A gripping rivalry between two great football coaches

What makes the sport such a spectacle is its thrilling rivalries. The stars provide the shine, but rivalries – whether between individuals or teams – are the heart and soul of the sport. The rivals enhance each other’s accomplishments and leave no room for complacency. The English Premier League has seen several such rivalries over the decades and it is these gripping battles that make it one of the most popular leagues in all sport in the world.

The Alex Ferguson (Manchester United) vs. Arsene Wenger (Arsenal) chapter captured football fans’ imaginations for their intense rivalry from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s. Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho then took over from Ferguson and indulged in some ugly feuds with Wenger, going so far as he even traded touches with the Frenchman on the touchline. Mourinho, who joined Manchester United after a row with Chelsea, resumed his bitter battle with Pep Guardiola when the Spanish tactician joined Manchester City. However, these are just a few examples, with the Premier League being a great arena for several other feuds.

The one that’s garnering global attention, even drawing neutrals to watch alongside their die-hard fans, is the feud between Manchester City’s Guardiola and Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp. The pair have spearheaded the Premier League, opening a daylight gap between them and others and have been at the forefront of their respective sides’ achievements since taking over.

“The magnitude of our achievement lies in the size of this rival,” said an emotional but enthusiastic Guardiola after guiding City to an incredible fourth Premier League title in five years last Sunday. “I’ve never had a rival like Liverpool in my career as a footballer or manager,” added the Spaniard, who is now the Premier League’s most successful foreign manager in terms of league titles won.

“I could say that City are the toughest opponents I’ve ever faced, but it wasn’t much easier when I faced Pep’s Bayern Munich. We push each other crazy,” Klopp is said to have said about Guardiola.

Unlike the grudge fights between Ferguson and Wenger or Mourinho and Wenger, there is little reason for superiority between Guardiola and Klopp despite the intense war their respective sides have waged over the past five years. Despite City triumphing four of the last five times in the EPL, it was Liverpool who beat them on that single occasion in 2019/20. Twice Liverpool lost by a point to City on the final day of the season, having accumulated 97 points (2018/19) and 92 points (2021/22) respectively. The dominance of City and Liverpool was phenomenal.

Aside from mutual respect for each other – the beautiful aspect of their constant striving to be the best team – the unique paths and styles they follow added to all the drama. Their football brands are different. Both have followed the same ideology that created them; Guardiola with his short fast passing style (an evolution of tiki-taka) and Klopp with his high-octane “counterpressing” method, which he describes as “heavy metal”. Guardiola hasn’t given his brand of football any such musical connotations, but it can be described as jazz – smooth and relaxing even for the casual spectator.

When Guardiola first joined City in 2016, many pundits in England felt the Spaniard was doomed despite scoring a treble – La Liga, Champions League and Copa del Rey – in his first season with Barcelona in 2008/09 – and won the club to unprecedented success during a four-year reign. He then became coach of FC Bayern Munich and won three Bundesliga crowns and two German cups. Many felt Guardiola’s short passing style – some moves even coming from the goalkeeper – was unsuitable for the thunder and noise of English football, where even lower-ranked teams play with energy, panache and confidence. They said the Guardiola style could only work in Spain and was bullied in England.

Guardiola, who chose City after being hunted down by a multitude of teams for “the project he liked” and the freedom he would be given in implementing it, didn’t speak much at the time. He preferred to make results talk, and that made a loud noise. He got rid of players who didn’t agree with his plans, built a team around his ideas and the players are just happy to play to his marks, many of them developing into better individuals. Plenty of opponents tried to disrupt that harmonious play and while some managed a game here or there, the consistency of City’s possession football was compelling.

Guardiola is also not known for setting standards. This season, he played the vast majority of games without a direct centre-forward, giving more responsibility to his ball-playing midfielders, who confused opposing defenses with their constant interplay. No one would dare go an entire season without a striker, but Guardiola did and his men scored a whopping 99 goals – the most by any team that season.

The only black spot on the CV that Guardiola is trying to erase is the lack of a Champions League title with Bayern or City. He came close last year but botched tactics in the final against a Thomas Tuchel-inspired Chelsea. Guardiola will be chasing that again next year and if he succeeds, his greatness will only increase.

Klopp was brought to Liverpool in October 2015 by co-owner John W. Henry, based on a mathematical model developed by Cambridge physicist Ian Graham – a method very similar to Moneyball (the book was then made into a featured film) – to help get the fighting reds back to their glory days. Klopp had won two Bundesliga and DFB Cup titles with Borussia Dortmund and caused a stir with his football. Liverpool saw a future in his bold style and the German has taken the Reds back to when they dominated English football.

Klopp’s high pressing and winning the ball at any cost directly after conceding demands a lot from the players. There is much running and chasing with very little time to catch your breath. And Klopp demands that game after game, season after season. It is physically demanding and psychologically demanding, but its players, brilliantly programmed by the German, enjoy it. In fact, they live off it and function like machines. Manager after manager has struggled to contain the power and energy Liverpool play with. The forward trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino tearing down opponents with Ferrari speed is a sight to behold.

Klopp actually chased something no manager in England had done before – a quadruple. Liverpool, who played Real Madrid in the Champions League final on May 28, had already won the Carabao Cup and the FA Cup. Last Sunday, with City trailing 2-0, it looked for a moment as if Liverpool were on course, but Guardiola’s men staged an incredible comeback to deny them a shot in history.

Unlike Guardiola, Klopp won the Champions League for Liverpool in 2018/19, a year after losing the final to Real Madrid. By the time you read this article, Klopp could have exacted revenge. If he couldn’t, he’s still adored by Liverpool.

Guardiola and Klopp, still young, are set to resume their feud in a few months and will, as always, be compelling to watch.

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