As footballing conflicts go, Pep Guardiola versus Jose Mourinho used to have it all. There were defining moments and memorable matches – think Mourinho’s celebration on the Camp Nou turf after knocking Guardiola’s Barcelona out of the Champions League in 2010, or the sensational 5-0 thrashing of Mourinho’s Real Madrid inflicted by Guardiola later that same year. When the pair met once again in Manchester, they were expected to form the Premier League’s next great managerial rivalry. However, less than two seasons into its resumption their rivalry looks like old news.
Mourinho’s Manchester United have failed to defeat Guardiola’s Manchester City in three attempts and, ahead of their fourth shot this weekend, the Portuguese showcased an alarmingly defeatist mindset. “We want to finish second this year and have 10 points more than last season,” he said after the recent 2-0 win over Swansea City. “But there is a club (Manchester City) which is making it practically impossible to follow.”
Guardiola has since stated that he will be prioritising his side’s Champions League clash with Liverpool over the upcoming derby. Not only do his comments reinforce the difference in stature between the two Manchester clubs at present, but they hint at a fresher, more relevant managerial rivalry on the horizon: Pep versus Klopp.
In the past, Premier League managerial rivalries were stoked by a sort of light psychological warfare. Underhand comments in pre-match press conferences, explosive post-match outbursts and heated touchline fracas were the tradition – it was all very personal. Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger were at the heart of it all, though the former also engaged in mind games with a number of other managers throughout his time in England. His war of words with Kevin Keegan led to one of the great moments of football-related television in the 1990s, with Keegan barking that he would “love it” if his Newcastle United side overcame Ferguson’s Manchester United in the 1995/96 title race.
Had he been managing in England at the time Mourinho would have loved it too – during his formative years as a coach he paid specific attention to the psychological aspects of the game. This approach has paid off throughout his career, whether in taking the pressure off his own team, motivating them, distracting the media or frustrating the opposition manager. He has always had a knack for unsettling his rivals and boosting his own players. However, nowadays the Premier League is dominated by tactics, not mind games. So, while his verbal feud with Antonio Conte earlier this season provided headlines, it also felt absurdly out of touch.
Of the 19 clashes between Mourinho and Guardiola, Mourinho has won just three. Guardiola, meanwhile, has won nine. Their duel is essentially over as a contest, but Jurgen Klopp’s friendly competition with Guardiola is just beginning.
The German and the Catalan have met 12 times. The results have been split fairly evenly – the former has six wins; the latter has five. Their most recent contest, Liverpool’s stunning 4-3 win over Manchester City in January, set a new standard for Premier League football. Within that one match there were momentum shifts and exceptional spells of possession and pressing. There was also a riveting stylistic contrast between two of the modern game’s great thinkers.
Klopp’s managerial approach emphasises passion and emotional connection. He doesn’t adjust his philosophy for opposing teams. His intense pressing and counter-pressing tactics took Europe by storm during his time in charge of Borussia Dortmund, and he has made Liverpool a similarly cohesive and aggressive force.
Guardiola is just as passionate, albeit he seems more interested in improvement than connection. His mission is to develop talent and oversee ambitious projects, not to galvanise fans or make friends with players. But, like Klopp, he is entirely focused on his own team and his own ideals – the only tweaks he makes for opponents tend to be subtle systematic modifications, not wholesale stylistic changes.
Beyond their idealism, the greatest similarity between the two is that both prefer to eschew verbal sparring. In the build-up to their upcoming Champions League clash, they have spoken positively about one another.
“For those who have seen our two clashes in the Premier League this year, and in the last few years as well since Pep arrived…they know that it’s always an exciting match,” Klopp said. “And that’s the way football should be.”
“The way Liverpool play is so complicated for us,” Guardiola said. “We know that. They are so quick, they are so good and it is tough.”
If Klopp and Guardiola’s relationship does turn into a rivalry, it will be one built on a mutual tactical respect. Their ideas have essentially shifted the footballing conversation over the last decade, and each recognises and respects the threat posed by the other.
As the latest chapter in their head-to-head approaches it is increasingly apparent that the Premier League’s era of mind games is over. The tacticians are taking centre stage.
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Also published on Medium.