meIt’s a staggering measure of the season that has been since Liverpool that if Manchester City had won every game they played since Oct. 8, when they lost 2-0 at home to Wolves in their eighth game of the season, they would still have been second. at this time.
Jürgen Klopp’s team has maintained its extraordinary form from last season when it finished one point behind City with the third highest total in history, perhaps even improved; The city does not have. The danger is to become insensitive to such implacability, to think that it is normal. It is not, not even when the self-destructive economy of soccer extends the gap from the top of the table to the bottom.
The days since the restart have offered a reminder of how good City is with the ball, even if his defensive fallibility was clear at Chelsea on Thursday. Liverpool have not strayed from a league of mediocrities. The city remains a formidable side capable of idiosyncratic brilliance. The temptation would be to suggest that Klopp’s football has replaced Pep Guardiola’s, that the great tactical wheel has turned again, but it’s not that easy.
Guardiola’s Barcelona introduced the world to a level of soccer possession that has never been seen before (in part taking advantage of a changing environment with better pitches and teams, an offensive against intimidating inlays and a new interpretation of the offside law that increased the effective playing area)
That put the rest of football in trouble. You could try to copy Barcelona’s approach, albeit without the traditions of La Masia, or you could try to challenge it. In essence, then, the question was simple: they have a lot of ball; What is the best way to get it back? The answer to that is not complex, although the theory is extremely difficult to put into practice: you push.
Even in 2010, it became clear that there were two ways to face Barça. The opponents sat down deeply, entered the bunker and tried to restrict the number and quality of opportunities that Barça had (as did Internazionale and Chelsea in the 2010 and 2012 Champions League semi-finals); or they pressed high and tried to interrupt Barça’s possession at the source.
It’s a high-risk approach, but it’s also the one Klopp saw as controllable at least to some degree. As he has said, sitting deeply against a Guardiola team essentially hopes to win a lottery, as he accepts that they have a (significantly) greater number of opportunities and is confident that they will not take advantage.
Tactical evolution can be understood as a series of intertwined dialectics: proactivity against reactivity, art against pragmatism, individuality against the team. The most relevant here is the technique against the physicist. Guardiola’s Barcelona was so technically good that it didn’t matter that his five most advanced players had an average height of 5 feet 6½ inches; The bigger teams couldn’t get close enough to take advantage. The challenge was to devise a way of pressing that was so good that bigger, more aggressive players could bring their physical advantages to battle. That has been the underlying logic of tactical development for the past decade.
In the broadest terms, football, and Liverpool, have been here before. When the 60s yielded to the 70s, total football supplanted catenaccio, pressing and attacking, displacing marks and caution. But then the total mutated soccer. The German model, as practiced by the national team, Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach, still referred to possession and exchange of positions, but lost the pressing element that had made the Dutch school so radical. He was then overwhelmed in the late 1970s by pragmatic pressure from Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, technically accomplished sides that beat their opponents but were also extremely defensive.
In that regard, a comment Klopp made after a diligent Bayern had kept them in a 0-0 draw at Anfield in February last season seems significant. “Something,” he said, “changed in the world of football: everyone adapted, and we have to make sure we adapt.” He was talking about the largely forgotten art of defending. City have scored seven more league goals than Liverpool this season, but vitally, Liverpool have conceded 12 fewer.
But of course, it’s not as simple as a recap of the 40-year-old boss, or of Klopp looking for a solution to the challenge set by Guardiola and finding it this season. On the one hand, Guardiola has evolved after leaving the Camp Nou microclimate. He changed in Germany and his football in City, particularly in his second and third seasons on the job, showed more changes from the Barcelona model to something (relatively) more direct.
Last season there was a width of hair between them (or rather 11.7mm). This season, the city has failed, largely due to failures in defensive recruiting. The arbitration court verdict for the sport has the potential to inflict serious damage on the club, but if City’s appeal is upheld, and possibly even if it isn’t, there is no reason to suppose that Liverpool will necessarily win a race against the City. season, particularly since the top three are 28 and some kind of transition will have to start sometime. It cannot be assumed that Klopp has found a tactical formula that will dominate Guardiola in perpetuity.
Klopp’s pressure, well organized and relentless as it is, clearly causes trouble for the City, making him by far the best head-to-head record against Guardiola of any manager who has faced him a significant number of times, but the The idea that his style has surpassed Guardiola’s is misleading. Rather, Liverpool have come to play a form of soccer that has repeatedly challenged City and has outperformed them this season, while also influencing an evolution Guardiola was already undergoing.
Guardiola a decade ago established a hegemonic style of possession and press. What Klopp has done is emphasize the pressing aspect, shift the balance from technique back to physical.