Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and English football’s cultural leap

Klopp and Guardiola are helping to change English football. But they can only do it because English football had changed so much anyway.

The New York Times November 09, 2019 17:54:40 IST
Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and English football’s cultural leap
  • Together with Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, Pep Guardiola has helped transform the Premier League over the last three years.

  • Pep Guardiola-coached Manchester City prepare to face Jurgen Klopp-coached Liverpool on Sunday in a clash of the top two English sides.

  • The style espoused by Guardiola can only be adopted and adapted because the climate in England is now more receptive to new ideas.

Rochdale (England): Alfie McLellan was grumbling as he walked out of the low-slung, lopsided stadium that his team, Rochdale, calls home.

It was not so much that Rochdale has lost that bothered McLellan. Rochdale fans like him know, from long experience, not to expect to win, especially not when playing a team like Ipswich Town, arguably the best team in League One, English football’s third tier.

No, what concerned McLellan was the manner of the defeat. “We were just slogging it forward,” he explained to a friend. As it chased the game, he felt Rochdale had done what teams at this level have done for years: played the sort of direct, muscular football that passes for a traditional English style. “That’s not a game plan,” McLellan said. “We don’t need to play like that.”

As evidence, he cites a goal Rochdale scored against Southend earlier this season: a sweeping move spanning the length of the field, 16 passes in all, before the forward Ian Henderson tapped the ball home.

It was a mesmerising sequence, especially for League One. But though Henderson was invited onto national radio a couple of days later to discuss Rochdale’s transformation into a mill-town Barcelona, he did not receive all the credit. Nor did his teammates or even his manager.

Instead, when a clip of the goal went viral on social media, it was in tribute to someone who, most likely, had never seen Rochdale play: Pep Guardiola. Together with Jürgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, Guardiola has helped transform the Premier League over the last three years. It is hard to dispute, as Guardiola’s Manchester City prepare to face Klopp’s Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday, that the best two teams in England are now the best two teams in the world.

Pep Guardiola Jurgen Klopp and English footballs cultural leap

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. AFP

Increasingly, though, it has become an orthodoxy that they have transformed more than just their teams and their league. There is a sense that Guardiola’s ideas, in particular, have resonated far beyond the Etihad Stadium.

He has been credited with inspiring a cultural shift across English football, one that has encouraged even the likes of Rochdale to envisage a style based on more than “slogging it forward.” Even Gareth Southgate, the manager of the England national team, has described Guardiola as an “innovator” who has had an impact at all levels of the English game.

No wonder, then, that some might be inclined to assume he had a hand, even an indirect one, in Rochdale’s moment of viral fame: a seed he had sown come to full bloom. The reality, though, is a little more complex.

Shifting the cultural window

This past summer, Brian Barry-Murphy, Rochdale’s Irish manager, attended a fans’ forum. He is 41, and was then on the cusp of his first full season in professional management after a long playing career in England’s lower leagues.

The premise of such forums is simple: The manager and his staff meet with some of their club’s most ardent fans, giving them a chance to explain their ideas, and the fans an opportunity to express their concerns and hopes for the season ahead.

One fan stood out to Barry-Murphy: the one who had been unimpressed by the club’s tendency, in recent years, to pass the ball around. “He told us that what fans wanted was more goalmouth action,” Barry-Murphy said, smiling. “I told him that was what I wanted, too, as long as it was in the right goalmouth. It’s just that we had a different way of getting the ball there.”

After that goal at Southend, Barry-Murphy and Rochdale were hailed as outliers: ambassadors for aestheticism amid the barbarism of League One. (In person, it can be easy to buy into the image: Barry-Murphy cites Guardiola’s Barcelona and Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao as his formative influences.) But he does not see it like that.

“There are more and more teams at our level playing possession-based football,” he said. “There has been a change, no doubt. You did have teams who played that way when I was playing, but there weren’t the ideas there are now, and it was very much the exception. There was always a sense of: ‘How dare they play like that?’”

In the eyes of those who have toiled in English football’s foothills for longer than Barry-Murphy, some of that change can be attributed to Guardiola.

“You always look at the best,” said Gary Johnson, the much-traveled former manager of Yeovil Town, Bristol City and Cheltenham, now working in England’s fifth tier at Torquay.

