Jurgen Klopp (Photo by John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Fire and ice

Klopp is the air-punching booming-laugh extrovert; Guardiola the turtleneck-wearing, obsessively professorial introvert

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Sport at its best is defined not by one performer but two, by a rivalry which elevates and inspires both participants. John McEnroe was left distraught when Björn Borg walked away from tennis: Ayrton Senna repeatedly tried to persuade Alain Prost to reverse his decision to retire.

So amidst all the hoopla about Jürgen Klopp leaving Liverpool at the end of the season, spare a thought for Pep Guardiola. For eight seasons — Klopp arrived at Anfield in October 2015, Guardiola joined Manchester City in August 2016 — they have been the standout managers in the Premiership. But soon there will be only one, and it’s not too fanciful to imagine that when Klopp departs a part of Guardiola will go with him too.

Guardiola has called Klopp “the toughest opponent I have faced as a manager”, which is quite the compliment when you consider some of the other names on that list. “He helped me to be a better manager: he gave me another level to think about it, to prove myself. It’s the reason why I’m still in this business.”

They are still recognisably different sides, but they have edged considerably closer together

Theirs is the second great managerial rivalry of the Premiership era. The first was, of course, between Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger, fuelled by genuine personal animosity and the way in which their respective captains, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, acted as their bosses’ onfield ids, snarling and scrapping for every ball. The Jürgen and Pep show is no less intense, but it is not as overtly confrontational. They are not close friends, but nor are they sworn enemies. Their respect for each other is deep and genuine, and when they praise the other it’s not for the cameras: it’s because they mean it.

Ostensibly, the two men fit the obvious template of fire and ice, just as McEnroe did with Borg and Senna with Prost. Klopp can be seen as the air-punching, touchline-sprinting, booming-laugh extrovert whose teams play heavy metal football, relentlessly pressing and harrying; Guardiola as the turtleneck-wearing, gnomic quote-giving, obsessively professorial introvert whose teams are all possession and passing, angles and slick patterns.

But such stereotyping does both men a disservice, for as their rivalry has deepened and matured so too have they borrowed increasing amounts from each other. Trent Alexander-Arnold has followed John Stones in switching seamlessly from defence into midfield when his team is in possession: Manchester City now press harder and play up and down the pitch much more quickly than they did a few years ago.

(Photo by Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

They are still recognisably different sides, but they have edged considerably closer together — a merging of thesis and antithesis towards synthesis which would have delighted Klopp’s countryman Georg Hegel.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this has also led to each manager finally winning what they most coveted: the other man’s speciality. Klopp, the man for big European nights, managed to get his hands on Liverpool’s first Premiership title in 2019/20; Guardiola, serial domestic league winner, secured Manchester City’s first Champions League last year at the seventh time of asking.

The statistics alone show the extent of their mutual dominance. As Premiership managers, they have reached five Champions League finals between them and spearheaded a period of English hegemony in Europe (seven of the past 12 finalists have been English). They are responsible for the four highest points totals in Premiership history, including the only centurions (Guardiola’s 2017/18 side) and the highest-ever losing score (97, for Klopp in 2018/19).

That latter season in particular was extraordinary, with City triumphant by a single point after each side had won their final nine matches: twin strands of near-perfection as they strived to maintain or close that narrowest of gaps. Three seasons later they did it again: one defeat between them in the second half of the season, and again City holding on to win by a point.

Even — especially — in such circumstances, top-of-the-table clashes can often be cautious, dour affairs. It is testament to both Klopp and Guardiola that this has rarely been the case under them. For example, both their Premiership matches in 2021/22 ended 2-2, and over 180 minutes you couldn’t look away for a second: both sides going at it hammer and tongs with quality and passion.

The Italian manager Arrigo Sacchi said that “Football must be domination and beauty, music and culture.” And it is this, rather than judging either man merely by the abacus, which has made the Klopp-Guardiola rivalry so special. “As Jürgen has said many times,” Guardiola once observed, “titles are just like numbers. It’s the emotion that people feel during the 90 minutes that they’re watching us that’s the real reason we’re in the job.”

When will Guardiola go? Sooner rather than later, perhaps: last season’s treble means he has won everything there is, and he has already been at City longer than at Bayern and Barcelona combined.

“Maybe when we both finish our careers,” Klopp has said, “we might meet somewhere, sit together for hours and hours, and just speak about the different things we saw, in this game and that game.” If by chance you happen to find yourself in the same restaurant as them that day, send over a decent bottle by way of thanks for what they have given us. It may be some time before we see their like again.

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