Feature

How Guardiola and Klopp's tactics have continuously evolved

By Alex Keble 24 Nov 2023
Jurgen Klopp-Pep Guardiola

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Manchester City versus Liverpool is the Premier League fixture of the last decade.

No matter your allegiance there can be no doubting not only the technical quality of this fixture or its typical basketball-style entertainment, but also the ever-evolving tactical sophistication of the battles between Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp.

History will record Klopp and Guardiola as two of the best and most influential coaches of the 21st century.

That the Premier League has been treated to their rivalry for eight years now, and with both regularly at the top of their game, is a privilege we should not take for granted.

Saturday’s fixture at the Etihad Stadium could be the latest in a long line of classics – and yet another match that helps decide the destination of the Premier League title.

Man City are top of the table by a single point, but Liverpool will usurp them if they can win at the Etihad for the first time since Guardiola arrived in England.

The title tace

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
1 Liverpool LIV 26 +38 60
2 Man City MCI 26 +33 59
3 Arsenal ARS 26 +39 58
4 Aston Villa AVL 26 +21 52
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Klopp and Guardiola have faced each other 28 times, which is more than they have taken on any other manager across their careers, and have beaten each other more than anyone else: Klopp has won 11 times to Guardiola's 10.

Here’s a look at the history of the Klopp-Guardiola rivalry, the most recent tactical tweaks that have defined their head-to-heads and how Saturday’s match could shape up.

How Klopp & Guardiola inspire each other

Before we get into the recent history of this fixture, we should spend some time on why this match has proved to be so special down the years.

From Liverpool’s 3-0 thrashing of Man City in the UEFA Champions League in April 2018 to Man City’s 5-0 win in September 2017; from John Stones’ goalline clearance that put a 1.12cm gap between Liverpool and the 2018/19 title to the epic 4-3 of January 2018: this is a fixture that keeps on giving.

That’s because Klopp and Guardiola are forever learning from each other, be it pinching ideas, fine-tuning their own tactics to exploit flaws, or adapting to their rivals’ ingenious new trick.

In fact, so intertwined have the two become, the story of their time in England can be told as a gradual movement towards the other’s way of thinking.

When they first arrived, Klopp in 2015 and Guardiola in 2016, each epitomised the tactical ideals of their respective nations. Klopp was the creator of heavy-metal Germanic football with its straight-lined transitions and full-throttle pressing.

Guardiola was the possession-centric aesthete, demanding total control.

Fast forward eight years and, through shared ideas alchemised in the heat of battle, the two coaches represent a blurring of those boundaries.

Guardiola, with Erling Haaland and Jeremy Doku, has never been so open to playing in the transition. Klopp, winning the title via endless clean sheets and upgrading his central midfield this summer with calming puppet-masters, has never been so committed to controlling possession.

The 2-2 draws of 2021/22 show a clear journey

The journey to that mutual point has included endless tweaks - and they haven’t slowed down over time. Looking back on their last two league meetings proves this fixture is as alive, and as absorbing, as it ever was.

But starting briefly with a look at the two matches from 2021/22 helps shed light on what happened last season.

In the 2-2 draw at Anfield in October 2021, Liverpool were shaky for long periods thanks to an unexpected tactic of hitting longer balls over the top of the Man City defence, which only served to gift the visitors momentum.

From here, Jack Grealish was used as a "false nine" to lean left and double up with Phil Foden on Liverpool’s weak link, James Milner, and Klopp’s side were overwhelmed. That set the tone for a chaotic and stringy match of high technical quality but clumsy tactical play.

Grealish touch map v Liverpool

In their next league meeting, a 2-2 draw at the Etihad, Guardiola appeared to have learned something from Liverpool’s own long-ball game and decided to trial it himself.

City were far more direct than usual, hitting a vulnerably-high Liverpool line, and it worked repeatedly until eventually leading directly to Man City’s second goal.

