By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Mar 11, 2019) US Soccer Players – The Premier League has become a staple on American television and the steady diet of sports programming on weekends alongside the NFL and college basketball. Club jerseys of England’s biggest clubs, such as Manchester City and Liverpool, have become ubiquitous among even casual fans.
What’s less understood by those same casual fans are the current tactics that shape these two clubs. Locked in a heated battle for the league title, Manchester City and Liverpool are reflections of their managers. The result are two competing styles vying to be the best. When the teams met in January, the last time the sides would play this season, City won 2-1 in what became a battle of 4-3-3 formations.
Liverpool is having a wonderful season, but momentum seems to have shifted over to Manchester City in recent weeks. City now holds a one-point lead in the standings. With plenty of time left for things to change at the top of the Premier League table, it's exciting for fans of each club and neutrals alike.
You can’t talk about the tactical philosophy of either team without looking at Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. Over the past decade, these two men have contributed immensely to the game. Each has helped to shape tactics for an entire generation of teams and players. Both Guardiola and Klopp relied on a strong midfield on their way to becoming the top two managers in England at the moment, something clearly demonstrated through results and position in the table.
Guardiola emerged as a master tactician during his time with Barcelona, at Bayern Munich, and now with Manchester City. Despite being around for a decade, Guardiola is always innovating his tactics depending on the players at his disposal. A great example of this is the use of both Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva playing side by side in central midfield. The use of two #10s brought with it much success during the 2017-18 domestic season.
Instead of using defensive-minded players in those roles, Guardiola bet on offense. The result was winning the Premier League title and creating a watchable and exciting brand of soccer that was completely opposite to the negative tactics of other managers. In the process, he made Fernandinho a more effective player as well by playing the De Bruyne-Silva tandem ahead of the defensive-minded midfielder.
The midfield makeover aside, Guardiola hasn’t completely abandoned his 4-3-3 (or 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1 and a 3-5-2 depending on the opponent and injuries). Instead, he's perfected it. Last season, Guardiola’s use of Aleksandar Kolarov, Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna, and Pablo Zabaleta as inverted full-backs was largely mocked. Instead, the plan requiring fullbacks to push inside more when their team gains possession became an effective feature. This allowed the team more speed and defensive depth. This season, he’s done it with players like England internationals John Stones and Kyle Walker, who have both pushed forward to aid the attack.
FIFA’s Tactical Group praised Guardiola at last summer’s World Cup in Russia. Andy Roxborough, the former Scotland manager who was part of the study, told reporters at a news conference in Moscow days before the final, “Clearly Pep Guardiola has had an impact on a lot of players and people and coaches.”
How so? Guardiola style, he said, included “having a high-level possession game — but not for the sake of it — very much in a penetrating style.”
The Amazon Prime documentary, All or Nothing: Manchester City, gives fans an inside look at Guardiola’s ability to motivate his players as well as what it’s like to be in the dressing room with him before a game. We also learn that he keeps a statuette of his mentor, the late Dutch striker and later Barcelona manager Johan Cruyff, on his desk. When his side drew against Crystal Palace to end their win streak, Guardiola – with the cameras rolling – told the players: “Of course I’m going to defend you until the last day in our life in the press conference. But here (in the dressing room) I’m going to tell you the truth… If you hate me, hate me guys. Some of you play better when you’re angry with me. Do it.”
Despite domestic success, Guardiola’s tactics have not helped City win the Champions League – something he blamed on the deep-pocketed club, not himself.
“(Barcelona) won a lot in the past, we are new,” he told reporters last week. “We are new here, we won now one title but it is not worth comparing. It is not good for comparing with that team because they dominated for the last decade, with different managers, different players, every season. We won just the first title. To think about joining these kind of teams you have to be there for many years and we won just one title.”
Klopp, meanwhile, is trying to give Liverpool that one title this season. While Guardiola is a perfectionist sometimes accused of overthinking formations, Klopp is similar and different. He’s similar to Guardiola in that Klopp uses a 4-3-3 (and sometimes a 4-2-3-1) highlighted by bursts of speed and fluid passing. The midfield trio of Fabinho, Naby Keita, and Georginio Wijnaldum have helped Klopp whenever he’s had the chance to field them as a unit.
Fabinho’s passing abilities, in addition to his defensive strength, helps Liverpool move the ball forward. At the same time, Keita’s dribbling skills and passes to Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah has helped Liverpool’s offense. Wijnaldum also frequently pushes up to aid the front three and has proved a handful for opposing defenders.
Klopp hasn’t taken kindly to questions about his tactics whenever Liverpool has had a bad game or gone long stretches without scoring.
Asked recently if he wished his team took more risks in attack, Klopp replied, “We don’t play PlayStation. Do you think we didn’t take enough risks today? Is that you want to ask? That’s a really disappointing question, I have to say, because that means it’s like it’s so easy. I tell the boys to take more risks, ‘Come on boys, we go for it!’ Is there any draw we didn’t try to win? What is that?”
Klopp isn’t afraid to make tough decisions, including benching talented players like midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri. While the Swiss international could still prove useful down the stretch, Klopp opted to go with Adam Lallana against Burnley, for example, on Sunday and it helped. Despite going down early at Anfield, the move proved genius and Liverpool stormed back to 4-2 win.
Like Guardiola, Klopp had success in his native Germany, where players have said only 30% is due to tactics. The rest of Klopp’s success rests on team building. That’s another way Guardiola and Klopp are similar. These are managers looking to create connections between players and foster a family environment capable of ultimately winning trophies.
Guardiola and Klopp are great examples of managers with a more hands-on approach to running a club. If this season is any measure, it’s a template for other teams to attain success with help from master tacticians capable of getting results.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- Landon Donovan in the MASL
- Counting down to the 2019 MLS season
- Atlanta, Toronto, and the Red Bulls in the Concacaf Champions League
- The 4-2-3-1 formation in MLS
Photo by Lyndsay Radnedge - ISIPhotos.com