Klopp vs Guardiola – A historic rivalry bereft of resentment

Klopp vs Guardiola – A historic rivalry bereft of resentment
Manchester City Manager/Head Coach Pep Guardiola reacts as Liverpool Head Coach/Manager Jürgen Klopp looks on during their Emirates FA Cup semifinal match at Wembley Stadium on 16 April 2022 in London, England. Either Manchester City or Liverpool will clinch the English Premier League title as the season's final matches are played this weekend. (Photo: Chris Brunskill / Fantasista / Getty Images)

The relationship between Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp of Liverpool will be etched in the annals of sports history.

Sports rivalries are generally characterised by a penchant for toxicity and malice. Think of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, which culminated in Tyson walking away with an earful after the infamous bout with his nemesis in 1997.   

In football, clashes between Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the 1990s and early 2000s were famed for spicy verbal jousts between the two managers, which sometimes spilled on to the field with the players.

Midfield hardmen Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira were emblematic of this fierce rivalry between the two teams and their respective managers. Their rivalry climaxed in the tunnel of the Gunner’s old home, Highbury Stadium, in 2005.

Keane had to be restrained by referee Graham Poll as the Irishman charged towards the French midfielder, hurling profanities towards the Arsenal captain with the precision of an Olympic javelin thrower. It was this type of antagonistic atmosphere that stoked the competition between the two camps, and headlined their matches with each other. No love lost.

A similar atmosphere reigned supreme between Wenger and then Chelsea manager José Mourinho during fiery London derbies. The duo’s relationship during Mourinho’s two spells at Chelsea (2004-2007 and 2013-2015) was famed for their feisty verbal touchline clashes. The Portuguese once labelled his French rival a “specialist in failure”.

The pair’s animosity for each other reached boiling point in 2014 when they physically clashed on the touchline during a Premier League game, after Wenger had taken exception to a crunching Gary Cahill tackle on Alexis Sánchez.

Liverpool head coach Jürgen Klopp reacts during the Uefa Champions League quarterfinal, first-leg soccer match between SL Benfica and Liverpool FC at Luz Stadium, Lisbon, Portugal, on 5 April 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / JOSE SENA GOULAO)

Refreshing rivalry

By contrast, the almost nine-year rivalry between Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp and Man City’s Pep Guardiola has been devoid of such toxicity. Instead, it is filled with hugs, high-fives and smiles all round.

They have had their disagreements. Especially when Guardiola took a swipe at Liverpool forward Sadio Mané for his supposed diving antics. Even then, though, there was little in the way of malice. The relationship between the two has been defined by mutual respect and, at best, a playful back-and-forth in press conferences. The two, who are widely regarded as two of the best managers currently, were first acquainted in 2013 in Germany.

At that time, Klopp was in charge of an exciting and dynamic Borussia Dortmund, while Spanish tactician Guardiola was appointed at Bayern Munich for the 2013/2014 campaign. At the end of that season Bayern finished first; Dortmund were second.

By the time Klopp departed Germany for Liverpool in 2015, he had recorded four wins with Dortmund over his rival. Guardiola had five with Bayern Munich. It was during those few seasons in Germany that the seeds of this jocular rivalry were first planted. Since then, it has bloomed beautifully.  

This includes the recent two-all draw between league leaders Manchester City and Liverpool in the Premier League – since Guardiola decided to follow Klopp to England and take over City, the pair have been inseparable. They have now faced off 23 times, winning nine games each. Five fixtures have ended in stalemates. Although after this weekend’s FA Cup semifinal clash, one will definitely move ahead of the other.

Since arriving on English shores Guardiola and Klopp have taken turns ruling the Premier League with an iron fist and striking fear into their opponents.

In the past four seasons, Guardiola’s Citizens have won the Premier League three times. They also bagged the League Cup thrice and the FA Cup once. Liverpool, on the other hand, won the Premier League, Champions League and the League Cup once each under Klopp.

Dating back to the beginning of the 2018/2019 season, the overall points tallies for Manchester City and Liverpool stand at 339 and 338, respectively.

The next team on that list is Chelsea, lagging behind by 71 points. The two managers have taken what was previously just another Premier League clash (certainly before City’s Emirati billions) and elevated it to one of the most anticipated fixtures on the global football calendar.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola reacts during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Liverpool FC in Manchester, Britain, on 10 April 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / ANDREW YATES)

They fuel each other  

In a rivalry reminiscent of the one that reigns supreme on the tennis courts between Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, over the years the two heavyweights of football management have pushed each other to heights they could not reach alone.

“I am sure Roger and Novak have made me a better player. And I made them better,” Nadal once said of his historic clashes with his two rivals.

Klopp and Guardiola harbour the same thoughts about each other, plus what their respective qualities have done to fuel each of them to greater heights.

“To fight with them [Liverpool] is one of the biggest achievements of my career. They are outstanding. Liverpool are the toughest opponent I have ever faced in my 12 or 13 years as a manager,” said Guardiola recently. “Hopefully we can say we are a pain in the arse for Liverpool too.”

Klopp agrees, recently saying: “I can give that [compliment] back. I could say City is the toughest opponent I ever had, but I should not forget I faced him already at Bayern, and I cannot say it was much easier.

“I know what he means. We pushed each other to insane levels in the last few years, with the number of points collected.

“I don’t think City would get the number of points they will get this year if we weren’t around. And if they weren’t around, it’s pretty much the same [for us],” added the charismatic German tactician.

The sumptuous stalemate in the league recently means that the two sides are separated by a single point, with seven games left to play apiece. If Guardiola’s charges win every single game, they will defend their title. However, if they stumble, they know that Liverpool will likely be waiting in the wings to capitalise. If they do win those seven, they will finish on 95 points. Only four times in the Premier League’s history have teams ever garnered more than that – Liverpool and City twice each in the past four years.

In the inevitable debate about who is better than the other, many lean towards Klopp, saying he has done exceptionally well to match his counterpart at every turn, with fewer financial resources.

However, just like the debate about Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, ultimately, the winner is football and sports. Through their respective pursuit of greatness and perfection, Klopp and Guardiola have elevated the play of everyone around them and forced them to step up. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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