Recently, Johnson noted how many teams now split their central defenders, with a midfielder dropping in, trying to build play from the back, something borrowed directly from Guardiola and his apostles. “You try to see what we can emulate at our level,” Johnson said.

But there are limits to the influence of the elite.

“What happens at the top does have an impact,” said Paul Tisdale, who, like Johnson, has long had a reputation as one of English football’s unheralded progressives. “It shifts the cultural window. It changes the idea of what is acceptable.”

What it does not change is the reality of life in the lower leagues. Managers can only work with what they have; if players are not able to mimic a style seen in Champions League games, then they would be foolish to impose it. Failed experiments quickly lead to a loss of faith, and when that happens, it tends to be the manager that suffers. “So either you test the waters gradually,” Tisdale said, “or you play it safe, and don’t do it at all.”

The German model

Pep Guardiola Jurgen Klopp and English footballs cultural leap

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. AFP

A few weeks ago, Steve Morison was preparing Northampton Town’s under-18 team for a game against Peterborough. Morison, a journeyman forward now taking his first, tentative steps in coaching, had watched tapes of his opponent's previous game, and had come up with a plan.

“The way we sold it to the players was that we were going to play like Liverpool,” he said. “We were going to play with a withdrawn striker, in that Roberto Firmino role, press them, win the ball back, and try to catch them quickly in the transition.

“The players understood what we wanted immediately.”

Morison’s team won, 5-1. When his players returned to the changing room, though, he told them that what had pleased him most, rather than the result, was that he had given them a plan and they had carried it out perfectly. “That,” he said, “is what they’ll need when they go into senior football.”

Klopp’s Liverpool, like Guardiola’s Manchester City, is an obvious reference point for teams. It is no coincidence that, since he arrived at Anfield, the likes of Huddersfield, Barnsley, Norwich and Southampton have all appointed German coaches — or those with experience in Germany — cast in his high-pressing image.

Just as important as Klopp’s playing style, though, is his managerial approach. “He’s shown that really it is about people,” Morison said. “A happy player is a good player. You look at his players, and they are happy.”

By wearing his emotions on his sleeve, Morison said, Klopp has helped to smash the long-standing image of manager-as-dictator. And now, ideas he has introduced are bleeding down — just as Guardiola’s are — not only through England’s leagues, but in its age groups, too. But that is not a cause of English football’s great cultural leap, say those watching it happen, but a consequence of it.

Today, every academy in England is governed by a unified syllabus: the Premier League-created Elite Player Performance Plan, which emphasises technical coaching, supported by video presentation and data analysis. Morison is not necessarily a true believer — “I don’t see why every player should have the same journey, when all of their requirements are different,” he said — but that it is a step forward from what came before is not in question.

“All of the players that you get from the academies now know what you need to do to play out from the back,” said Rochdale’s Barry-Murphy. “They have the core skills. Now we have to teach them all of the other elements of playing professionally.”

The environment has changed, too. Tisdale played in the Premier League, briefly, for Southampton; he recalls facing Aston Villa once on a field so bad that “they had painted the sand green so it looked the right color.

“That has changed now. The pitches are perfect all year round. The refereeing is different, too: the thuggery has gone.”

Guardiola’s style can only be adopted and adapted because England’s climate is now more receptive to new ideas. “England is more accepting of playing proper football,” Tisdale said. “It has been a gradual change in tone and culture, over the last 15 or 20 years.”

It is not yet complete, of course. As Barry-Murphy found at the Rochdale fan forum, there are still those who prioritise “goalmouth action.” How it comes about is secondary.

So while McLellan, the Rochdale fan, may have despaired at seeing his team abandon its principles against Ipswich, plenty of others would have disagreed. As the clock ticked down, the 3,000 or so inside Rochdale’s home ground grumbled whenever a player chose the short pass over the long, or decided to go backward, rather than sending an aimless cross into the penalty area. Cultural shifts take time.

When the final whistle blew, as Rochdale’s fans headed into the night, Ipswich’s victorious players walked over to their fans. They arranged themselves into a line, grasped each other’s hands, and raised them above their heads in celebration.

Ipswich’s manager, Paul Lambert, played in Germany. Teams communing with their supporters like this is a common sight there. The most high-profile exponent of the tradition, in England, is Klopp. Like Guardiola, he is helping to change English football. But he can only do it because English football had changed so much anyway.

Rory Smith c.2019 The New York Times Company

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