Pranav Ravindrannair argues that Pep Guardiola will do well to learn from his nemesis Jurgen Klopp.
Manchester City and Pep Guardiola lost more than just the Premier League title last season. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool proved to be a constant thorn in City’s side and also put an end to the myth of their invincibility.
Fast forward to the current season and City look far more vulnerable than they have ever been under their celebrated Catalan manager. In fact, this is their worst start to a Premier League season since 2014.
It would appear that the days of where City beat their opponent even before a ball was played are a thing of the past. The opposition have now begun to take the game to their opponents and so far, the Citizens have looked susceptible.
Last week’s 1-1 draw with West Ham was just another example of that. The Hammers side got stuck into City and made them pay early on as Mikhail Antonio scored. Guardiola’s side controlled possession and even created more chances. But they lacked that control they have often shown while putting teams out of their misery.
Stars such as Kevin de Bruyne and Sergio Aguero look as hungry as ever. The team as a whole however appears to lack that killer instinct.
While injuries to key players can be attributed as a reason, the summer signings have done little to instil any fear factor within the oppositions.
A downgrade in transfers!
City lost two match-winners in David Silva and Leroy Sane in the summer. While the former was nearing the end of his career, the latter was clearly yet to hit his peak.
An impactful player, Sane had the ability to flip a game on its head. While Ferran Torres is a decent player, he does not inspire the same amount of fear that his German counterpart did.
The same can be said for Nathan Ake and Ruben Dias. Both players came in for big money and are also accomplished centre-backs in their own right. However, do they instil fear in an opposition attack? Probably not. Are they a like for like replacement for Vincent Kompany? Far from it.
While not that dire, City could be making the same mistake their city rivals did towards the end of Sir Alex Ferguson’s stint. United’s attempted to replace the likes of their stars with considerably inferior players.
The likes of Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones, and Chris Smalling are decent players. But expecting them to replicate the success of Cristiano Ronaldo, Rio Ferdinand, and Nemanja Matic is asking too much.
The burden of expectation could be too much for some players to bear and City appears to be heading down the same route.
A slight deviation can be seen in their efforts to gradually replace Fernandinho with Rodri. While the Spaniard has impressed, the Brazilian is still clearly the better player.
A self-introspection needed
Last season brought to the fore a number of weaknesses in the City squad. The defence was exposed while the attack in the absence of Aguero lacked that clinical edge. With the Argentine now joining Gabriel Jesus on the sidelines, Guardiola has to improvise with what he has got.
It is not a familiar position for a manager who has had a bountiful of riches both on and off the field. Stints at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich were richly laden with trophies, but he also had at his disposal, some of the best players in the world.
Their ability intermixed with Guardiola’s precisely thought out tactics made them a force to be reckoned with. The style has however not varied much in all this time.
Square pegs in circular holes!
Smart in possession and playing out from the back, Guardiola’s teams have a predictable albeit effective style of play. There is only so much an arguably flawless system can accomplish if it does not make use of the players’ strengths.
An example of this can be seen in Nicolas Otamendi’s struggles at the back. The Argentine is not a bad defender, far from it. But forcing him into a template that urges him to play out from the back was always going to be asking for trouble.
After a decade of dominating football wherever he has gone, Guardiola could be in need of a tactical shift. Rather than promote his ideology of the perfect game, the Catalan tactician should look to bring in a system that gets the best out of the players. Not the other way around.
Guardiola will do well to reinvent himself as much as he tries to rebuild his squad. Filling in a jigsaw with pieces from another puzzle could cover the gaps, but will distort the image you are looking to flesh out.
Learning from one’s rival!
The City boss’s solution could lie with his greatest nemesis. No other manager has quite gotten under Guardiola’s skin as Jurgen Klopp. The German has time and again thwarted Guardiola while having to do without the resources made available to his rival.
Similar to Guardiola, Klopp too was known for his unique style of football. While Gegenpressing worked well for Liverpool, it was not enough to see them over the line. The German was willing to abandon his ideology and come up with a style that benefitted the team at his disposal.
An example of this was when he was forced to sell Philippe Coutinho. Rather than bring in a like for like replacement, Klopp tweaked his system to create a ferocious front three capable of troubling the best in world football.
An opportunity was borne out of crisis and Klopp embraced it. Guardiola will need to do the same. The City boss is not infallible and he will need to shoulder some of the blame that comes his team’s way.
The same can be said as to how Klopp incorporates new players into his team. The likes of Andy Robertson and Fabinho spent months familiarizing themselves with the system before betting their chance. It is fair to say that the approach has worked wonders.
Interestingly Liverpool find themselves in a defensive crisis this season, similar to what City experienced last time around. City struggled to replace an injured Aymeric Laporte last season. One has to ask if they were wise to approach it as they did.
Rather than replace Laporte, they should have restructured themselves to get the best out of who they had available. Klopp faces a similar decision this time around with Virgil van Dijk possibly out for the season.
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How he reacts to it over the next few months remains to be seen. If he succeeds where Guardiola fails, it would further cement the German’s superiority over the City boss.
Guardiola will have to react or risk getting left behind. The current ’mini-crisis’ has given him the ideal opportunity to restructure his tactics. Whether he takes it or not remains to be seen.
The City boss has been a trendsetter for much of the last decade. Stepping back into the student’s shoes could do him a world of good.