Jürgen Klopp is happy to call his rival the world’s best coach, and few would deny that Guardiola has revolutionised the game in Spain, Germany and now England. With Erling Haaland signed up for next season, this may be recalled as the season Guardiola captured the Premier League title without a recognised striker, often using the only one within his squad, Gabriel Jesus, as a shuttler down the flanks.
Within Guardiola’s complicated makeup there is a desire to do things differently, to throw back orthodoxy. It helps to have a huge budget and wonderful players but he remains relentless in capturing league titles via innovation.
City’s repeated Champions League psychodramas count against him, when peers such as Klopp and Carlo Ancelotti suffer no such mental blocks. Nights such as the collapse at Real Madrid seem to eat into Guardiola’s soul, his eyes betraying their horror. The accusation is that his players are unable to think for themselves in moments of pressure.
In recent months, Guardiola has gone public with his defence of City, kicking against other clubs. To mastery has been added prickliness and vulnerability. The flaws add to the fascination with a football genius.
After last season, when Liverpool crept into the Champions League at the end of a poor title defence, many suggested the Klopp era had peaked in the years between 2018 and 2020, and that the club had not trousered enough trophies during that time.
They were wholly wrong. Klopp reached the middle of May on the brink of a quadruple, Liverpool having developed a fresh taste for domestic cup competitions. The return of Virgil van Dijk helped, as did the forward line finding form again, and the flourishing of Thiago Alcântara in midfield. Plus astute transfer business in the shape of Luis Díaz and Ibrahima Konaté.
But amid all that, the key is Klopp. Liverpool’s owners have handed the keys to someone whose humanity, man-management and will to win pull fans, players and suits along with him for the ride. Liverpool are not a team of supreme classicists, artistic like Guardiola’s City; they thrill instead by attacking and defending in waves. A previous accusation was that Klopp’s unabated pressing game tired out his players but the use of his squad this season has been exemplary.
“These are the days, my friends,” sing Liverpool fans. And Klopp is staying on for more of them, contracted until 2026.
Stepping beyond those two modern greats, perhaps only one other manager has been an unqualified success. Even then, as Brentford finished in mid-table, some pointed to signing Christian Eriksen in January, when the team were struggling against relegation, as some form of cheat mode. And yet it was Frank’s expertise that took his fellow Dane to west London.
Contacts and risk-taking are a significant part of football management, and Frank’s previous relationship from national youth level with Eriksen meant the former Tottenham and Internazionale player chose Brentford as the place to rehabilitate after his cardiac arrest at Euro 2020 last June.
Frank’s hard-working team, who press the opposition to distraction, have been an ideal platform for Eriksen, but they had been making waves all season, beating Arsenal on the opening night, and running Manchester City close at Christmas. Frank is highly personable, willing to answer questions on everything and no respecter of the elite. He is competitive in the extreme, and you will be hard-pressed to find a match where he felt his team didn’t deserve to win, though he is also no fantasist.
Potter is a slow-burning success, perhaps more suited to the less pressurised environment of Brighton than the type of elite club he is now linked with. He also has the straight-backed humility certain pundits look for in a future England manager.
The reason he will be linked with higher-tariff assignments is the fine job he continues to do at Brighton. Had the club been able to source a goalscorer they would be a seriously dangerous proposition and not gone on the run of nine draws and three defeats that snaked from September to December. Late-season wins over Arsenal, Spurs and then a glorious 4-0 pounding of Manchester United took them happily to mid-table, and those famous victories were each a product of Potter’s careful game management and preparation.
Holding on to Yves Bissouma, Marc Cucurella and Leandro Trossard may be problematic but Potter has established Brighton in the Premier League. Should a higher calling come, he would be sorely missed.
There was a curious sight last Monday at St James’ Park, that of the local journalists ending the final home match of the season by applauding the manager, who in turn called the Tyneside pack “part of the team”. This is not the usual practice at Premier League clubs, though Howe’s rescuing of Newcastle, lifting them from the relegation zone to mid-table, undoubtedly made hacks’ lives a little easier. The second choice to Unai Emery has done very well.
Spending a record £100m of Saudi cash in the January transfer window undoubtedly helped as Howe’s team lifted the post-Mike Ashley gloom. Bruno Guimarães is a signing the Premier League elite regret not making, and who knew Joelinton was such an adept midfield ratter? As at Bournemouth, though, Howe has made the team greater than the sum of its parts, remnants from Steve Bruce’s and Rafa Benítez’s regime also performing to a high level.
Howe’s initial refusal to answer questions on Saudi Arabia, parroting a mantra that he concentrates on football, was unconvincing. The game, a geopolitical counterpoint, ought to be seen in the round. Perhaps he could use the close season to continue his research and deep thinking on such issues.