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Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola: Which is the real riverboat gambler?

Wednesday 15th January 2020
Luck affects football and high-stakes poker in a similar manner. One Premier League boss understands how to manage it; the other doesn't.
Luck affects football and high-stakes poker in a similar manner. One Premier League boss understands how to manage it; the other doesn't.

Background image: Clarence Alford

In terms of a single hand or match played, poker is nothing like football. At the table, you can force your many opponents to throw their cards in the muck before the dealer lays out the flop. You needn’t even reveal the strength [or weakness] of your hand. Pure aggression is sufficient to add more chips to your stack. On the pitch, you already know all but three of the cards your solitary opponent intends to play before the first kick. Moreover, the game is played out in its entirety no matter how soon the result becomes evident.

Aston Villa suffered that particular embarrassment this weekend when Manchester City were up 3-0 before the half-hour, on their way to a 6-1 victory. A few thousand Villa fans were apparently poker players. They were seen streaming towards the exit after the third goal, their ticket stubs thrown in the muck.

On the other hand, when you compare a full session at the table with a Premier League season, distinct parallels exist. Most notably, clubs near the top of the table tend to play like big stacks, from a position of strength. Although there is an exception this season, sides who find themselves in the drop zone, on the verge of moving to a lower-stakes table, usually tighten up their play. If they're cagey, they can slowly build their point total to the stage where they can take a risk or two without the fear of going bust.

Southampton and Watford changed up their approach over the holidays. Now, further along in their recovery, the Saints grow ever more aggressive under Ralph Hasenhuttl. While not yet out of the woods, the Hornets took the opportunity to bully Bournemouth on the weekend. Eddie Howe’s Cherries came into the match on a run of bad games. After yet another heavy defeat, the Dorset coast outfit fell into the bottom two, time running out and only 20 points in the bank. As the only side with fewer points [14], Daniel Farke and Norwich City aren’t making a case for loose play from a low stack.

While position in the table can affect a club’s playing style, the reverse isn’t true. Although positive play remains in vogue, a few rocks with sizable stacks sit at the Premier League table. Sixth and ninth respectively, Sheffield United and Crystal Palace raked in 32 and 29 points through 22 matchdays. They tend to avoid the big hands, not scoring often, conceding even less. Similarly, Tottenham worked their way back into the table’s top half with Jose Mourinho at the helm. Spurs were reluctant to stick their necks out against league leaders Liverpool on the weekend. It cost them in the end but, accustomed as the North Londoners are to better accommodations than eighth place, they’re not going to get out of line too often under the Portuguese.

The Special One’s nemesis is an entirely different story. Pep Guardiola pushes the action, exhorting his Manchester City squad to pressure opponents relentlessly as a donkey raising every hand pre-flop. When you start every game with a monster hand, it's tempting to keep going all-in. Through 22 matchdays, City punished opposing defences 62 times. That’s 12 more strikes than the second-most prolific Premier League side, Liverpool.

But football and poker share another trait. Starting strength doesn’t guarantee victory. Occasionally, weaker clubs crack a top side’s aces. When it happens to a club as prolific as Manchester City and a manager as respected for his tactical nous as Guardiola, expectations make the loss much heavier than it would be for other clubs in the same circumstance.

Pep suffers more bad beats than usual in 2019/20. Despite scoring a dozen more goals than Jurgen Klopp’s Reds, his Sky Blues trail the Merseysiders by a hefty 14 points in the table. Football fans shrug off such anomalies, noting Liverpool is simply more consistent. A shrewd poker player might say the German manages variance better than his Catalan counterpart.

The two terms sound related but they're not identical. Simply put, variance is luck. Most players equate it with bad luck because we tend to take good hands for granted. Pocket aces should win 80% of the time in 1v1 showdowns. We barely think about the four times they hold up. It’s expected. The one time in five they fail hits hard because we don't see it coming. Worse, since luck comes and goes like the tides, albeit less predictably, the hits often come in bunches. When you aren't prepared, that can decimate your bankroll. Or your Premier League title defence. 

Aware of variance, disciplined poker pros never buy-in with more than 10% of their bankroll. It’s fair to say Klopp entered the season better prepared for bad luck than Guardiola. Both Liverpool and City struggle with injuries in central defence. Only one manager possessed the squad depth to cope with the crisis.

Klopp lost Joel Matip early in the season. No problem, he inserted Dejan Lovren into the lineup with no noticeable dropoff. When Lovren went down as well, Klopp had another chip to throw into the pot in Joe Gomez. In defensive midfield, the gegenpress guru lost Fabinho, Naby Keita and James Milner but, with a tactical tweak, still turns to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Xherdan Shaqiri and Adam Lallana.

Conversely, Guardiola allowed ageing captain Vincent Kompany to leave for Anderlecht in the summer without signing a replacement, apparently feeling he was deep-stacked. When Aymeric Laporte went down, Pep was suddenly more reluctant to partner Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones than a rock peeking in at seven-deuce. Instead, the City boss borrowed Fernandinho from central midfield to fill the gap. He still has options at d-mid with Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan but, despite the Brazilian’s presence, his defence remains too porous without Laporte. City shipped 25 goals through 22 games, joint-fifth with Manchester United. Liverpool are seven better than second-best Leicester, yielding only14 despite Klopp's greater need to dig deep into his squad at both centre-half and defensive midfield.

Without a doubt, Klopp was better prepared for hard times. Consequently, Liverpool boss the Premier League table. Meanwhile, Pep Guardiola refuses to adjust his play despite adverse conditions, ignoring the need to manage City’s variance. If I could bankroll one or the other in the World Series of Poker, I know who I'd choose.

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Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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