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Can Klopp and Guardiola keep doing this forever?
No one else can stop them. Will time be able to?
“I’m so glad that Jürgen is a Red”, sing the Liverpool fans in their new tribute to their manager.
They’re going to be glad for a while longer, as Jürgen Klopp just renewed his contract until 2026. With Burnley sacking Sean Dyche, he’s now the longest-serving manager in the Premier League. Across Europe’s top five leagues, only two coaches (Diego Simeone and Christian Streich) have been in charge of their clubs longer than Klopp.
Not far behind him is Pep Guardiola. He arrived in England nine months after Klopp and his current deal expires in 2023 but, as Sam Lee reports, “there are murmurings that he will sign a new deal in the summer”. It looks like the two of them may continue battling it out in the Premier League for a while longer.
On one hand, this is not very surprising. Put them in whichever order you prefer, but the majority would agree that Guardiola and Klopp are the two best managers in football today. Of course, their clubs would want to keep them for as long as possible, and each has built projects that would be difficult to match elsewhere. At another superclub, either of these managers might have to deal with boardroom politics and the risk of getting sacked. There are no such concerns at Liverpool or Man City, where they’re free to just concentrate on coaching the team with all the support they need.
But it’s defying the gravity of modern football. When Sir Alex Ferguson retired and Arsène Wenger “retired”, they were supposed to represent the end of an era. The days when a manager could be in charge for a decade and slowly build a team were long gone. Managers were to come and go much more frequently, with the task of maintaining continuity falling to sporting directors. The future was managers changing every 2-3 years without exception. It has happened at most clubs but there have been, ahem, exceptions.
Maybe it just makes sense that Liverpool and Man City would want the two best managers in the world to stay for as long as possible. They’d certainly have a hard time finding successors. Both Barcelona and Bayern took clear steps backwards in terms of tactical sophistication after Guardiola left. Borussia Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke admitted that “perhaps it would have been better if we had exchanged the entire team” instead of exchanging Klopp for Thomas Tuchel as they did in 2015. And that’s with Tuchel, probably one of the ten best managers in world football. These two are on another level to the rest.
Watzke underscores the key point: he should’ve changed all the players. Managers can’t keep doing the same things with the same faces forever. At least not those as intense and playing with such a high pressing game as these two. This is the conventional wisdom. “At the highest level”, Jonathan Wilson claimed in 2012 (and has repeated many times), “it seems to hold true that great teams last a maximum of three years”. After that, players get physically and mentally run into the ground. Their bodies can’t take the continued intensity and need to move to a less demanding style, while players become sick of the same training sessions and unrelenting demands every day. New voices, new ideas and new training routines are needed to freshen things up.
Are these the same players? To an extent, yes. Seven of Manchester City’s most-used players in the league this season have now been working with Guardiola for more than three years. João Cancelo and Rodri will hit that supposedly disastrous three-year mark this summer. I’m not seeing too many signs of fatigue there. At Liverpool, it’s even starker. Nine of their eleven most-used starters have been with Klopp for over three years. Again, they all seem to be doing ok. No signs of exhaustion or mutiny.
I’m not going to be an expert on the physical side of the equation. It’s possible that, with modern fitness standards, players can continue playing such intensive styles for longer. Maybe it was always a myth. That’s a question for a relevant medical expert, not a football blogger. The mental side is more interesting.
Both managers had brief moments where it looked like these issues were setting in. Man City’s 2019-20 season was beset by defensive errors, looking like the team just couldn’t cover the space in the same way they once did. When it all came to a head after getting knocked out of the Champions League, Oleksandr Zinchenko’s wife claimed it was “completely Guardiola's fault”. I have no idea how much Vlada Sedan knows about football, but it certainly sounded like Zinchenko and maybe other players were frustrated by his manager. The following season, Klopp’s Liverpool looked on course for implosion, losing six of seven league games in a disastrous run over February and March. Injuries were a factor but, well, that’s the kind of thing you’d expect to set in if you push your players to the limit for several years.
Then, in both cases, it just didn’t matter. Through a combination of tactical tweaks and Rúben Dias, Guardiola thoroughly fixed the leak at the heart of City’s defence, and they were back to being as good as ever. Injuries cleared up for Liverpool and now the train is back on its tracks. Both sides have completely broken the three-year rule and look like continuing the success for some time to come.
Obviously, you’re all about to bring up Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger. But they did it in a different way. Ferguson was happy to change up his coaching staff. Archie Knox, Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren, Jimmy Ryan, Carlos Queiroz, Walter Smith and Mike Phelan all played the role of Ferguson’s number two at times. Queiroz in particular was vital in changing things up, bringing modern continental coaching methods and greater defensive organisation. This was Ferguson’s secret: he was a manager, not a coach. He controlled the club and, more often than not after 2001, delegated much of the coaching responsibilities to others. Wenger, meanwhile, was a much more relaxed personality who didn’t aim to push players to their limits.
As it stands, Klopp and Guardiola are both rewriting the rules of modern football. For this to work, my gut instinct is still that we’ll need to see a little more player turnover than we’ve witnessed so far. That is slowly underway at both clubs. Again, if the choice came down to it, I think they would change all the players rather than the managers. But I don’t think these sides are going to look dramatically different in two years.
If Klopp and Guardiola are going to continue winning – and you’d bet on them doing so – they’re going to keep breaking the rules.