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Opinion, Unveiling the Tactical Duel: Why Guardiola vs. Klopp Reigns as the Premier League’s Greatest Rivalry

Manchester City and Liverpool battle it out one last season, as Jürgen Klopp's time with the Merseyside club comes to an end this season.

Since the English Premier League’s construction in 1992, there have been numerous legendary clashes, iconic rivalries, and exhilarating battles. Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, and José Mourinho are just a few top managers who have graced the English game. However, amidst all of the footballing excellence that the English game has brought to millions worldwide, there is one rivalry that shines above the rest: Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. 

At the core of this rivalry between Klopp and Guardiola transcends managerial and club competition. It personifies differing club ideologies, managerial philosophies, tactical analysis, and a deep passion and love for the game. Klopp and Guardiola have captivated fans from across the globe due to their differing management styles and intense battles that have transpired over the years.

COMPLETE SUCCESS

(Getty) Pep Guardiola holding his third Premier League title with Manchester City.
(Getty) Pep Guardiola holding his third Premier League title with Manchester City.

Both managers have won everything there is to win. In England, both Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have won the League, League Cup, FA Cup, and the Champions League. Only Sir Alex Ferguson has managed to win all four big trophies. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to win all major trophies in the modern era. With the modern schedule lists and the intensity of the matches compared to 20 years ago, winning all available trophies with one club is incredible. 

(Reuters) Jürgen Klopp celebrating Liverpool’s sixth European Cup.

Some of the most intense title races in Premier League history have occurred when these two managers have gone head-to-head. Liverpool’s point accumulation between 2018 and 2020 was 196 points, losing only four games across two seasons, winning the Premier League title in the 19/20 season. Manchester City has won the Premier League under Guardiola five times, with four title-winning seasons accruing over 90 points, becoming the first team in English top-flight history to break the 100-point barrier in 17/18. 

PHILOSOPHIES 

Pep Guardiola was brought through FC Barcelona’s La Masia academy, where possession-based football and structure-based systems have been taught for decades. Pep made his Barcelona debut on Dec. 16, 1990, under Johan Cruyff’s stewardship. Cruyff’s footballing philosophy was built upon controlling possession, creating a prolonged buildup, and then pouncing on the opposition team when they lost the ball. Cruyff left a lasting legacy on Guardiola, which he would bring into his coaching career when he was hired as FC Barcelona’s coach in 2008. 

“I would not be able to do what he did. You hear all these people saying, ‘Oh Pep, what a good manager he is.’ Forget about it. Cruyff was the best, by far. Creating something new is the difficult part. To make it and build it and get everyone to follow? Amazing,” Guardiola said in an interview with the Guardian. 

Pep Guardiola demands perfection, structure, and respect from his peers. At FC Barcelona, Pep wasn’t afraid to put his foot down and get rid of players who struggled to adjust. Most notably Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was brought into Pep’s side from Inter Milan in 2009. Ibrahimovic was one of the most sought-after forwards in Europe that summer but struggled to make an impact in Spain. The Swedish striker was quick to blame Guardiola stating, “When you buy me, you are buying a Ferrari. If you drive a Ferrari, you put premium petrol in the tank, you hit the motorway and you step on the gas. Guardiola filled up with diesel and took a spin in the countryside. He should have bought a Fiat.”

However, Thierry Henry states that Guardiola was a man of principle. He always demanded respect from his peers and would always put his team first, ahead of any individual. 

“Pep demands a lot from his players. If you were late for training then you didn’t train. The Boss explained how important it is to stay in our positions and trust our teammates to do their jobs, as they will trust you to be in your place and do yours,” stated Thierry Henry. 

‘Tiki-taka’ football became Pep’s way. From 2008 to 2012, Guardiola formed one of the most formidable teams in football history. Winning the Champions League twice, La Liga three times, and unearthing Lionel Messi to the world stage. Pep’s teams suffocated opposition sides, often passing teams to death, finding intricate pockets of space, pinpoint passes, and dominating matches. Guardiola’s ‘masterpiece’ was defeating Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League Finals 3-1. 

(Getty Images) Lionel Messi is celebrating FC Barcelona’s Cup final win against Manchester United.

“They’re the best in Europe, no question about that. In my time as a manager, I would say they’re the best team we’ve faced. Everyone acknowledges that, and I accept that. It’s not easy when you’ve been well beaten like that to think another way,” said Sir Alex Ferguson following Manchester United’s cup final defeat to Barcelona. 

As for Jürgen Klopp, his upbringing to football fame couldn’t have been more different. Klopp played in the second division of German football for Mainz 05. Klopp played for 15 years before retiring in 2001, first as a striker and then as a center-back. He immediately moved to management the same year he retired, taking over from Eckhard Krautzun. He’d steadily build Mainz 05 in the next couple of years, narrowly missing out on back-to-back promotion finishes to qualify for the Bundesliga. However, in Klopp’s third season, they gained promotion and qualified for the Bundesliga. 

