Sunday, August 18, 2019

Premier League 2019-20: Klopp, Guardiola and the art of going again

SoccerNews in English Premier League 9 Aug 2019

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We go again.

The phrase has become an omnipresent, short-hand rallying call in modern football, which is somewhat surprising given what followed its most famous use.

Steven Gerrard insisted it was what he and his Liverpool team-mates must do just that after a rousing 3-2 victory over Manchester City at Anfield in April 2014. A first Premier League title in 24 years was within reach.

“This does not slip!” Gerrard hollered. Only, of course, he did and City won the title.

Five years on, Liverpool again found City in their way. There were no slips during the run-in this time, nor much suggestion of a misplaced step. In the final reckoning, 98 points pipped 97. The third-highest points total in Premier League history was only good enough for second place.

The difference between Jurgen Klopp’s European champions and Brendan Rodgers’ bolters from the pack is obviously vast, in terms of elite quality and consistency.

Lifting the Champions League was the validation of a brilliant team, who should enter their latest shot at City – the gulf between the top two and the rest of the Premier League’s “big six” feels pronounced heading into 2019-20 – with renewed confidence.

Yet, it could pay to be wary of what has happened the previous two times Liverpool went close.

The Benitez and Rodgers hangovers

After 86 points were not enough for Rafael Benitez to unseat Manchester United in 2008-09, they dropped to seventh the following season, mustering 63 points. Sixth place and 62 points were the return in 2014-15 as Rodgers’ dream crumbled.

Such a collapse under Klopp feels completely unforeseeable. But it is worth considering how fuelling the quest for top-flight title number 19 with an intense emotional desire has burnt out abruptly at Anfield before.

Klopp has shrewdly harnessed and stoked this sense of common purpose. On nights such as last season’s phenomenal Champions League comeback over Barcelona, it is hard to dismiss the value of it.

After a worryingly underwhelming pre-season, the Reds rediscovered some of that devilment when they forced City to hang on before winning last Sunday’s Community Shield on penalties.

From Friday’s big kick-off at home to Norwich City onwards, Liverpool will rely on their manager’s status as one of the most gifted and intuitive coaches of his generation to go again this time. After the match at Wembley, Andy Robertson talked up the benefits of keeping an excellent squad together – the expected positive line given a lack of major reinforcements.

Klopp’s team will still develop and evolve. Rhian Brewster will operate as a back-up forward and aim to make the drop-off from Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane to their back-up less pronounced.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has emerged from the other side of an injury nightmare, while Naby Keita will be more attuned to his boss’ demands and eying a big season to justify his price tag.

Over at the Etihad Stadium, Vincent Kompany has not been replaced and Leroy Sane could still leave. Nevertheless, Rodri and Joao Cancelo appear made to measure for a man who, despite often coming up short in their head-to-head battles, remains Klopp’s biggest problem.

“They have convinced me, I have no doubts”

Guardiola enters his fourth season in charge of a club for the second time. The contrast between the fraught figure who left Barcelona for a year on sabbatical and the cargo-trouser sporting version of today could not be more marked.

“I am a little bit different [compared to] my third or fourth season in Barcelona. Here I am more calm. I trust more in myself and my players,” he said before the Community Shield.

“That was my home town, the feeling was more intense. Here we are isolated, we work so comfortably and that is why it is nice.”

Even if his Wembley touchline gesticulations demonstrated this will be a relative calm, Guardiola also pledged to be “nicer” to his players this term.

“They have convinced me, I have no doubts,” he explained. “At the end of [2017-18] I did not know how we would handle our success and it was incredible. The target is to keep improving.”

That relentless quest for improvement is something Klopp knows all too well from their time together in the Bundesliga. Trying to match it is exhausting.

In 2013-14, his Dortmund beat Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in the DFL-Supercup and were only four points in arrears before a 3-0 Klassiker defeat at Signal Iduna Park in November.

Bayern cantered to the title and Dortmund’s distant second fell away to seventh in 2014-15, itself an improvement from a mid-season flirt with relegation.

The dynamic of Bayern pilfering Dortmund’s best players is not one present in City and Liverpool’s mounting rivalry, but unless Klopp can shake Guardiola from his serenity while keeping the fire burning, the result is likely to be the same.

On the other hand, all it takes is a slip. We go again.

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