The faces and jubilation of several Red Bull Salzburg players when they realised they would be fulfilling many childhood dreams in October was an image that every worldwide football fan should appreciate.
With their European participation largely confined to the Europa League in recent years, this will be the first time the Austrians have automatically qualified for the competition, after winning the Austrian Bundesliga eight of the last nine seasons. They have previously been required to navigate the qualification rounds of the Champions League, but this year they went straight into the pot with the big boys.
And as the third seeders sat anxiously around a television screen, family and friends in attendance awaiting their fate, their optimism turned into elation as they were drawn into pot E, with none other than European giants Liverpool.
Trips to Italy and Belgium will follow, with games against Napoli and Genk respectively, but why are ‘Die Mozartstädter’ so excited at the prospect of visiting Anfield on an autumnal Wednesday evening?
Merseyside is famed for hosting such occasions and very rarely does a European night in front of the Kop disappoint, with endless memories serving the modern football fan well.
Steven Gerrard’s thunderous hit to defeat Olympiakos in 2004 – a truly pivotal evening in Reds history as they went on to win the competition that year with Andy Gray’s deafening Glaswegian cry capturing the occasion perfectly.
Luis Garcia’s ghost goal against Chelsea in the semi-finals a year later with John Terry’s wild protestations going unnoticed. More recently, Dejan Lovren’s 91st minute winner against manager Jurgen Klopp’s former employers Borussia Dortmund in the Europa League of 2016 that sealed a memorable 5-4 quarter-final aggregate win before losing to Unai Emery’s Sevilla in the final in Basel.
Given their track record in Europe, notably in front of a packed Anfield crowd, surely most teams would dread facing Klopp’s notorious ‘gegenpressing’ Reds? Not Salzburg. And as time progresses, more teams, managers and fans will stand back, simply in admiration, at what is being achieved at the Premier League runners up. Even Manchester City.
A lot of press and coverage has surrounded Pep Guardiola, and the impact he has made in Manchester since his well anticipated arrival in 2016. However, what Klopp is building in Liverpool is something even the great Spaniard will eventually struggle to emulate – much to his dismay, as City’s domestic reign comes under threat whilst they continue to falter on a European stage.
There is no getting away from the fact that Guardiola’s effect on English football has filtered its way through the lower leagues in (mostly) a positive way.
Every team, regardless of their level in the footballing pyramid, wants to play Guardiola’s way. A way he created. A way he constructed and perfected to create one of the best Barcelona sides in modern history. (If you have yet to see Rochdale’s first goal against Southend at the weekend in League One, please spare yourself two minutes).
“There is no getting away from the fact that Guardiola’s effect on English football has filtered its way through the lower leagues in (mostly) a positive way. “
However, is it realistic? Are every team now expected to play that way? Do you really want a journeyman center half, playing in the lower divisions, to receive a ball on the half-turn from his ‘keeper in his own 6-yard box? To most, no. Send it 60-yards to your striker and squeeze, right?
Wrong. To Pep (and obviously Rochdale) it is now a habit, and before he arrived playing out from the back was almost a taboo in England.
Unsurprisingly, since Guardiola took over from Manuel Pellegrini three years ago, Manchester City have dominated English football even more than before as he quickly stamped his style of play, tiki-taka, on the Premier League and the modern game; a style never seen in this country before.
His cute recruitment of ball-playing centre halves, tireless wingbacks and eye-of-a-needle passers has to be applauded and a change in how football is played is evidential. Even his ‘keeper, Ederson, signed from Benfica in 2017, can land a ball on a sixpence from 75-yards with passes other footballers could only dream of.
Off the ball, he is relentless. In Catalonia, he became notorious for his 6-second rule. A rule he demanded his players follow, regardless of their position, and continues to implement at City. If you lose the ball, whoever you are and whatever your status or reputation, you get it back. Don’t? You feel the wrath of a hot-tempered, yet extremely calculated man. A man who wants to conquer the world.
Guardiola’s impact at City has been impressive. Winning the league twice in his first three seasons, as well as a domestic treble. However, their record in the Champions League leaves much to be desired.
