Pep Guardiola has faced Liverpool on numerous occasions in the past few years, but this weekend will be the first time he’s faced the Reds with a new-look midfield.
The Manchester City boss moved to England in 2016 and since, the Reds have established themselves as his biggest problem in the Premier League, competing for glory at the summit of the table on a regular basis.
The Spaniard has admitted as much in recent times, describing Liverpool as the toughest side he’s faced throughout his illustrious managerial career.
“I will remember my period here, when I’m watching and playing golf, I’ll remember my biggest rivals as Liverpool,” he said last year (via the Manchester Evening News). “We wouldn’t be as good, but for them.”
Guardiola has faced Klopp particularly on 28 occasions during his career, which is more than he’s faced anybody else.
He couldn’t possibly be more familiar with the Reds but this weekend, when the two sides face each other for the first time this term, Liverpool will offer the element of surprise.
Klopp’s midfield department consisted of a group of seasoned performers for the first eight years of his tenure.
His engine room was packed full of industry and intensity, with the likes of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum known for being self-sacrificing contributors.
For the most part, the Liverpool midfield has been functional, dogged and disciplined against Guardiola.
Klopp’s original 4-3-3 system at Anfield consisted of his midfielders covering in defensive areas for his full-back duo, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, with both provided with a license to get forward.
Henderson and his teammates offered quality but when in possession of the ball, they never proved to be particularly creative, progressive or dangerous, especially in comparison to the players that Guardiola has benefited from, with Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, İlkay Gündoğan and David Silva all operating as supreme technicians at the Etihad Stadium.
Klopp’s midfield make-up has always been very different, leaning towards the defensive side of the game.
Manchester City have been able to play without being too concerned about Liverpool’s midfielders in possession but this time around, things have changed.
In the most recent summer window, Klopp made the bold decision to allow five of his lieutenants to depart in Henderson, Milner, Fabinho, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keïta, with the German coach recognizing the need for an overdue rebuild in the middle of the park.
Rather than replacing those players with like-for-like talents who would showcase aggression and tenacity above all else, Liverpool instead prioritized technique more than ever before. Klopp’s assistant, Pep Lijnders, said as much in a recent press conference.
“We want technique so when we buy, we buy technique, we buy something specific to improve our style,” said the Dutchman (via Liverpool’s official website).
“Teams adapt to us, teams change against us, they learn about our strengths, they stop our strengths, so we always have to have new impulses.”
The Reds acquired the services of four new midfielders in Alexis Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai, Wataru Endō and Ryan Gravenberch, with at least three of those players appearing similar in profile.
“What they all have in common is technique,” said Lijnders. “Look to Dom, look to Jota, look to Gravenberch, if you look to Darwin, if you look to Alexis. That’s what they all have in common.”
For arguably the first time since he moved to England, Guardiola will come up against a Liverpool team with a midfield department that is capable of competing with his own in a technical sense. Szoboszlai in particular is looking like Klopp’s very own version of De Bruyne of late.
With the captain of Hungary fit and available to start the high-profile match alongside Mac Allister and Gravenberch, Liverpool could realistically field three trump cards in Manchester this weekend.
Guardiola will no doubt plan for what the trio have to offer but regardless, he will witness them live for the first time on Saturday afternoon, and it shouldn’t take him long to realize they are not the same as the players who came before them.