“THEY WERE IN A GOOD WAY, THEN SOMETHING HAPPENED”
Jurgen Klopp’s unmistakable brand of zany pre-match merriment has become one of the Premier League’s most endearing features since he arrived at Liverpool last October.
Nevertheless, the giggles, gurns and self-deprecation flowing as normal in the build-up to Saturday’s second-plays-third clash with Manchester City feels significant.
On New Year’s Eve, Klopp will come face-to-face with Pep Guardiola once more – a man synonymous with, among many other things, hastening the end of his golden period at Borussia Dortmund.
From Bayern Munich pilfering Mario Gotze before Guardiola had his feet under the table at the Allianz Arena, to Robert Lewandowski making the same journey from Signal Iduna Park the following season, it always felt like the dice were loaded heavily against Klopp once the Catalan was in town.
The heavyweight tacticians claimed four wins apiece over the course of the 2013-14 and 2014-15 campaigns, but two of Dortmund’s came in the German Super Cup curtain raiser, one was a dead rubber with Bayern already champions and the final victory came on penalties to set up a DFB-Pokal final defeat to Wolfsburg.
Bayern’s wins mattered and stung, with Gotze and Lewandowski respectively netting in painful triumphs at Dortmund either side of cup-final glory.
It contributed to three Bundesliga titles and two DFB-Pokals in three seasons for Guardiola, adding a sense of inevitability to his success following that era-defining stint at Barcelona.
At the end of Manchester City’s long courtship, on he ploughed. Six wins from six to start the Premier League season, 10 in 10 over all competitions. But then…
“They were in a good way, then something happened,” Klopp observed at his pre-match news conference on Thursday.
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) December 29, 2016
Jurgen, the tease, will have more fully rounded theories on how City’s stunning late summer surge became an autumnal slog as the English evenings drew in. Of course, after enjoying the presence of a heavily dressed Guardiola at Liverpool’s 4-1 win over Stoke City on Tuesday, he was not about to show his hand.
But on Klopp’s part, it is not time for the genial scheming that has marked both men’s brilliant careers. In a role reversal from their time in Germany, he is the coach helming a slick, well-grooved team and Guardiola feels like the one poking fingers uncomfortably in the damn.
A nine-month head start on working in England unquestionably falls in Klopp’s favour but Guardiola’s arrival at City was years in the pipeline and his start was, at times, breath-taking. Some of the holes are of his own making.
So long as Claudio Bravo continues to be so uncertain of hand, foot and positioning, while doing nothing to resemble a two-time LaLiga and Copa America winner, Guardiola’s decision to jettison Joe Hart will rankle.
Also, his defensive unit lacks the depth, youth and adaptability to be shunted from back four to back three – no Philipp Lahms or David Alabas here. In terms entirely relative to Guardiola’s famously fluent style, the back-to-basics approach in an unbroken run of three Premier League victories en route to Anfield has been welcome and necessary.
The nine matches in between City’s initial salvo and the present resurgence reads won three, drew three, lost three at a time when Chelsea were gobbling up the ground before them. That slump could be decisively damaging in the final reckoning, while opponents attacking City at pace and finding plenty of joy will have provided welcome annotation to Klopp’s pre-match planning.
— Manchester City (@ManCity) December 29, 2016
Liverpool’s progress has followed a more pleasingly upward curve, occasionally checked by blips such as Burnley’s take on the Alamo and an utterly freakish collapse at Bournemouth. Over the past 12 matches, their settled and expressive side are six points better off than City, who have only amassed two more than Stoke and West Ham during the same period.
Bolstered by the return of Sergio Aguero after his latest suspension, City head to Merseyside in better shape than they were at the start of the month. But, for now at least, Klopp does not feel like the man playing catch-up in a rivalry of mutual respect.
The onus is on Guardiola to turn the calendar and leapfrog Liverpool with a renewed blast of that early season magic at a ground where City last prevailed in 2003.
THE NUMBERS GAME
Aguero remains City’s top scorer despite having missed six Premier League games through injury this season, but just how influential is the mercurial Argentine in the Guardiola era?
– The 28-year-old is comfortably out in front as top scorer for City in the Premier League this season with 10 goals in 12 matches, double the return of former Liverpool winger Raheem Sterling, who has scored five in 16.
– Only Kevin De Bruyne, with two goals and nine assists has been involved in more City goals than Aguero.
– In eight matches against Liverpool, Aguero has four Premier League goals, although none of these have come at Anfield.
29 – Sergio Aguero has now scored against 29 of the 30 different teams that he’s faced in the Premier League. Lethal.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 26, 2016
– City actually boast a considerably higher win percentage without their leading marksman this season, with five victories and a solitary loss at Leicester City coming in at 83.3 per cent and an average of 2.5 points per game.
– This drops to 58.3 per cent and two points per game with Aguero in the side (W7 D3 L2).
“I don’t play against Pep Guardiola, our teams play against each other and they are completely different [to what] Bayern was or Dortmund was when we played each other.
“I could say everything about how Pep played with Bayern, but that’s not important anymore because now he is at Man City with different players, different systems.
“We are a different team so, at the moment, both sides cannot be sure which idea the other team has.”
“They are contenders for the title, definitely. I went to the game against Stoke and it was a good game.
“I was lucky enough to play against Jurgen Klopp, we know each other well.
“I don’t know what will happen but I know we have to equal their intensity – [the atmosphere at] Anfield will play a big role.”