His first European campaign as manager saw them succumb to a shock defeat on aggregate to Monaco, despite winning 5-3 at the Etihad in the first leg. They then went on to lose comfortably against Liverpool over two games in 2018, before Fernando Llorente’s controversial, VAR-assisted goal in Manchester sent Tottenham through the semi-finals on the away goal rule in April.
So why have they struggled repeatedly in European competitions throughout his tenure, failing to progress beyond the quarter-final stage? He merely has to travel the 51 miles from Manchester to Liverpool to find his answer.
The Reds have fared much better in Uefa competitions and since Klopp’s arrival in England a year before his Spanish counterpart, things have consistently headed on an upward trajectory.
“As time progresses, more teams, managers and fans will stand back, simply in admiration, at what is being achieved at the Premier League runners up. Even Manchester City. “
The well-loved German arrived with a strong reputation, despite an up-and-down final season with Borussia Dortmund prior to his arrival in England. With his geeky smile, untamed hair and thick readers, he’s a breath of fresh and his approach has delivered a sense of rejuvenated optimism to Liverpool supporters – especially in Europe where they hold such fond memories.
Having reached the final in 2018, losing 3-1 to Real Madrid in Kiev, they went one better in June when they defeated Spurs 2-0 in Madrid, and when they paraded their sixth Champions League trophy around the Albert Docks and surrounding streets, Guardiola and City were apprehensively looking on with a worrying feeling that they have finally met their match.
At home, however, Liverpool have not won an English title since 1990, under legend Kenny Daglish’s command. They have come second five times since, most recently last season when their record points tally for a non-title winner (97) still fell short of the only other contender – Manchester City (98).
They lost one game all season. To whom? Manchester City in January. Staggering.
But only the start of something revolutionary.
Whilst they will certainly continue to challenge one another for the Premier League title for years to come, Klopp will always have the strongest chokehold on the European competitions through his own unique way of playing the beautiful game, something developed on the continent and something Guardiola could currently only wish to have in his armory.
‘Gegenpress’, or the act of ‘gegenpressing’, is a term, and style, invented by Klopp himself. Adopted and matured at Dortmund, his way of playing football is like no other. Similar to Guardiola’s 6-second rule, Klopp’s approach is much more tenacious and extremely impressive to watch, and whilst combining the classic features of the high-pressure defence with a modern twist, Klopp may thank Guardiola for inadvertently allowing his approach to work week in, week out.
Since Pep has strongly influenced how football is now played in England, every team wants a piece of his pie. With the game now being played in close-quarters, back-and-forth along the back, Klopp’s ‘Gegenpress’, defending from the front, comes to the fore and is, to a degree, completely unplayable.
With City however, for all their attacking prowess and ability to run riot at times, and toy with the opposition however they please, à la a playground kickabout, I feel a certain sense of predictability and lack thereof of any ‘plan B’ when things do not quite go their way.
Despite having the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Agüero to call upon, all brought together by the glue from Silvas Bernardo and David, İlkay Gündoğan and Fernandinho – a team of starlets – City have often been labelled as boring and some have even commented that their near faultlessness in every area is becoming dull. Why?
Because, despite being wholeheartedly accustomed to having 80%+ possession every game, especially at the Etihad in front of, well, a rather lethargic and underwhelming home support, watching them with the ball is slowly becoming a chore. With every sideways pass into midfield, with every backwards pass to their ‘sweeper-keeper’, a collection of groans and yawns spread around the nation in unison. One pass every forty may split the lines and their entire mentality yields little excitement.
I know what you are saying. “But City scored four!”, “Won 5-0!”, “Had 96% possession!”. Yes, that is fine, but did they excite you? After asking the most avid football follower that question as they marvel at City’s latest performance, they struggle to answer that simple question. Dare I say it? They are boring and it’s merely a foregone conclusion.
For me and the supporter, football is all about excitement. Money is paid, be that through a television subscription or attending the game, to be on the edge of a seat and I, along with a some, just do not get that with Manchester City. That is why, for me, they are slowly becoming England’s second best.
