After the first legs of this season’s Champions League last-16 ties, there was the anticipation of the Premier League recovering its dominant position of a decade ago.
In 2008, Chelsea overcame regular semi-final foes, Liverpool, only to lose to Manchester United on penalties in a Moscow final.
Recent years have proved a more fallow affair but February’s first legs ended with Manchester City and Liverpool all but through to a draw that would pit them mouth-wateringly together and none of Chelsea, Tottenham or Manchester United was behind – the latter two with home legs to come.
Then Lionel Messi happened, streetwise Juventus happened and nothing of any particular note happened at Old Trafford before United collapsed to a humiliating loss against Sevilla.
It left Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp as the keepers of English football’s flame in Europe’s top competition – a curious position for the two master tacticians to hold given the consistent wave of criticism each faced early in their current tenures.
You see, titles at home and abroad with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund were all well and good, but tiki-taka (a label Guardiola himself hates, but a useful shorthand here) and gegenpressing would not work in a Premier League of hectic festive schedules, and cold Wednesday nights at Stoke.
There were plenty of Guardiola critiques, many verging on gleeful, as City spluttered during the middle months of 2016-17, although Stan Collymore’s efforts in The Mirror are still worthy of special attention.
“If he thinks he’s going to turn up and outplay everybody in the Premier League, and that teams are going to let his Manchester City side have the ball for 90 percent of the time and pass pretty patterns around them, then he is absolutely deluded,” Collymore boomed.
The former Nottingham Forest and England striker went on to write of the “unique circumstances” of the Premier League and “grinding it out”; the ludicrous assumption, accepted as a truism in some quarters, being that you never have to do likewise in LaLiga or the Bundesliga.
Guardiola sought to defuse those comments by pretending not to know who Collymore was – Stan was not amused – and the episode probably drew a weary smile from old adversary Klopp.
“That’s him asking his players to play a high-tempo pressing game from the top end,” Sam Allardyce told talkSPORT when asked about a spate of injuries that hit Liverpool’s squad in early 2016, comments he subsequently apologised for to an affronted Klopp.
“I don’t think Jurgen has realised just how ferocious our league is at this period of time and because he has asked for that extra high energy, that extra 10 yards, these lads are fatiguing now, with so many games in such a short period of time, and are picking up these muscle strains.”
Silly Jurgen, not realising. English football is all about hard running and giving “110 percent”, but not when you give it a fancy German name. Incidentally, in near fulfilment of Collymore’s anti-prophecy, Allardyce’s Everton lost 3-1 to City at the weekend, with Guardiola’s men enjoying 82 percent of possession as they repeatedly passed pretty patterns around their hosts.
Doing it their way
Catalan journalist Emilio Perez de Rozas found little sympathy in his assertion early last year that there was “a lot of Brexit” about criticism of Guardiola, but strains of the insularity and feelings of British exceptionalism that informed that generation-defining vote also permeates the national game.
Since the advent of the Premier League a quarter of a century ago, English football has embraced the world’s finest managerial talents but under the assumption that a degree of assimilation was forthcoming.
Three Italian coaches have won Premier League titles, but the Mediterranean nation’s tradition of solid defending was something English football intuitively understood. Similarly, Arsene Wenger set in motion a revolution at Arsenal built on those hardy foundations of Seaman, Dixon, Adams, Keown and Winterburn. Jose Mourinho arrived at Chelsea with an instantly recognisable Cloughian blend of charm and arrogance.
Guardiola and Klopp invited scorn for having the temerity to insist on doing it their way – methods that have led their teams to Wednesday’s crunch clash at Anfield.
Heavy defeats at Leicester City and Everton last season left Guardiola at a crossroads where he decided to double down on his ideas. His procession to the Premier League this term remains unchecked, save for a January defeat to Klopp and Liverpool.
Progress at Anfield has not been so dizzying – City’s finances being an undeniable factor here – but the development of a thrilling, high-octane football team has been sustained and impressive.
During the recent international break, England manager Gareth Southgate placed City, Liverpool and Tottenham – under the superb guidance of Mauricio Pochettino – at the heart of his World Cup plans, aping elements of their clubs’ tactics and styles in two creditable performances against Netherlands and Italy.
Klopp and Guardiola’s influence is set to endure for a while longer in Manchester, Liverpool and beyond. They are a credit to themselves and their clubs, and a gift that will keep on giving to English football.