Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp meet in the Premier League as Manchester City travel to Liverpool on Saturday. Here are five questions ahead of one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the season.
Could this be the start of a great rivalry?
Guardiola and Klopp have faced each other eight times in competitive games. All of those came in Germany. And while the Catalan has a slight edge (four wins to him, three to Klopp, one draw) it’s fair to say he was fairly impressed with Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund side.
“They’re like a steamroller, unstoppable,” Guardiola said in Marti Perarnau’s “Pep Confidential” book. “There are other teams who counterattack brilliantly, like Real Madrid, for example. But Dortmund are unique. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Klopp’s Liverpool are not quite the same as Klopp’s Dortmund, but after a little over a year at Anfield, they look like his team. Guardiola has not had time to make his City side his own yet, and they are clearly nowhere near the level that Bayern were under him.
Klopp has a headstart on his rival, but even if we assume Guardiola will spend just three years at City, as he did in Munich, this could still be the start of a great Premier League managerial rivalry. Their personalities are so different that the two are never likely to be great friends, but the mutual respect between them is clear, meaning this could be a rivalry based entirely on football rather than personal squabbles.
Will Klopp adjust Liverpool’s style?
It was interesting this week that, upon learning that Guardiola was in the stands for Liverpool’s win over Stoke, Klopp made it fairly clear that close opposition scouting was not at the top of his priority list.
“I respect them a lot, but I was not in the City stadium this season or last season — only to play games,” he said. “Maybe he was here to watch good football. I have no idea.” Klopp was speaking in the afterglow of a fine 4-1 victory over Stoke and could well have been expressing his confidence, but it did also underline that, unlike his opposite number, Klopp does not often alter his team or formation to combat his opponents.
You can be fairly sure how Liverpool will arrange themselves for most games, and you could probably name nine or 10 of the starting XI too, the odd injury question aside. But this is a special case, against a rival team and manager: Klopp will obviously have watched City and have scouting reports, so will he alter his approach to target a particular weakness of City, or simply concentrate on getting things right in his own team?
Will Sturridge start for Liverpool?
It would be harsh indeed for Divock Origi to be dropped for this game. He hasn’t found the net in the last two outings, but he did in the five before that, and his game is perhaps best suited to pressing the Manchester City defence into making the mistakes they often do.
But as compelling as the argument is for keeping him in the side, almost as persuasive is the argument for bringing Daniel Sturridge back. He has come off the bench in Liverpool’s last two games, since returning from one of his regular injury absences, and he contributed telling moments in both.
The striker engineered a shot that was eventually converted by Sadio Mane against Everton, then anticipated a mistake by Ryan Shawcross to score against Stoke, something that can’t be described as a fluke given he tried the same thing a few minutes earlier.
Sturridge does things that few others can, which is not a slight against Origi. But given the news that neither Philippe Coutinho nor Joel Matip will be fit for the City game, it means this represents Klopp’s biggest selection decision.
Perhaps the best way to go is to stick with Origi, then use Sturridge as an option from the bench. The good news for Klopp is that this dilemma doesn’t seem to have a wrong answer.
How will Guardiola set up his defence?
It’s been an interesting game to try to guess what defensive system Guardiola will select this season. Three or four at the back? Specialist centre-backs or full-backs pulled into unfamiliar duty? Expensive summer recruit in the XI or on the bench?
Since the calamity of the Chelsea defeat (3-1), a flat back four has been the favoured solution. But Guardiola is a man who can spring an unexpected change and, in the hours he spends squirrelled away with his laptop trying to figure out the best way to defeat an opponent, who knows what he might cook up.
A three-man defence might have some degree of logic: Liverpool’s forwards are not natural wide men, so packing the middle of the park could be one way of combatting them as they drift inside. The place of John Stones is another question: Can he be risked given the relentless pressing of the Liverpool forwards and the nervousness of his distribution so far? Until the team is out on the pitch, nobody will know, but the underrated appeal of having Guardiola in the Premier League is that his team selection is usually something worth waiting for.
Will this game live up to the goal-filled hype?
A nice hypothetical question you could ponder is how many goals would Liverpool’s attack score if they played Liverpool’s defence? And the same goes for Manchester City. Both teams generally look as potent going forwards as they do flimsy at the back, and while neither’s defensive record is horrendous, they’re not much good either.
City and Liverpool have conceded 20 and 21 goals, respectively, comparable to some rivals (Arsenal and Manchester United have let in 19 and 18), but Chelsea have allowed just 11. Tottenham have 13, while Middlesbrough, in 15th place and four points off the relegation zone, have conceded 20.
Conversely, they’ve managed 84 goals between them, a remarkable figure that suggests we could be in for some fun on Sunday. Of course, the rules of tempting fate mean a 0-0 draw is now inevitable, but in a season when some absurdly hyped-up games have been colossal disappointments, could this one actually live up to expectations?
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.