the evolutionary truth that there is no saturation point for the sport’s evolution. It just transforms from one shape to another. Beautiful football can be played in beautifully different ways.
Both Klopp and Guardiola are at once similar and dissimilar, similar in the unshakeable belief that football should be entertaining, dissimilar in how they choose their vehicle for entertainment. Guardiola is the master of order, every player functions like a piece of machine, the movements and patterns elegantly choreographed; everyone has the space to operate and not to operate. He sees football as a ballet, where roles are nuclear-specific, movements precise and fast yet languorous.
A typical Guardiola move involves elaborate build-up in the midfield and emphasis on positional play. Though he has long moved away from tiki taka, the fundamental philosophy still revolves around possession. The nucleus of his side, like any other side, is the midfield. The most creative of his players have always been midfielders, often a twin axis, from Xavi and Andres Iniesta to Bernardo Silva to Kevin de Bruyne. At City, he has a plethora of technically-gifted midfield creators, who are not necessarily nippy but intuitive. As a team, they prefer to operate more centrally.
Even their full-backs, like Joao Cancelo, often abandon the flanks, cut in and travel through the centre, thus narrowing the lines and wading through the traffic with their technical mastery and nimble-footedness rather than pace and power. An unsung aspect of Guardiola is his experimental streak —though the changes are subtler than radical — his predilection to work around with his players, deploying them in different positions. For example, Phil Foden has donned roles from a false nine to winger, de Bruyne has featured in most roles in the forward line as well as midfield. There have been instances when some of the tactics have misfired, but often Guardiola makes them work.
Speed and creativity
Contrastingly, Klopp is the conductor of organised chaos. A typical Klopp move takes place at maddening pace, with an overload on flanks, and players inter-changing positions, inevitably, breathlessly.
His most creative players are his wingmen, 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, of bruising hard-tacklers and ball- winners. More pick-up trucks than City’s Rolls Royces. Liverpool, in the early Klopp years, had a more expansive midfield, and hence were vulnerable to losing balls cheaply and allowing rapid counters. To plug this vulnerability, Klopp employed no-frills central midfielders, such as Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, who put immense work rate to support the pressing game and drop back for defensive duties when the flying full-backs marauded forward. Unlike Guardiola, Klopp is averse to tinkering, unless there is an absolute necessity.
Thus, as devoted as both teams are towards attacking football, they are antithetical too. Just like the personalities of the coaches. Though Guardiola has swapped his blazer and waistcoat for a long-sleeved black t-shirt and jeans, he continues to be a fashion icon, the stubble and bald look quite a rage. Klopp often turns up in a tracksuit and sneakers, his black LFC cap often turned back like a baseball player. Klopp wanted to be a doctor while Guardiola wanted to be a footballer since he could remember. The latter is an avid art lover and loves his golf. Klopp loves the Rocky movies, and doesn’t hesitate to throw in the odd analogy (one of his pet lines: “Liverpool are still Rocky Balboa, not Ivan Drago). Guardiola is an introvert; Klopp an extrovert.
But unlike the peak Wenger-Ferguson rivalry days, there is hardly any rancour between them, but they wouldn’t be spotted sipping coffee or wine together. “Our relationship is good but he is right – how can we be friends? We never meet, but we have each other’s numbers. We had a few of the same personal issues and we shared messages, but we don’t call each other,” Klopp said recently.
Theirs is essentially a professional relationship bound by a thread of mutual respect. A mirror to each other’s success. “He helped me, his teams helped me, to be a better manager. He put me at another level to think and to 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 some managers, and Jurgen is one of them, who challenges you to take a step forward,” Guardiola once said.
Their footballing journeys, too, ran differently. Barcelona plucked Guardiola when he was barely a teenager; he imbibed all the ideals of Barcelona godfather Johan Cruyff and plied them at elite level for 15 years as a deep-lying playmaker with finesse. Klopp began as a sloppy striker and ended up as a right-back. A haul of 52 goals in 325 games for Mainz (mostly in the second division) tells the story of his positional swap. At one point, Klopp was so worried about his footballing future that he tried sports reporting for a local television channel. Guardiola chiselled his footballing intelligence under some of the deepest thinkers of the game (Cruyff, Louis van Gaal, Bobby Robson). Wolfgang Frank, whose best moment was plotting Mainz’s promotion) was Klopp’s inspiration. Frank, though, was a revolutionary ahead of his time as he debunked the German footballing practices of his times. He dispelled the sweeper and sharpened his men to press when they lost possession. Later, Klopp was to refine the pressing game and make it a new-age footballing nuclear weapon.
Orchestrating an experience
United they are on the definitive purpose of the game. “As Jürgen has said many times before, titles are just like numbers, it’s the emotion that people feel during the 90 minutes that they’re watching us that’s the real reason we’re in the job,” Guardiola said during a managers’ meeting. A quadruple for Liverpool matters; as does the league title for City. But in the end, it’s for the football they produce that they would be remembered.
No better evidence of the tactic’s acceptance than Guardiola embracing it, though not as relentlessly as Klopp. Though passing and possession are the soul of Guardiola’s sides, pressing too has become a vital part of his team. Simultaneously, Klopp has encouraged his teams to keep the ball longer than ever before. Relentless pressing could tire his own team, besides there was a time when opposition teams deliberately lost the ball to disarray the pressing game and throw them out of their comfort zone. Back in his Borussia Dortmund days, Klopp almost always played with a striker, but in England he has preferred the False 9 (a Guardiola fetish). For much of Guardiola’s English reign, he fielded a conventional striker (Sergio Aguero). When the Argentine departed, he was desperate for Harry Kane’s elusive signature, and has now landed Erling Haaland. Similarly, Klopp has a more progressive midfielder in Thiago Alcantara, besides a more attack-minded Curtis Jones. When Jones features, Alexander-Arnold drifts into central midfield as a defensive screen.
The end result is two teams playing irresistible football, under two of the deepest thinkers of the game. One metes out death by passes; the other pronounces death by pressing. And the DJs at Etihad and Anfield can belt out the song: “Nothing Gonna Stop Us Now.”