By Steven Maclean (Twitter: @Kopology)
English football has always been a game of fierce rivalries. Arsenal vs Tottenham. Manchester United Vs Liverpool. Coleen Rooney vs Rebekah Vardy.
Liverpool vs Manchester City has never been high on that list, though, due to the rapidly fading common enemy that is Manchester United. As the two best teams in the world over the past 18 months, they pose the greatest threat to each other’s shared ambitions at home and abroad, but it will always be a contest that lacks in traditional hatred what it has in geographical proximity.
And even as the reverberations of Sunday’s sometimes ill-tempered clash rumble on into England’s preparations for games against Montenegro and Kosovo, there’s little danger of Guardiola and Klopp descending into a Mourinhoesque feud despite a pre-match deviation from the mutual respect and admiration they have always been careful to emphasise.
If they were going to become bitter enemies it would have happened during three hotly contested years in Germany where Guardiola stole Klopp’s thunder as well as arguably his two best players.
While the two could barely be different in character, they share a key managerial characteristic as great innovators of the modern game.
It’s easy to think of the founder of ‘tiki-taka’ as the great thinker and tactician while on the surface, Klopp appears more libidinal and inspirational even if his is the name most closely associated with ‘Gegenpressing’. But in truth, both managers’ innovation owes a great deal to older footballing trailblazers.
For Guardiola, see Marcelo Bielsa. For Klopp, Arrigo Sacchi. All innovation must start from an appreciation for what has already been successful and no idea can ever be entirely original, so that the two greatest managers alive today borrow heavily from others takes nothing away from their brilliance.
Guardiola’s admiration for Bielsa is well documented, having called him the “best manager in the world” and even going as far as declaring himself a fan of Leeds United. And despite never meeting him in person Klopp said that he “learned everything” from Sacchi, albeit via his own coach at Mainz, Wolfgang Frank.
What all four have in common is an attention to detail bordering on obsession, a penchant for pressing originating in Dutch ‘total football’ but perhaps most crucial in the battle for this season’s Premier and Champions League titles, a belief that full-backs can do more than most managers ask of them.
Although Sacchi favoured a 442 system the dynamic between Italy’s full-backs and midfielders at the 1994 World Cup foreshadowed the way Klopp’s operate in a 433. Dino Baggio and Demetrio Albertini primarily sat deep while Nicola Berti and Roberto Donadoni could tuck in from either side to cover the space they left and allow the fullbacks to get forward and provide attacking width.
Like Bielsa, Guardiola has his fullbacks invert to cover for counters so his central midfielders can attack and create with virtual abandon. In Klopp’s team, the roles are reversed, with Henderson and Wijnaldum holding back to cover the spaces Robertson and Alexander-Arnold vacate.
The ultimate difference in the two sides’ fortunes this season may well lie in the relative success and failure of each manager’s differing full-back approach.
So far so good for Liverpool. Robertson and Alexander-Arnold especially operate as highly effective creative playmakers, a fact borne out by the 30 assists the pair have provided since the beginning of the 2018–19 season — as many as Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele combined.
Deep lying playmakers generally play centrally as registas like Andrea Pirlo or ‘quarterbacks’ in the mould of Xabi Alonso; not players you would associate with either Klopp’s Dortmund or Liverpool. But he effectively plays two quarterbacks — he just plays them wide like two bishops on either edge of a chessboard, attacking the opposition’s defence in a pincer-like movement.
Whereas Liverpool’s full-backs are rightly being lauded, Henderson and Wijnaldum are often the players maligned for not being quite at the level of the rest of Klopp’s star-studded line-up, while the ingenuity of City’s midfield was commonly cited by Liverpool fans as the marginal difference between the two last season.
Yet while Liverpool’s fullbacks combined surgically to punish City at Anfield, it might be Henderson and Wijnaldum who come away with their reputations most enhanced as the penny finally drops for many fans on just how important they are to the team’s success. Both are extremely hard working and tactically astute and in the case of Wijnaldum especially, press resistant.
Full-backs detailed with more creative responsibility and central midfielders absolved from it aren’t the only thing Klopp took from Sacchi, however.
Like Klopp, Sacchi wasn’t an exceptional footballer, having never played the game professionally. He was greeted with scepticism on being appointed as Milan manager in 1987 but quickly set about revolutionising Italian football, casting aside the Italian penchant for ‘Catenaccio’ and instead adopting a more front-footed approach based on the management of space. Sacchi famously responded to his doubters saying, “I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first” before making them look like donkeys.
Organised in defence but fluid in attack, Sacchi’s Milan would make the pitch small when out of possession by holding a high defensive line and crowding the midfield to make opponents susceptible to counter-pressing. Once the ball was regained they would quickly funnel the ball out wide, stretching the pitch as they launched a counter-attack of their own before the other side could regain their shape.
Whereas Sacchi used Marco Van Basten as a more conventional striker in his Milan side, as Italy manager, he utilised Roberto Baggio in a role similar to the one Roberto Firmino performs for Liverpool, dropping between the opposition lines of defence and midfield with freedom to roam and link the play, while also taking up more conventional striker positions. Baggio was also expected to press and cover passing lanes when Italy didn’t have the ball, however, just as his namesake does at Anfield.
This combination of Baggio’s movement and an emphasis on attacking from wide areas brought variation and unpredictability to Italy’s attack without sacrificing defensive solidity. Sound familiar?
Where Klopp and Sacchi’s teams differ most is perhaps in the elegant, towering presence of Fabinho. Pepijn Linders recently described Fabinho as a calm-headed “lighthouse” and while that conjures an apt visual reference, in terms of utility it is a bad nickname for the Brazilian.
A lighthouse is there to be seen and warn of danger, whereas Fabinho is all-seeing but excels by sneaking up on opponents unnoticed despite his towering line of sight. He’s the antithesis of a static, danger-highlighting lighthouse.
The midfield is an inverse of the front three in this team of contradictions. Whereas wide attackers would generally try to create chances for a central striker to score, Salah and Mane instead look to Firmino to lay on shooting opportunities. Behind them, instead of the deepest midfielder not being expected to create anything as long as he’s giving the other two a solid base to attack from, the two players to either side of Fabinho are encouraged to defend first, albeit high up the pitch. With a goal and one assist in the league so far this season, Fabinho is statistically a greater goal threat than Wijnaldum and Henderson combined and he’s one of the best two or three passers in the team.
While City remain better at racking up goals to utterly destroy opponents, the cocktail of guile, pace, tactical discipline, belief, and technical ability that Klopp has blended means Liverpool are a more varied team with a number of ways to win.
Unbeaten at home in 43 Premier League games it’s now 80 home or away since Liverpool have lost by more than one goal. Klopp’s team have taken a 131 of a possible 150 league points from their last 50 Premier League games and 34 of a possible 36 this season. This isn’t just the form of champions; it’s a set of statistics that mean for the first time in a generation, Liverpool fans can legitimately say they are watching the best team in the world.
As Sacchi noted, “If you want to go down in history you don’t just need to win, you have to entertain.” Already champions of Europe, Klopp’s Liverpool appear to be mutating into an even more ruthless, unconventional whirlwind of a team as good at winning as English football has ever seen, and boy, are we entertained.