Brighton and Hove Albion’s performance at the weekend was exemplary and Graham Potter and his team should be delighted at how they performed – with courage and desire. The scoreline flattered City and Guardiola was full of praise after the game for both the Seagulls and Potter who travelled north to simply frustrate, the common approach for all City’s opponents nowadays.
Pep and his team got it right this time, but what do they do against a resilient side who CAN frustrate, and who CAN focus solely on defending with intentions to thump the ball clear at every given opportunity for 90 minutes? Struggle. And it bodes for a tedious and mind-numbing outcome, especially in European football’s biggest club competition. The opposition are simply too good and too cute.
Liverpool, meanwhile, have got it spot on and despite the two managers’ approaches being very similar, the Reds never disappoint and I, for one, could watch them over and over again. They are relentless. Fast. Electric.
With every attack, they want to go forward. They want their feared attackers in possession of the football for as long as humanly possible to run at retreating defenders. They will not score all the time, but they go about creating chances in a much more excitable manner than ‘Citeh’ do and they can do it against the big guns. Just look what they did to Lionel Messi et al. back in May.
With directions to hunt in packs and with Klopp’s pacey front trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané leading such a charge, it allows them to press high up the field causing panic and distress amongst the most calming of defenders. Should the ball happen to find its way into midfield, Messrs Henderson, Wijnaldum and Fabinho, to name a few, are on hand to snuff out any half-hearted hope of a rare attack. Traits City have yet to master.
What is even worse for visiting teams, ‘keeper Alisson, voted the Champions League Goalkeeper of the Season recently, poses an unbeatable and intimidating figure as Reds’ custodian at times. Whilst Virgil van Dijk, arguably the world’s best defender at present, is seemingly on hand to sweep up any imminent danger with class and swan-like elegance as the onslaught starts again.
With their style mastered and tactic perfected it is a joy to behold. It is 100 miles an hour. It is exciting and teams, even the best, can’t cope. Alas, Klopp now has Liverpool as genuine and consistent trophy contenders, both domestically and in Europe as he seeks a third final in a row, and his way is spreading increasing concern and unrest throughout the blue side of Manchester who reel in envy.
But how do you play against that? How would you even try? Who knows! However, I would wager any money that Salzburg would prefer a trip to Anfield over the Etihad, or the aptly nicknamed ‘Emptyhad’, to face the impossible.
Why? Because to them it is a win-win.
They will pit themselves against world-class opposition. The best. The crème de la crème and all in front of the famous, eccentric Kop. Nothing gets to a player more than a bellowing rendition of Gerry and the Pacemakers ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.
They will be taught a footballing lesson, but they will enjoy it through pure respect and appreciation and become part of Liverpool’s illustrious history in Europe.
The Austrians will not reach the final next year, and will not expect themselves to, either. However, they should soak up every second whilst they can. Something they would struggle to do if they were matched against Guardiola’s men.
In Liverpool, they will face one of the best sides in the world and defending champions who play football the right way under the stewardship of one of the game’s very best. They will compete toe-to-toe with prestigious internationals on five times, ten times, fifteen times their entire Club’s wage bill, in front of 50,000+ of England’s most dedicated and passionate supporters.
History suggests Salzburg are in for a long night next month, and most probably in the return leg at their Red Bull Arena home in Wals-Siezenheim in December, but will they care? Not one bit.
They have nothing to lose and if they win any of the games against Klopp and his boys, or even steal a solitary point, parties in the picturesque western city of Austria will be non-stop. If they lose, they shrug their shoulders as huge underdogs and move on. They can only take positives from their experience, and rightly so. This will be by far and away the biggest highlight of their careers, and if they learn anything from their trip to Anfield and beat Rehindorf Altach three days later in the Austrian Bundesliga – even better!
Meanwhile, Guardiola and his team will have to fathom a way to fend off any further challenge from their Merseyside rivals, before they topple off the already precarious perch as England’s best. Otherwise, the inevitability of him heading back to mainland Europe, China, or North America for a ‘new challenge’, without managing to repeat his Champions League exploits at Barcelona, becomes an ever-growing possibility.