Just for a brief moment on Sunday it looked like the footballing gods may have had another trick up their sleeve for us. When Sadio Mané opened the scoring against Wolves at Anfield after 17 minutes, quickly followed by the news that Brighton had scored against Manchester City, a ripple of cheers spread through the Liverpool crowd as they started to feel that maybe the planets were aligning and they were about to witness the second football miracle of their week.
That belief was however cruelly ripped away by the news from the Amex Stadium that Sergio Agüero (who else?) had levelled things just 83 seconds after the reigning Champions had gone behind. Ten minutes later Laporte nodded them into the lead and everyone watching knew that the title race was run, that no matter what Liverpool conjured up on Merseyside, the Premier League trophy was staying at the Etihad for another season.
Inevitably it feels harsh on Liverpool that despite gaining 97 points, enough to win the title in any other Premier League season bar last year when City amassed a scarcely credible 100 points, and losing only one match all season, their wait for a nineteenth championship will now stretch to three decades.
Many pundits, analysts and commenters have suggested that this has been the greatest title race we have seen, in terms of the quality of the protagonists, certainly, but it was a different type of race to those which have been nip and tuck, with twists and turns aplenty in the run in and those that have been settled with very late clinching goals. For pure drama nothing will ever match Anfield 89 or “Agueeeeeerooooo!” (© Martin Tyler) in 2012, but this country has never seen two sides this good going head-to-head for the entire season.
A quick glance at the table shows two sobering facts for the rest of us: firstly City dropped just 16 points all season, Liverpool 17; secondly the gap to Chelsea in third place was a staggering 25 points, more than bottom-of-the-table Huddersfield managed across the entire campaign. For a league that has always prided itself on being ‘the most competitive in the world’ those are stark realisations.
Both City and Liverpool have been utterly relentless in the way they have gathered win after win, three points after three points: City last tasted defeat in the league on the 29th of January, from that loss they then rolled off fourteen (fourteen!) wins in a row. Liverpool for their part were unbeaten in the League after losing at the Etihad on the 3rd of January, a run of seventeen games without defeat. However what ultimately did for Jürgen Klopp’s men was drawing four of those matches. Just stop, re-read and think about that for a second…Liverpool didn’t win the League because they dropped a grand total of 8 points out of a possible 51, that quite simple staggers belief!
It is easy to point to the seemingly unending financial resources that are available to a club owned by an oil rich nation state, and City have inarguably invested eye-watering sums of money in both building their squad and in attracting the best coach in the world. However we need only cast our eye over to their rivals on the other side of town to see that throwing money around in itself doesn’t guarantee success.
Unlike United, City have brought in players that have improved the whole. While the Abu Dhabi Group splurged a staggering £520 million between 2008 and 2012, more even than Roman Abramovich spent in his first four years of his ownership of Chelsea, the foundation of key players brought in during that time, bar Yaya Touré now retired, remain not only at the club but still highly influential, ie: Vincent Kompany (joined 2008), David Silva (2010) and Sergio Agüero (2011).
While City were undoubtedly successful prior to Pep Guardiola’s arrival three seasons ago, the title wins in 2011/12 and 2013/14 are testimony to that, the Catalan uber-coach has taken things to a completely different level. At the end of 2015/16, the last season under Manuel Pellegrini, City were a team with an average age of 30.5 years, the oldest in the league, and were clearly on the wane. Many critics will point to Guardiola’s lack of tangible success (ie no trophy) in his first season, but it now becomes apparent that he used that initial campaign to shape the team and squad the way he wanted.
The most obvious example was the jettisoning of, at the time, first choice England goalkeeper Joe Hart because of his inability to use his feet effectively and play out from the back. While immediate replacement Claudio Bravo left a lot to be desired as an actual goalkeeper, when Ederson took up the gloves (or should that be boots?) in 2017/18 a key piece of the jigsaw fell into place.
Similarly under the tutelage of Guardiola, Raheem Sterling has been transformed from a seemingly typically over-priced English winger struggling to make a real impact, into a key player for both club and country and a justified winner of the Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year award.
Guardiola revitalised David Silva, turned Nicolas Otamendi from a liability into something of a defensive rock and found a way to deploy his side to play to Kevin De Bruyne’s previously unrealised strengths.
The players he has brought in including: Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus, Aymeric Laporte, Kyle Walker and Bernardo Silva to name just five, have all addressed areas of need within the squad and have helped to raise the level to what we have seen over the last two title-winning seasons.
Above all though it has been the style of play which, while having been tweaked to suit the blood and thunder demands of English football, remains so distinctive as Pep’s brand of football. The thrilling possession-based slick passing game that he took from his mentor Johan Cruyff and adapted and used to dominate first Spain, then Germany and now England.
Liverpool for their part have followed a similar strategy of improvement based on Klopp’s gegenpressing philosophy and, by necessity, astute recruitment to address identified gaps in the squad. The additions of Sadio Mané and the incomparable Mo Salah added pace, guile and goals in the attacking line; upgrades, albeit at a premium price, at the back in the form of Van Dijk and Alisson have sorted out previous instability, and steel has been added to the midfield with Naby Keïta and Fabinho.
Without the bottomless coffers enjoyed by City, Liverpool have had to sell before they buy; nevertheless the reported £200 million plus generated from the sales of Luis Suárez and Philippe Coutinho financed the improvements.
The Anfield club ultimately fell towards the last in their previous tilts at the title in 2008/09 and 2013/14, but this time it feels different, it feels as if this current Liverpool team are very much a match for City, that we are at the nascence of one of those classic rivalries rife through English football history.
So where does this leave the rest of us? Is there any hope of the gap being bridged or will the top two continue to dominate long into the future? Much will depend, as it always seems to do in modern football, on the financial resources, recruitment and squad management of the also rans: Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United, for it seems that the top two are unlikely to fall backwards given the way they both finished the season.