Guardiola and self-doubt: the Klopp effect

Alan O’Brien 

When ideology meets pressure there is usually only one winner. History is littered with raging socialists whose left-wing zeal quickly moderated upon assuming any significant responsibility. In Greece, Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza party stands as the most recent high-profile example. Anti-establishmentarianism quickly morphed into fiscal rectitude when the time came to stick or twist.

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Jurgen Klopp (left) and Pep Guardiola (right), head to head (Credit: Independent.ie)

Tsipras willingly twisted, as did Ireland’s Labour Party throughout their most recent stint in power. Their people have not thanked them for it; Syriza will almost certainly meet Labour’s fate at the next election. But perhaps the Greeks might be more understanding. When the heat is on, maintaining one’s deeply-held beliefs is tough, after all. Just look at football’s greatest ideologue, Pep Guardiola.

Juego de posicion

Thousands of training-ground hours are required to implement Guardiola’s instantly recognisable juego de posicion, a theory of positional play designed to ensure optimal pitch coverage at any given time. In this way, his sides’ capacity to both keep the ball, and guard against counterattacks, is maximised. Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now Manchester City have all thrived under this dogma.

The tactical system underpinned by juego de posicion has varied, however — regularly. Extreme possession fetishisation at the Nou Camp gave way to a more direct approach at Bayern Munich, which in turn (eventually) bowed to City’s two wingers creating space for two number 10s to run into.

Regardless of his surroundings therefore, Guardiola has found a way to make it work. But the events of Wednesday night served as a timely reminder that the Catalan is prone to fixing it when it ain’t broke — especially on the big stage. And no opposite number is better at drawing those bouts of self-doubt from Guardiola than Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp, the only manager boasting a superior head to head record.

First blood

Seven defeats from 13 makes for tough reading for Guardiola. Even tougher when one considers that two of Pep’s five wins were achieved during the 2014/15 Bundesliga season when Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund project was a running-on-empty busted flush, flirting with relegation.

The pair’s rivalry dates back to the 2013 German Super Cup, the Bundesliga equivalent of the Community Shield. Then, armed with his customary 4-3-3 Barcelona blueprint, Guardiola fell to a 4-2 defeat. Klopp drew first blood; his counterattacking, counterpressing style was, and still is, the Catalan’s kryptonite.

Guardiola’s response was both immediate and shocking. The first league meeting between the two, in November of 2013, saw Bayern Munich attempt over 100 long balls, pinged at both Mario Mandzukic — a ‘proper nine’ — and Javi Martinez, a surprise choice in the most advanced central midfield role. Klopp’s press had been bypassed. Guardiola had, seemingly, abandoned Cruyff for Charles Reep.

Klopp struck back in April of 2014, however, as Guardiola — with the league already in the bag — trialed the kamikaze 4-2-4 system that would ultimately meet disaster against Real Madrid a week later.

A comprehensive 3-0 defeat to Dortmund was not enough to avoid catastrophe against the Champions League’s eventual winners. Guardiola pressed on regardless, losing 4-0 at home to kick off an ongoing string of major tactical missteps on the European stage.

Crossfire

Subsequent German Cup success, and a domestic double, offered scant consolation, but it carried the added bonus of leveling the score with Klopp. Bayern ran out 2-0 winners over Dortmund in the final, thanks to Guardiola’s latest Klopp-inspired tweak.

Back in November, Guardiola’s press-bypassing victory over his new rival owed much to Phillip Lahm’s intelligent positioning. Guardiola instructed Lahm to regularly drop between both centre-backs, forming a 3-v-2 against Robert Lewandowksi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

In the cup final, Guardiola took the concept further, fielding Martinez as a permanent third centre-back, turning 4-3-3 into 3-4-2-1. Partnered on this occasion by Marco Reus, Lewandowski’s pressing attempts were again foiled. Klopp’s gegenpressing 4-2-3-1 had, apparently, met its match.

Or had it? Klopp had, in fact, learned his lesson, and he only had to wait three months to prove it. The German again tasted Super Cup success at Guardiola’s expense by instituting the compact 4-3-3 that so stymied Manchester City on Wednesday night. Dortmund were primed to press Bayern’s three-strong defence man-for-man and they set about doing just that.

Bayern, under constant pressure throughout, were fortunate to only lose by two goals. Recently poached from under Klopp’s nose, an isolated Lewandowski could do nothing with the long balls that so bailed his new side out the prior November. This, too, brought a reaction from Guardiola.

Lewandowski was gifted a partner in the aforementioned two league games that followed; 3-4-2-1 morphing into 3-5-2. Dortmund, enduring the dying embers of Klopp’s by then moribund reign, had no response.

Parting shot

But there was still time for Klopp to exact one last, sweet, victory over his favourite foil. May of 2015 brought with it the semi-finals of the German Cup, mere weeks after Guardiola’s back-three spectacularly come acropper against Barcelona. And his battle with Dortmund for a spot in the German season show-closer was very much a case of same again.

With his now customary 4-3-3 restored, Klopp’s side again enjoyed the man-for-man pressing upper-hand, killing Bayern’s build-up play and forcing an ultimately victorious penalty shootout. Unfortunately, Klopp went on to lose the final to Wolfsburg, denying him the glorious sendoff he surely craved. Final defeats, along with beating Guardiola, are kind of his thing.

Helming the City ship, in the wake of his Bayern departure, Guardiola has now locked horns with Klopp’s Liverpool five times. Again, Klopp drew first blood; his compact 4-3-3 limiting City to just one Anfield shot on target on New Year’s Eve, 2016.

January’s 4-3 victory at Anfield — City’s only league reverse of the season thus far — showed, once for all, that Guardiola’s blueprint is tailor-made for Klopp to exploit. Counter-pressing and counterattacking only work if the opposition is willing to build from the back and leave space in behind, in that order.

City, under Guardiola, are always happy to oblige. Wednesday’s lopsided 4-2-3-1, with Ilkay Gundogan tucked in on the right, was designed to mitigate the consequences. Instead, it — literally — narrowed City’s passing options, leaving them ripe for the gegenpress picking.

Flight

Guardiola’s only victory over Klopp’s Liverpool was, on the face of it, a caning. Suffering a 5-0 reverse, even with ten men, isn’t pretty. But, in truth, Liverpool should have been in the clear before Sadio Mané’s dismissal, were it not for Mo Salah’s incredible profligacy.

The Egyptian, now incredibly prolific, made mincemeat of Nicolas Otamendi, City’s left-sided centre-back on the day. And, despite his eventual crushing triumph, Guardiola immediately dropped the unconvincing 3-1-4-2 system under which City laboured through the 2017/18 season’s opening weeks; never to return.

That’s the effect Klopp has on the Catalan, you see. No-one could ever deny that Guardiola is one of football’s most ardent, and influential, ideologues. But all men are made mortal, prone to moments of self-doubt and confidence loss, and the Manchester City manager is no different.

Under duress, and faced with the choice to either fight or flight, Guardiola has all too often chosen the latter, willingly abandoning his deeply-held beliefs. Especially when Klopp, all teeth-a-grinding, is the guy shining the torch in his face.

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