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Klopp v Guardiola: Gegenpressing v Possession, the tactical battle

On the 7th of October 2018, Man City drew 0-0 at Anfield. There was a lot of anticipation and excitement around the match for attacking football, but it did disappoint. After this game, there were claims Pep Guardiola changed his approach and tactics to be more conservative which is something he doesn’t do. This suggests that Klopp’s Liverpool away was so daunting Guardiola had to change his principles and “park the bus” like Mourinho tends to do away at big sides.

The Man City and Liverpool rivalry isn’t the first between these two as they have met in Germany. Guardiola’s first competitive defeat at Bayern boss came at the Signal Induna Park as Dortmund ran out 4-2 winners. Towards the end of that season, Dortmund beat Bayern 3-0 but Bayern had already secured the title. Klopp’s approach clearly caused problems for the Catalan coach.

In the 4-2 defeat in the Super Cup, Pep attacked with a 4-3-3 that morphed into a 4-2-4 with Thomas Müller pushing up from the midfield to joining Shaqiri who started centrally but dropped off. Bayern could play through Dortmund; however, Dortmund destroyed the Bavarians on the counter.

The 3-0 home loss in April, Pep once again started with a 4-3-3 but this time it morphed into a 2-3-2-3 which has become synonymous with his Man City team. The full backs would push up alongside the defensive midfielder and invert then the other two midfielders would push up and occupy the half spaces, acting as inverted wingers with the attacking trio in front of them. Two counters and a long ball got Dortmund their three goals and three points. After the game, Pep had claimed his side had “gone soft” after winning the title. But he did also say, pushing the full backs out wide at the start of the second half was a mistake as when they were inverted, they with the defensive midfielder could stop Dortmund’s narrow counterattack.

That season, Bayern did get a 3-0 away win against Dortmund in November. Guardiola started with a defensive 4-3-3 as the midfield was Lahm, Martínez and Kroos. Martínez was actually pushed up and used as an “anti-10”, his job was to stop Nuri Şahin who started Dortmund’s counterattacks. The “anti-10” has been used since, most famously with Fellaini under Mourinho as Fellaini was tasked with stopping a deep playmaker and used at an aerial out ball in support of a striker. The use of Martínez was affective but unusual from Guardiola as he is a dogmatic evangelist for possession football with attacking intent whilst Mourinho is seen as someone who will win by any means necessary.

In the first half, Bayern went out to shut down the game as the full backs were pushed out wide for defensive stability. In the second half, Guardiola let his team loose. He dropped Martínez back, allowed the full backs to push up and invert as well as bringing on Götze as a false 9. This meant Bayern swamped the midfield to gain a numerical advantage, they had as many as six players there. This led to Bayern getting all three goals in the second half with the last two coming in the final five minutes of normal time.

The reversion to his principles worked. This allowed Bayern to build up play through positional overloads before quickly attacking as Dortmund’s attack was stopped in the first half. By taking control of the midfield, Bayern had taken control of the game, “Suddenly the game changed colour. All we’re seeing is red” as Martí Perarnau put it in ‘Pep Confidential’ when speaking about the tactical changes made by Pep. However, during Pep’s first season in Bavaria, it was clear that Klopp’s Dortmund was the toughest tactical battle, one that made him think more and force him to try new things.

This battle has continued with Pep at Man City and Klopp at Liverpool, it’s often the team that strikes the right balance between space and possession comes out on top. During the aforementioned 0-0 draw at Anfield, both teams tried not to give the opposition too much of either as they were both wary of the attacking talent the other possessed. In this game, Man City had 50.6% possession to Liverpool’s 49.4% and the Citizens spent 51.2% of time in the opposition’s half to the Red’s 48.8%, this highlights how even it was between space and possession.

Out of the three games in Germany that have been mentioned, when Pep attacked in two, he lost both. In the victory, he was conservative and then let lose to get the win in the second half. In the 0-0, both teams looked to sit back as they knew the dangers of getting sucked in to attacking to be punished. However, in Pep’s win out of the three games mentioned, he was able to alter the game was substitutions but at Anfield, Kevin De Bruyne was missing meaning Pep couldn’t change the game too much.

Klopp’s Liverpool are the only real team to have challenged Pep’s Man City and cause them problems. Klopp knew going into the game if City slow the game down in the first half, they will punish his side if they come on too strong.

Their intense tactical battle started in Germany, but now it is present in England. Battles have been won and lost, but the war between the two clearly is not over.


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