Guardiola-Klopp tactical hybrid now dominates European football | premier league
PWhat has perhaps been most striking this season from a tactical point of view is the degree of consensus. Money can skew games and there is always the possibility of a brilliant player messing up the theory by doing something brilliant, but for clubs that have a sense of an underlying playing philosophy it’s pretty clear what it looks like: a high offside line, press coordination and an ability to retain the ball when needed.
There has been a tendency to portray Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp as opposite poles, with one focused on ball retention and the other on ball possession. It’s not unreasonable, although each has grown closer to the other over the past two seasons. Perhaps most significantly, no one really questions the axis on which they are judged. The age of attrition, of Greece winning the Euros, of José Mourinho, Rafa Benítez and Alex Ferguson in the Carlos Queiroz years, seems over.
Football changed in 2008, and not just because Guardiola was appointed Barcelona coach. Previously, the Champions League knockout stage had only once yielded more than three goals per game; since then, the average has fallen below three only once.
It was then that several factors came together. Improvements in pitch, equipment and ball technology had meant for some time that at the highest level, a first touch could be taken for granted. The relaxation of the offside law has pushed back the defensive lines. Intimidating tackles had been largely eliminated. This meant there was more space, allowing small, technical midfielders who might previously have been bullied from the game to flourish.
Suddenly it became possible for the biggest teams, which were getting relatively bigger than they had ever been before, to exercise greater control over games than ever before, to worry about the manipulation of the space, by Guardiola positional play, rather than having to give up to survive midfield. This in turn led to significant discomfort when big teams met and one of them found themselves unable to win the ball. One of the reasons Manchester United players lost discipline in the 2009 Champions League final was a sense of humiliation at having ‘only’ around 40% possession.
The following year, Mourinho’s Internazionale would show that it was possible to win (or at least lose enough to win overall) with just 19% possession. Sitting down, holding position, allowing the opposition to take the ball but only 30 yards or more from goal has become a viable way to fight possession teams. Football started to look like handball at times. But there was another way, which was the one promulgated by Klopp, who disliked the passivity of bunkering, hoping no one would launch a long-range drive into the top corner or suddenly dribble past three players to score. This consisted of pressing hard and high in a coordinated manner and looking for quick turnovers and transitions.
Guardiola’s teams pressed but not quite with the same intensity or with quite the same immediate view on the clock. They would break if given the chance, but if they didn’t Guardiola was perfectly happy for his teams to reset and start the process all over again, which he said could take 15 assists. Guardiola was about control and Klopp about chaos.
But as Guardiola’s Champions League hopes were regularly dashed by opponents playing on the break, he had to adapt to counter the block. In part there seems a clear intention to keep five outfield players behind the ball at all times, but there is also more than one gegenpress, which in turn increased City’s threat on the counter. Klopp, meanwhile, seeing the accumulated fatigue – physical and mental – of constant heavy metal football, took steps to control games more, which was one of the driving forces behind his signing of Thiago Alcântara, perhaps the most characteristic Guardiola player ever.
Thomas Tuchel, Antonio Conte, Stefano Pioli, Xavi, Julian Nagelsmann, Thomas Frank, Brendan Rodgers, Gian Piero Gasperini – the vast majority of modern managers fall on the same spectrum at some point. Exceptions, among top clubs, are rare and tend to be the result of a fascination with fame, often combined with grotesque mismanagement. Even if he had greater authority, Ralf Rangnick would have struggled with a side struggling to accommodate Cristiano Ronaldo, whose destabilizing presence at Juventus is a reason they returned to the familiar comfort of Max Allegri.
Real Madrid, so far, have been a fine example of how great players can suddenly turn plays that seem to go against them, but Paris Saint-Germain are the most interesting example of the culture of the game. fame, the acquisition of a luxury front three necessitating the employment of a grimly industrial midfielder who militates against fluidity. The only real philosophical outlier is Diego Simeone at Atlético Madrid, although with each passing season the feeling grows that he is a diminishing returns retro project.
It is rare in the modern game for the lines to be so clear. Guardiola implemented a style of play that capitalized on the changing conditions, Klopp found a way to counter it, Guardiola reacted and what followed is a synthesis of gegenpressing and positional play.