Sunday 24 September 2017

Brian Kerr: Guardiola and Klopp need substance to go with style

Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola face some early-season questions over the next five days. Photo: Getty Images
Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola face some early-season questions over the next five days. Photo: Getty Images

Brian Kerr

John Motson must be on version five of his sheepskin jacket at this stage.

And yet as he prepares to end 50 years in professional football, he remains a reminder that while image may be a good thing to have in the game it can never be the only thing.

I've seen John at a few matches and while everything is much easier these days - no Everest-like ascents up rickety, wooden ladders at the back of crumbling stands - with endless stats and notes and replays and camera angles, the game hasn't changed much.

His voice is still trusted on the radio and TV because people know he can deliver substance along with the style; he only wears the jackets to keep warm - the exposed commentary gantries are colder than anywhere else in the stadium and always catch a bitter, northern chill.

Football is obsessed with image. This is the age of Instagram, not Ceefax. But results still matter above all.

Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp collide at the Etihad today and are desperately determined to get a result for clubs seeking to dethrone champions Chelsea, as well as making a mark in the Champions League, which begins next week.

Philippe Coutinho of Liverpool. Photo: Getty Images
Philippe Coutinho of Liverpool. Photo: Getty Images

Worryingly for both men, despite taking some time to transform their squads, another manager has also completed his re-evaluation up the road and the battle to be top dog in the north-west may be a struggle in itself, let alone winning the title or Champions League.

Pep and Klopp share similar ideas about the game but the question lingers - in England at least - whether they can add substance to their philosophy.

For me, it is not necessarily important what a manager wears on the sideline but how they wear themselves. Are they too anxious? Or too detached?

I liked to feel smart on the sideline. I felt I was representing a club or a country and if I took the bother to feel respectable on the sideline, then that might reflect on the team; that they were organised and in good shape.

But then you wonder if I had been a bit more raggedy would it have made any difference?

Tony Pulis wears a magic hat and the fella beside him always looks as if he is ready to come on as a sub, but they reflect their teams as well, energetic and frantic.

Klopp wears a tracksuit, Pep, effortlessly cool, in the canvas and cashmere and all that. Buttons and zips won't win a match; players, tactics and team selection will.

Their styles are fascinating though, and often their antics in games are as compelling as the action.

Strikes

Pep often strikes me as one of those frustrated scientists who becomes almost personally offended when one of his complex inventions blows up in his face.

He is angered when his team can't absorb the intricate details of his game-plan; often, he will haul even Vincent Kompany towards him to receive a lengthy sermon.

Klopp is different; he seems to have more confidence in his players. He is much more emotional; indeed, his club is too.

In contrast, City have become big business, with tentacles all over the world, cash to buy the world's best players and an academy that is more about the strengthening of assets rather than the development of football men.

It's a far cry from the days of Malcom Allison - another man who liked a sheep-skin jacket - and Colin Bell and Franny Lee, a far cry indeed from the club that then slipped into football's third tier.

With all the cash, it seems like a synthetic project now and it will take something special to create a special bond with the supporters.

Roberto Mancini tried it when he wore the free scarf given to season-ticket holders but it could never hide the Milanese suit; the scarf never seemed to fit properly and, despite a league title, neither did he. Manuel Pellegrini never looked the crowd-surfing type.

Even Pep doesn't seem to have the attachment to the crowd that Klopp has.

Liverpool have never been a showy or flamboyant club for all their success. Tragedy has sadly strengthened the emotional bonds down the years.

This means they don't suffer fools gladly; the club that developed the 'boot room' are wary of outsiders. Rafa Benitez and Brendan Rodgers understood this tradition and emotion; Roy Hodgson didn't quite seem to fit, for all his decency.

Klopp does too. How else would he be absolved of haranguing so many of his own people for leaving games too early?

He uses the crowd as if it were a kinetic force of energy but that won't be much use to him today.

He seems a more honest, engaging fella; Pep is more distant, almost arrogant. Then again, his record in European football - 19 trophies in six-and-a-half years with two of the biggest clubs in the world - allowed him to be supremely self-confident as he shimmied stylishly through the doors of another football giant.

But the confidence of both the club - whose billion euro and counting outlay has one League Cup in the last three seasons to show for it - and the manager, who failed to bring European glory to Bayern, is on shaky ground.

City's big frustration has been their lack of European progress and last season's spectacular exit vividly illustrated the problems that followed Pep from Germany to England.

Unlike at Barcelona, where he largely inherited an outstanding team of extraordinary individual talents, he has been so far unable to match that balance between defensive efficiency and attacking beauty.

