Reading the thoughts of uber football expert Jonathan Wilson in the Guardian last week (https://www.theguardian.com/football/2020/jun/26/dont-be-tempted-to-think-klopps-blueprint-has-superseded-guardiolas) in the immediate aftermath of Liverpool being crowned champions, one fact from his piece stood out: “It is a measure of what an astonishing season this has been from Liverpool that if Manchester City had won every match they played since 8 October, when they lost 2-0 at home to Wolves in their eighth game of the season, they would still have been second right now.” Sobering thoughts indeed for the rest of the Premier League clubs (also-rans?).
As true as it undoubtedly is to say that City never hit the heights of the previous two campaigns, which saw them amass totals of 100 and 98 points losing just 6 matches across those two seasons; Jürgen Klopp’s red machine have swept all before them winning 28 of the 31 matches they needed to land their first title in three decades. In doing so Liverpool broke the record for the earliest title win in English top-flight history and could potentially be on course to break a number of their rival’s other records including: the most wins in a season (32), most points in a season (100), most home wins (18) and biggest title winning margin (19 points). So why have Liverpool been so much better than City?
Up to the ultimately decisive point in the title race last Thursday night, when Manchester City fell to their eighth defeat of the season at Stamford Bridge, City had scored 7 more goals than Liverpool but crucially the Anfield men had conceded 12 fewer. Which of course begs the question of whether Liverpool’s success has been founded, at least for the most part, on their expensively reinforced defence?
The acquisitions of “Rolls Royce of a defender” Virgil Van Dijk for £75 million in January 2018 followed by outstanding goalkeeper Alison for just short of £70 million the following summer, shored up a problematic area in the team and led to the Reds running City ever so close in 2018/19. The improved defensive platform underpinned the effervescently exciting front three of: Mané, Firmino often used from a wide position by Klopp’s predecessor Brendan Rogers, and the incomparable Mo Salah. That trio scored 56 league goals between them last term with Mané and Salah sharing the Golden Boot with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, however this time out, albeit with 6 games still to play, that total is slightly down at 40 so far.
In support of those three however, the continuing swashbuckling exploits of full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson to create what is in essence a front five, has no doubt continued to bolster Liverpool’s attacking threat, the pair of ‘defenders’ have contributed 20 assists between them so far this season with Alexander-Arnold’s 12 being second only to the mercurial Kevin De Bruyne’s 17.
At first glance you would be forgiven for thinking Liverpool’s midfield is somewhat underwhelming, perhaps functional rather than spectacular. All of the first choice options of: Henderson, Wijnaldum and Fabinho supported by Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain are quality players but their strengths seem to lie in not giving the ball away, being solid and structured and providing the base from which that front five can do its damage.
As brilliant as Liverpool have been this time around, the easy (lazy?) analysis would be to suggest that failing to replace Vincent Kompany, if that were even possible, coupled with the injury to Aymeric Laporte at the end of August which forced them not only to miss their best defender all the way up to the suspension of the season, but also forced Guardiola to use key defensive midfielder Fernandinho at the back thereby weakening two areas of the team, were the reasons for their demise.
Beyond the injury to Laporte there were also lengthy enough periods of absence for John Stones, Leroy Sane and Oleksandr Zinchenko while Sergio Aguero, Rodri and David Silva also missed spells of the campaign. Perhaps there was also something of a falling off in standards and levels after two record-breaking seasons.
In ‘normal circumstances’ (whatever the hell that means these days!) we would expect Guardiola and City to regroup and refresh the squad through recruitment to fill clear gaps which will only be further highlighted when the simply brilliant David Silva calls it a day at the end of this season, and with the realisation that Aguero turned 32 at the beginning of last month while Fernandinho is already 35. However, hanging over that potential opportunity is the spectre of a prospective two-year ban from European competition or more specifically the Champions League. We know City have the financial resources but how will they be able to attract new top level players, or even retain the likes of De Bruyne, if UEFA’s ruling is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), with a decision reported to be due a week on Monday?
From a Liverpool perspective, perhaps the worry is as much about being able to build upon their dominance as it is about being able to go again. With Klopp himself under contract for four more years and most of the big names signed to long term deals, the key pieces of the jigsaw seem to be set in place. However where the issue may come is in recruiting new talent to add depth to a squad that has been accused of lacking it. The addition of Takumi Minamino from Red Bull Salzburg in January seemed to be a step in the right direction but then the rumours that they were snubbed by Timo Werner based on his fear that he wouldn’t break into the first team, or indeed that Liverpool couldn’t match the financial package offered by a free spending again Chelsea, sound something of a worrying note for the Anfield faithful.
Assuming Liverpool can at least carry on where they left off and that City, as seems to be widely believed, escape with just a one-year European ban then the prospect of these two brilliant sides duking it out for the foreseeable future is more than worrying for the rest of us. Having said that Chelsea have already been throwing the cash around adding the exciting Hakim Ziyech from Ajax to the aforementioned Werner, the Blues are also rumoured to be in the hunt for Arthur from Barcelona and Miralem Pjanic from Juventus. That potential business to improve an already talented and relatively young squad that currently sits in fourth place, albeit 32 points off the top, suggests they fully intend being in the mix next time around.
Just behind Chelsea, the signing of Bruno Fernandes and the form of Anthony Martial since the restart seem to have blown away some of the cobwebs of pessimism (from everyone except the eternally upbeat Ole Gunnar Solskjær) away from Old Trafford and might suggest that things are moving in the right direction again for Man United. Hell, even Paul Pogba seems to be wanting to be part of it these days!
Beyond that though, unless Wolves are able to continue on, or even increase, their upward trajectory it is difficult to see how anyone else could even begin to challenge.