When asked directly about his relationship with Jurgen Klopp at the end of last season, Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola spoke of a “beautiful rivalry” between himself and the Liverpool manager.
It was forged during their time as rivals in Germany, with Guardiola’s Bayern Munich consistently topping Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund, and the battle for supremacy is now fully alive again in the Premier League. Last season, Guardiola and City claimed domestic superiority only for Klopp and Liverpool to claim the biggest prize of all by winning the Champions League.
So far, so beautiful.
Guardiola and Klopp have built two of the most exciting, bold and formidable teams seen in Europe over the past 20 years, and their renewed rivalry in England has been defined by what each has won, rather than any bad blood or hostility that has emerged between them. But can it continue to be civil and respectful when the focus of attention becomes locked on the two men and their two teams all season long?
The Community Shield clash at Wembley (Sunday, Aug. 4, live on ESPN+ at 10 a.m. ET) will offer a pointer towards what lies ahead. It may only be a “friendly” but this curtain-raiser for the new season will have much more intensity than in the past. While both Klopp and Guardiola will likely say that it means nothing, the opportunity to strike an early psychological blow will mean everything.
There are some fine coaches in the Premier League — Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino is tipped by many as the next super-coach, while Unai Emery at Arsenal may yet replicate the success he has already enjoyed at Sevilla and Paris Saint-Germain. But Guardiola and Klopp are the two dominant forces in English football right now. They are like the Godfathers of rival families, with unswerving devotion and loyalty from their players and their club’s supporters. For this reason, and the razor-thin gap between them, it will surely be impossible for their “beautiful rivalry” to remain untarnished by the battles ahead.
Since the Premier League began in 1992-93, there have been numerous managerial subplots between the leading coaches of the era. Sir Alex Ferguson emerged on top in his personal battles with Blackburn’s Kenny Dalglish and Newcastle’s Kevin Keegan, before the arrival of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal in 1996 sparked a rivalry that, at its height, dominated English football for almost a decade as Manchester United and Arsenal fought for every title.
The much-anticipated Mourinho vs. Guardiola faceoff in Manchester failed to reignite to anything close to the levels of antipathy which marred their time as coaches of Real Madrid and Barcelona, but Guardiola vs. Klopp has now become the headline attraction. And it will only intensify this season, with both coaches desperate to win what the other managed last season. The only concern is that it goes the way of Ferguson-Wenger as the personal battle overshadows that of the clubs.
“There is no personal animosity between the two of them,” a source who has worked closely with Klopp told ESPN FC. “They are very different characters as people, but as coaches, they are just as driven and intense as the other, which might surprise those who think that Jurgen is more relaxed and carefree than Pep.
“There is a great deal of mutual respect, but they are their own men, and I don’t think they’d have much in common away from the game if they were to bump into each other in a bar.”
Just as it was at the height of the Ferguson-Wenger rivalry during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the presence of a rival is helping drive Guardiola and Klopp’s teams on to new levels of consistency and achievement. Liverpool pushed City all the way to the Premier League title last season, ending the campaign with 97 points having lost just once in the league (to City), and the intensity of that pursuit coincided with their surge to the Champions League final for the second successive year. While they put together a run to win their last nine games in the league, City managed an incredible 14 to pip them to glory. However, having lost to Real Madrid in Kiev 12 months earlier, Liverpool’s victory against Tottenham in Madrid ended Klopp’s wait for a trophy at Anfield, almost four years after arriving as Brendan Rodgers’ successor.
The Champions League triumph will have given Klopp and Liverpool fresh belief that it can be the start of a new period of success at Anfield, but it may also have reminded Guardiola of the one trophy to elude him at City: the one, above all others, that the club’s Abu Dhabi owners hired him to win.
“It’s massive,” City defender Kyle Walker told ESPN FC, when asked about the importance of winning the Champions League. “I feel to take this club to the level that it wants to be at, a Champions League title is needed. For the level of players that we’ve got and the manager, we need to go and win that Champions League.”
City’s focus on the Champions League — and at the same time, Guardiola’s — could be the key that unlocks the door to the Premier League title for Liverpool.
If City make the Champions League their No. 1 priority, the distraction could play in Liverpool’s favour. But Klopp has his own issues to cope with early on as the likes of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Alisson all missed preseason due to international commitments this summer.
For Klopp, it is all about how Liverpool start the season. Once the ball is rolling, anything can happen.
“I would be happy if we start at the similar level to last year [six wins from six league games],” he said. “That would not be bad. There is space for improvement. It is easy to plan what you want to improve in the office, but then you miss three players or four others are not there and it becomes a theoretical part of football, and you have to throw the plans in the bin so often.
“Stability, consistency, fighting for results. It is all important. Consistency on a high level is most important. If we can do that again, it can be annoying playing against us, and we must come again so they think when they play Liverpool or go to Anfield it is not fun. Last year was good and obviously we have not changed much. The boys should be there again to make the next step.”
Yet City remain the team to be beat. Last season’s domestic treble emphasised their grip on English football, and despite the threat from Liverpool and others, defender John Stones insists it is all in City’s hands.
“I think from the outside, you can say maybe it’s a two-horse race, but from where we’re stood, we want to go into it and better ourselves from last season,” Stones told ESPN FC.
“We’ve obviously put a benchmark down the past two seasons in where we’ve been and where we’ve been at certain stages in the season. But I think it’s just about us concentrating on ourselves.”