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Friday, April 19, 2024

Jurgen Klopp succeeded – he will leave the Premier League as Pep Guardiola’s greatest nemesis

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Football

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As an epic duel may enter its final chapter, one strand of the narrative has been a constant. Jurgen Klopp has been, in Pep Guardiola’s words, “the best rival I ever had in my life”. The German has been the most persistent, facing Guardiola in two countries, eight competitions and 12 calendar years. He has also been by far and away the most successful: with 12 wins over Guardiola, he has five more than anyone else, three times as many as the men tied in third on the list, in Antonio Conte, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Mauricio Pochettino.

To put it another way, Klopp has more wins over Guardiola on his own than Eddie Howe, Graham Potter, Diego Simeone, Rafa Benitez, Erik ten Hag, Frank Lampard, Marcelo Bielsa, Maurizio Sarri, Roy Hodgson, David Moyes, Unai Emery, Marco Silva and Marco Rose have between them. Only one manager has faced Guardiola at least four times and won more than he has lost: Klopp.

His record has been underpinned by an attitude. “I have never wanted to have the best team,” he said. “What I’m interested in is beating the best.” The quote comes from 2018, but there are regular variants of it. “Pep is the best coach in the world, no problem with that, but I always wanted to be the coach of the team who can beat the best team in the world,” he said in 2022.

Then, as now, Liverpool were fighting on four fronts, going for a quadruple: enough for many to anoint them the outstanding side on the planet. Klopp regularly describes City in such terms, however: in a sense, this is the first time it is underpinned by that official status. City won the Club World Cup in December. When Liverpool were the Champions League holders, a month away from adding the Club World Cup, when they were completing a run of 35 wins in 36 Premier League games, Klopp made a rare admission that his side may have become the ultimate. “If you win against the best team in the world, then it makes you the best team in the world,” he said in November 2019. Liverpool beat City 3-1 then.

Jurgen Klopp, left, and Pep Guardiola have always shared a healthy respect

(Isaac Parkin/PA)

Normally, though, there has been a regular refrain. Klopp willingly describes Guardiola the best manager in the game. He can define Liverpool in the context of City. Perhaps it is why he has rebuffed Bayern Munich’s advances more than once: he may require a different brand of psychology at a club expected to dominate their own league.

Instead, he operates in a division where City have often had the biggest wage bill, a greater transfer spend and – in as much as such things are possible to judge objectively – the most talented players. But an underdog mentality suits Klopp. It is a reason why he enjoyed Liverpool’s Carabao Cup final triumph so much; the introduction of untried youngsters transformed his side into outsiders. It fits his background, his identity: the undistinguished defender from the German second division was not groomed for greatness like the Barcelona captain and Johan Cruyff disciple, Guardiola. He achieved it his way. If Guardiola is the footballing perfectionist, at times Klopp’s brand of football is designed to harry opponents into imperfections.

Which Liverpool have done, especially at Anfield. Guardiola’s only victory there came in lockdown, when it was empty: the City manager swiftly said: “Without [fans], it is completely different.” The counter-argument is that there is a similar gap in Klopp’s record: he has never won against Guardiola at the Etihad Stadium in the Premier League and now never will (though a 2-1 Champions League triumph in 2018 helped Liverpool advance to the final and saw Guardiola sent off).

Klopp and Guardiola exchange thoughts on the touchline

(Getty Images)

He has been the great Pep tamer, but only in some respects. Klopp once likened their teams to Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, but whereas the two great tennis players finished with similar number of grand slam titles, Guardiola has five Premier League titles to Klopp’s one; in Germany, Klopp’s two Bundesligas came before Guardiola assumed the reins at Bayern, and he promptly won two in a row.

A score of 7-1 over that decade could become 8-1 or 7-2 (or, depending on Mikel Arteta and Arsenal, remain the same): whichever, it feels an inaccurate representation of an enduringly brilliant rivalry. It may be a fairer reflection that they have the same number of Champions Leagues since they first met – one apiece – though it could be a sadly fitting farewell to Klopp if he leaves Anfield having finished second to City in the Premier League again.

Perhaps, in the final reckoning, his problem will be that while he could defeat Guardiola, too few others managers could as well. Liverpool were runners-up with first 97 and then 92 points, the two highest totals of teams who did not win the league. They and City drove each other to new heights. Klopp won more of the games, Guardiola more of the medals.

But Liverpool have been true to Klopp’s words and his plans. When he arrived at Anfield in 2015, the German said: “Can we be the hardest team to beat in the world? Let’s try.” The chances are that Guardiola would be the first to say he succeeded.

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