Klopp’s time in Germany was awe-inspiring. Financially, Borussia Dortmund and Mainz 05 shouldn’t have been able to compete in the German top flight. In Mainz 05, Klopp had the smallest budget and stadium in the Bundesliga. Retrospectively, they finished mid-table in their first season and qualified for Europe in their second season. At Dortmund, Klopp won back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2010 and 2011, taking Dortmund to the Champions League Final for the first time since 1997. 

(EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY) Klopp shouting instructions during his tenure at Borussia Dortmund.

Jürgen Klopp’s foundations for his managerial career have built upon communication, emotional intelligence, and building trust with one another. ‘Gegenpressing,’ or counter-pressing, is a tactic where a team loses the ball, immediately fighting to win the ball back instead of falling back into defensive shape. Where some teams would rather sit back and absorb the pressure from the opposition, Klopp’s team use their press as their “defensive shape.” It dismantles the opposition’s buildup and often leads to fast transitional moments or counterattacking pieces of play. 

“Jürgen creates a family. We always say: 30 percent tactic, 70 percent team building,” said Pep Ljinders, Liverpool’s assistant coach.

RESPECT AND SHAPING ENGLISH FOOTBALL

When people think of sports rivalries, they automatically think of the deep-rooted hate between the clubs, managers, and fanbases. For Liverpool and Manchester City, there is respect. Both managers have shaped their clubs, cities, and legacies at these clubs.

For Manchester City and its ownership group, the goal is to become the best-run football club on the planet. Since Pep Guardiola’s hiring in 2016, they’ve dominated English football, winning 16 trophies. They’ve shown the world that they are slowly becoming a globally recognized footballing institution, adding their first Champions League title last season. 

Valued and continued success, both on and off the pitch, has been the key to City’s recent success. Investment within their academy system, creating jobs in the greater Manchester area, and building steady, foundational success on the pitch has boosted the City’s commercial and global success.

(James Gill – Danhouse/Getty Images) Manchester City fans celebrating the ‘Poznan.’ 

Manchester City is well on its way to continuing its recent success for multiple years. The current structure has given Pep Guardiola free reign to show the world why he is one of the best football managers ever. 

As for Jürgen Klopp, he came into Liverpool when they needed a complete reset. Liverpool hadn’t won the league title since 1990, over 25 years from the date Jürgen signed for Liverpool in 2015. From day one, Klopp instilled belief and hope into a club and City that couldn’t dare dream. 

“We have to change from doubter to believer,” said Klopp in his first Liverpool press conference.

(Getty) Anfield’s Kop End.

Through each season, improvement followed. Liverpool developed not just playstyle but rebuilt the ethos and philosophy of the club. Like Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, Klopp should be recognized as a pioneer in rebuilding Liverpool’s club stature. What Klopp has been able to do in the eight and half years is truly incredible. And, of course, this isn’t just down to the manager, but when results go well on the pitch and football matches are won, the difficulty of rebuilding is much smoother. 

These two goliaths of the game have not just changed their clubs but have changed the way football is approached in England. Possession-based, high-intensity football has taken over the English game. A league known for the ‘long ball’ approach suddenly saw teams building out from the back, creating engaging yet differing ways to approach how football isn’t just played but taught to the youth levels. Klopp and Guardiola will be seen as the managers who broke down those barriers in the English game and exemplified excellence in all football assets.

Their rivalry will be remembered as a chess match. Every move, every meeting, mattered. Whoever lost a game to the other opponent would often go on and win the league title. They broke points records and win streaks and pushed each other to points neither of the managers felt were possible. Through all the important matches, though, the respect stayed the same. Each manager understands that without their peers, they wouldn’t be where they are today. 

But all good things must come to an end. Klopp announced earlier this season that he would be stepping down as Liverpool’s manager at the end of this season. 

“I can understand that it’s a shock for a lot of people when you hear it for the first time, but obviously, I can explain it – or at least try to explain it. I love absolutely everything about this club, I love everything about the City, I love everything about our supporters, I love the team, I love the staff. I love everything. But that I still take this decision shows you that I am convinced it is the one I have to take. It is that I am, how can I say it, running out of energy,” stated Klopp in an interview on Liverpool’s website. 

Guardiola had kind words for Klopp following his interview, stating, “He has been my biggest rival from when he was at Dortmund and I was at Bayern Munich. He will be missed, personally, I will miss him. I am pleased because without him I will sleep a little bit better the night before we play against Liverpool! But I wish him all the best.”

As it stands, Liverpool and Manchester City have ten more games to play before one is crowned England’s champion. Liverpool sits second behind Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal but one point ahead of third-placed Manchester City. English football’s greatest rivalry has a few more twists and turns before the Klopp/Guardiola chapter can finally be closed…

(Getty) Klopp’s final game at the Etihad Stadium this season.

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