Pep Guardiola returns to Barcelona this evening. It will be his first appearance at the Camp Nou since leaving the club in 2012. He’ll bring with him a Bayern Munich team hungry to take home an advantage to the Allianz Arena.
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It’s a game which promises so much, including three former Liverpool players – Luis Suarez, Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso. What on earth would we give to have that trio of stars back at Anfield in time for next season?
However, there is a stronger link between Guardiola and Liverpool than you might expect. Indeed, the Reds can attribute much of their success during the early part of the 2015 to the Spaniard’s revolutionary tactics.
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Brendan Rodgers is a big admirer of Guardiola, a lot of young managers are. Despite the pair never having met in person, the Northern Irishman said as much late last year, in quotes taken by the Daily Express.
He said: “It’s funny but I have never met Pep. I was due to fly out to spend a few days with him when he was at Barcelona but my trip was cancelled because of the ash cloud.
“It meant my four-day trip had to be moved. Eventually I didn’t get the chance to meet him but because he’s a wonderful coach and I know, even without meeting or knowing him, that he is a wonderful man.
“His love and passion of football, his great principles and ideas and the confidence he gives to people. I’ve admired him from the outside looking in, at the courage he has showed to play the modern game.”
So when Rodgers was down on his luck around Christmas time, with the Reds out of the Champions League and struggling domestically as well, you won’t be surprised to learn that Rodgers looked towards his idol for inspiration.
As World Soccer explain, it was Guardiola and Munich who started this season’s latest fashion – playing three at the back – a philosophy that massively helped us revive our season, starting the calendar year with a 13 game unbeaten Premier League run.
Our defence, error-prone and leaking goals during the first-half of the year, were given fresh confidence following the change. Emre Can became key, playing alongside Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho, while Alberto Moreno and Jordon Ibe were allowed to thrive in their new ‘wing-back’ roles. But it’s Philippe Coutinho who has shone brightest, with the Brazilian benefiting massively from the extra space he gets playing behind a central striker.
It was the same tactics employed by Guardiola 12 months earlier, who sought out a new formation after losing the German Super Cup to Borussia Dortmund. His version of the 3-4-2-1 is described here by Marti Perarnau:
“We keep [Philipp] Lahm in the midfield. That’s not up for discussion. On either side of him, backing him up, [Jerome] Boateng and Dante, so that Lahm can make aggressive runs to break up the opposition. Bastian [Schweinsteiger] and [Toni] Kroos as attacking midfielders and then we delineate the movements.
“Rafinha and [David] Alaba are no longer full-backs at that point, they join the midfield. They occupy space slightly infield, although they can move to help [Arjen] Robben and [Franck] Ribery on the touchlines if it’s the right thing to do. When we are in possession, we play vertically, building from the superiority in midfield which the addition of Rafinha and Alaba has given us. If we lose the ball then we’ve all the right players located close to each other high up in the centre of the pitch: it’ll be easy to win the ball back.”
That same formation will be on display tonight when Munich take on Barcelona. For anyone that questions the sensibility of the choice from Rodgers, watch how the formation is played at its best. That’s Rodgers’ dream.
We might lack the quality right now but you only have to look in the strength in depth of our young players to see what could be possible – Sturridge, Sterling, Coutinho, Ibe, Can, Moreno, Markovic… the list goes on.
The formation has already done a lot for Rodgers. He looked doomed back in December and his Guardiola-like change saved his job. While defeats to Manchester United, Arsenal and Aston Villa have plunged his position back into doubt more recently, most sensible Liverpool fans can see the project that is unravelling.
So as you watch in awe tonight at arguably the two best football clubs in the world, remember what could be…