Man City key passes

But not unlike in the first meeting, Liverpool wrestled back some control in the second half by surging bravely forward and embracing the chaos created by City’s more direct approach.

New variations continue in 2022/23

Last season, again the influence of one head-to-head on the next was clear: Guardiola didn’t want a repeat of the madness of those longer-ball 2-2 draws.

That surely explains his tactical tweak in Liverpool’s 1-0 win in October 2022, a move to a 3-5-2 with Joao Cancelo and Foden as wing-backs. Man City were cagey, squeezing the middle and, with a back five at times, keen not to let things get out of hand.

Man City formation v Liverpool

Liverpool were just as wary of the previous fixture, sitting their defensive line much deeper to produce a somewhat stodgy affair – until Guardiola moved Bernardo Silva into an advanced position, unlocking the contest and turning it into another classic end-to-end encounter settled by Mohamed Salah’s genius swivel on the halfway line.

The lesson Klopp took from this one, or so it seems, was that Liverpool play better when chaos is embraced and Man City are pulled into a contest of fast transitions. How else to explain his wild 4-2-4 formation picked for the 4-1 defeat at the Etihad in April of this year?

Jordan Henderson and Fabinho were simply overwhelmed in central midfield, which is not surprising considering Haaland’s injury meant Man City had Julian Alvarez dropping as a "false nine" to add yet another body in the centre.

Julian Alvarez passes

Liverpool were blown away as Man City, using Alvarez to turn transitions into quick counters, found a way to get the better of Klopp’s high line.

Liverpool’s long balls, then Man City’s similar effort; Man City’s stodgier formation change then Liverpool’s emptying of central midfield: the intensity and tactical sophistication of this fixture always seems to inspire counter-reactions to each previous match – and more than a little overthinking on both sides.

How Saturday’s match could be decided

Attempting to accurately predict the tactical battle would be naive. Nobody can second guess what Klopp or Guardiola will do next in this ongoing epic.

But there are weaknesses, vulnerabilities and injury concerns that can help illuminate what the two managers’ might be thinking about in the build-up this week.

Klopp may choose to be conservative after recent poor results at the Etihad, which gives him a tough choice between Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold in the right-back position.

See: How revitalised Van Dijk can stand up to threat of Haaland

Further up the pitch, Darwin Nunez is a terrorising presence but a wildcard for a fixture like this, and with midfield control potentially lacking, someone able to drop (not unlike Alvarez in their last meeting) into midfield, either Diogo Jota or Cody Gakpo, might make more sense.

Then again… that all depends on how accurately Klopp is able to guess Guardiola’s own tactical predicament.

Man City’s 4-4 draw with Chelsea gives this a fresh twist. In that encounter, Rodri’s isolation alone at the base of midfield helped Chelsea create an end-to-end match of the sort Guardiola generally does not enjoy, and therefore we might see the return of a double-pivot for City.

That is made all the more likely by the continued absence of Stones, because no other Man City player is as confident stepping out from the back into midfield, and with Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes out, Guardiola’s options are limited.

See: Can Guardiola find a solution at left-back and shackle Salah?

Klopp may look to pounce on a potential weakness here by instructing a harder and targeted press through the middle, in the hope of disrupting City’s passing as Chelsea did so successfully. If that’s the case, could we see an even more attacking Liverpool line-up than usual?

There’s also Doku versus Alexander-Arnold to consider - on paper a clear mismatch - plus the potential problem of Haaland’s ankle injury, although judging by Alvarez’s impact in the 4-1 win in April, that could be a blessing in disguise for Guardiola.

See: Haaland aims for 50th Premier League goal in record time

There are enough details there to give fans of either club a migraine.

A litany of injuries in both camps complicates things enough; the messy and intricate history of the Klopp-Guardiola rivalry makes it almost impossible to envision the tactical battle.

All we can say, with absolute confidence, is it will be another breathtaking match.

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