1 day shy of three years at the helm as Anfield manager, Jurgen Klopp lined his Liverpool team up to face Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. The centurions. A Manchester City whom had amassed 100 points the previous season (a Premier League record), scoring 106 goals and conceding only 27. Pep has been lauded as a mastermind & one of the greatest coaches this country has had the pleasure of witnessing assemble a side. What has been significant has been his dogmatic application of his principles. City play one way. They play from the back, all 11 players playing football. The centre-backs split to receive the ball from the keeper, the fullbacks move beyond them & the keeper has 5 immediate out balls – the 6, the centre-backs laterally or the lofted ball beyond them to the fullbacks. They build from here & move forward. You all know the history: he decided Joe Hart didn’t fit, so he brought in Bravo. He very quickly decided Bravo wasn’t up to his standards so he went and got Ederson. He spent a fortune on ball playing centre-backs & new full-backs. Guardiola’s City play football. They have a ‘Plan A’ & they stick to it, whatever the weather. That is of course, until they came to Anfield on October 7th 2018 to face Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. For the first time since he arrived here, Guardiola deployed one of said expensive fullbacks as exactly that, a ‘right back’ in old money. Kyle Walker played very much like a third centreback at times, as he had done for England at the World Cup in Russia.
Below are City’s average positions from the game:
In a snapshot, this can be considered a remarkable compliment to Klopp and his Liverpool team. Guardiola reverted to a ‘Plan B’, incidentally mirroring that of Ancelotti whose Napoli side overcame Liverpool 1-0 in the Champions League merely 4 days before. Ancelotti used Maksimovic as a defensive right back to similar effect on Wednesday night, nullifying Robertson and the space around Sadio Mané:
It’s very easy as a fan to look at your side, both individually & collectively, and damn the players’ performances. It would be straightforward to simply say that Robertson and Mané couldn’t get into either game. However, it is worth noting the considerable effect that the tactical approach from both Guardiola and Ancelotti had on these games. Both games played out like games of chess. City chewed possession, slowed the game down and starved us of space to transition into. This is how far we’ve come. Teams fear us & rightly so.
After the game, Guardiola said: “Up and down I’m pretty sure they are the best team in the world in these transitions; offensive, defensive. It is built for that. In that situation, they are much better than us.”
The significant word in this quote, a quote from the man regarded as one of the most influential figures in the modern game, is transitions. Under Klopp we’ve not only seen transitions of the ball on the pitch but also a transition from a decent Premier League team to one of the most feared attacking outfits in world football. This is where our start to the season becomes hugely contextualised.
Klopp’s second full season at Anfield, of course, was last season; a season we will all cherish in our memories as one that gave us some of our most enjoyable times as fans in recent history. So it is perhaps reasonable to reflect on our start to that campaign as we go into the second international break of the season.
In 17/18 we drew 3-3 with Watford at Vicarage Road, won 2-1 away to Hoffenheim, 1-0 away to Palace, 4-1 at home to Hoffenheim and an had an impressive 4-0 home win against Arsenal before the first international break.
This was followed by the infamous 5-0 loss as City, a 2-2 home draw with Sevilla, a frustrating 1-1 draw with Burnley and a 2-0 defeat to Leicester in the Carabao Cup. We then won there 3-2 in the league before drawing 1-1 away to Spartak Moscow and then away to Newcastle heading into the second international break of the season.
This season we’ve won 4-0 at home to West Ham, 2-0 away to Palace, 1-0 at home to Brighton and 2-1 away to Leicester before the first international break. This was followed by a 2-1 away win at Tottenham, the 3-2 win at home to PSG, a 3-0 home win against Southampton before the 2-1 loss to Chelsea at Anfield in the Carabao Cup. We have then, of course, drawn 1-1 with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the league, lost 1-0 to Napoli at the Stadio San Paolo and then drawn 0-0 to City at Anfield.
The differences are stark. Not only have our opening fixtures been markedly more tough, our season start this season has included wins where we should win. It has shown teams fearing us, changing their styles to adapt to our potency. A mark of how far we’ve come has been in how deflating the recent results to Chelsea, Napoli and City have seemed. These results have come off the back of a “brutal” run, as Klopp puts it. We’re in good nick in the Champions League group and we’re joint top of the Premier League, having barely got out of second gear all season. There’s optimism to be taken from this comparison & optimism to take forward. There’s an expectancy brewing.
Klopp’s Liverpool are transitioning into true title contenders & Guardiola knows it.