His stubbornness cost them last season, whether it was discarding Joe Hart, deploying the unsuitable Yaya Toure as a holding player and constantly leaving vulnerable centre-backs exposed.

Meanwhile, Chelsea won their second league title in three seasons at a canter. Abu Dhabi wrote the cheques again this summer but a mere League Cup would be a stark return.

Pep is under pressure. His focus has been on defensive recruitment, shipping out ageing wing-backs and bringing in younger versions.

At times he has played with a flat four - as against Bournemouth, when omitting John Stones - and City have had a reasonable start; not as eye-catching as last season, when they won ten successive games. But it's how they finish which will matter.

Without him actually saying it publicly - as if he would - there is a tacit admission from Pep that much of the criticism of him was right.

Sometimes he has been too clever for his own good - we all remember him at Munich trying to match Barcelona's holy trinity of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar with a back three which he abandoned after 15 minutes. The Premier League, with its consistent intensity, has been a real eye-opener for him.

We haven't seen any elaborate technical innovations since he decided to plonk full-backs Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy into the middle of the park; a gambit that was abandoned after an uninspiring run of only one win in five matches.

The real invention will come from the spectacular players he has gathered up front.

It often doesn't seem like it but Pep does meticulously plan; today, he will be primarily focused on countering the counter; stopping Liverpool's often devastating breakaways.

This was precisely how Liverpool beat today's opponents at Anfield last term; Georginio Wijnaldum with the pass to Roberto Firmino who released Adam Lallana with the break down the left to exploit the full-back, before his cross found Wijnaldum who exposed the defence with a bullet header from the penalty spot.

City had dominated possession but Liverpool, as explained here before, are capable of being defensively resilient against better teams and this was probably one of Pep's most frustrating days of a fraught season.

Again in March, at this afternoon's venue, City dominated the game but Liverpool left with a point. City must make a defensive point of their own today in negating the Liverpool counter-attack.

Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva are made very conscious of their defensive duties when City lose the ball; if they don't stop the first pass, Liverpool's threat comes alive.

Now it is up to the sitting midfielder Fernandinho to get to the receiver and hold up the play, allowing the full-backs, Kyle Walker and Bernard Mendy, to get back into the position.

City's problem last season was that their full-backs were too slow in retreat and the lack of pace in wide defensive areas unloaded too much pressure inside the box on their vulnerable central defenders.

For all that, and the millions spent, Vincent Kompany remains a calming presence who will be missed through injury and this may influence whether Pep plays a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3.

If he keeps 4-3-3, Stones is likely to return alongside Nicolas Otamendi.

Exploit

If it's a four, with the advanced full-backs, Liverpool will again seek to exploit the space behind them with the pace of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.

Firmino's deep movement into midfield will distract a centre-back, thus enlarging the space for Liverpool's runners.

This has not always worked out well for them and, although City will seek to dominate possession as per usual, Liverpool will not always rely on the counter-attack and they will seek to press high at times too.

Like Pep, Klopp's instinct is to get as many attack-minded players on to the field as possible and his purchase of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is another indication of that.

I argued here before that they should have banked the significant profit on Philippe Coutinho and strengthen defensively but they have spurned that option, for now.

Oxlade-Chamberlain has designs on starting in midfield but after witnessing his clunky efforts for England, he will do well to eclipse someone like Emre Can.

He has emerged as a key player. I always felt criticism of his passing game and decision-making was harsh. He has started superbly this season and has been a driving force in Champions League qualification.

He brings ceaseless energy, although it would be helpful if he added more goals to his game.

Coutinho's contract situation has been resolved, for the moment, even though he is absent again today.

Klopp may feel his best team at the moment is Mignolet; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Lovren, Moreno, Henderson, Can, Wijnaldum, Salah, Firmino and Mane.

While City will rely on threaded passes, intricate invention and constant movement up front, Liverpool have a stronger, more physical side and if they can force them, City may be vulnerable at set-pieces, particularly with an untested goalkeeper.

Both managers could have done with a less taxing fixture than this after the international programme and ahead of their opening ties in the Champions League.

They will need even more depth in their squads to cope with domestic and European campaigns.

City have struggled in this regard and, although Klopp has experience of it after leading Dortmund to a Champions League final, the stringent demands of the Premier League present a different challenge.

Ambition

Today's match represents the first real test of each club's ambition to cope with two separate campaigns.

And it will also test the new resolution of two managers who are continuing to address the imbalance between defence and attack.

After all, there is no point in wearing an expensive suit if the arse is falling out of your trousers.

Irish Independent

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