JUrgen Klopp says it won’t be the title decider. OK, Jurgen. If you say so, Jürgen. Perhaps we can safely classify this with “every opponent is a tough opponent” and “we don’t watch the league table” in the catalog of great managerial sleight of hand in our time. The rest of us, meanwhile, have a right to consider Manchester City v Liverpool for what it is: a game that has carved a hole in the schedule since August, that over the weeks has been anticipated from first in hope, then in expectation, and now finally in thinly disguised desire.
It’s been more than five years since Klopp and Pep Guardiola first looked at each other in a crowded Premier League technical area. During that time, they have built a rivalry which, in terms of brutal football quality, is perhaps the best English football has ever seen. The game is fitter and faster, more complex and refined than it has ever been. The Norwich City of 2022 would wipe the floor with the promotion of Manchester United of 1992. And at the forefront of the revolution, these two coaches, these two clubs: a duel worthy of being consecrated like England CLasicoa buffet of the finest dishes of this sport.
When Guardiola describes Liverpool as ‘the toughest opponent I’ve faced in my 13 years as a manager’ – above teams such as José Mourinho’s Real Madrid, Diego’s Atlético Madrid Simeone and Antonio Conte’s Chelsea – you get an idea of the tiers here.
Not since the 1980s, perhaps before that, has English football been able to boast the undisputed best two teams in the world. And to grasp the magnitude of what Guardiola and Klopp have achieved, it is instructive to look back to their first encounter in England, an ugly and unkind Liverpool 1-0 win at Anfield on the final day of 2016. Liverpool had the looking ragged and brittle. City looked disjointed and uncertain. The squad rosters from that day recall the raw materials these top-notch coaches had to work with initially: Ragnar Klavan and Emre Can, Claudio Bravo and Nicolás Otamendi. Only four players from each side are still at the club. Gini Wijnaldum’s winning header was one of three shots on target. “We don’t want to show how good we are, we want the points,” Klopp then insisted, exhausted and dissatisfied.
In terms of prospects, City and Liverpool have curiously come full circle. For Guardiola and Klopp, in the very beginning, results were the thing: the points on the board that would give them the time and space to express their vision. Then, from around 2018 to 2020, came the big leap forward: the years of discovery and wonder, rebirth and rebuilding, two teams exploring the outer limits of their potential, tactically, stylistically and emotionally. The plans are firmly established. The terms of engagement are known. Both partisan and neutral audiences instinctively know what these teams will look like. Again, this is just the score.
And yet, for many reasons, familiarity has not yet spawned obsolescence. It will be the first meeting between City and Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium in 17 months, the first in over three years to be accompanied by the noise and songs of fans, rather than the hollow sound of empty plastic seats blowing in the wind. They meet again on Sunday afternoon, then again at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final next Saturday, and perhaps a third time in Paris in the Champions League final in May. Things are about to get intimate.
Maybe even a little resentful. Despite all their mutual admiration on a professional level, there is no great personal warmth between Guardiola and Klopp. After all, for all their similarities, they are hugely contrasting personalities: Pep the brooding introvert and Jürgen the beaming extrovert; Pep the gnomic genius whose mind remains essentially unknowable, Jürgen the motormouth who can’t help but tell you what he thinks. Klopp understands that football is not real life. Guardiola understands that, in fact, it is a bit. Throw these guys into a full-scale, triple trophy fistfight, and don’t be surprised if one or both end up snapping.
For fans too, it has become an unusual and bitter conflict, from Liverpool’s ambush on the City team bus before their Champions League game in 2018 to City’s frequent complaints about pro- Liverpool among football authorities, referees and the media.
This in itself is a reasonably new development. The Wikipedia page for the rivalry was set up at the end of 2019. And yet at the heart of the tribal nastiness between Liverpool and City fans is an unsolvable paradox: the idea that it’s the money backed by City State or Liverpool history and tradition, they alone are the brave oppressed insurgents who stand against Power.
The paradox being that despite their strong sense of anti-establishment identity, City and Liverpool are essentially the establishment now. Both were part of last year’s dirty Super League breakaway. Both are among the seven richest clubs in the world, although City’s source of income remains a source of considerable controversy.
Footballistically and financially, from pressing to scouting, from culture to commercial instinct, they are exemplary models, models for building a super club. Guardiola and Klopp will be the game’s most sought-after coaches when they finally call it a day in the North West. In their own way, City and Liverpool are the ultimate expression of modern football, for better or for worse.
As for the game itself: well, who knows? How brave does Liverpool feel? What attacking combination will Guardiola go with? How will the Liverpool defense cope with a team that will force them to defend more than any other? Has Mohamed Salah regained his form? Do Liverpool have the deepest bench these days?
A tense and cautious draw is the most likely outcome, followed by victory for City which would likely kill the title race, followed by victory for Liverpool which would put them two points clear with seven games to play. What seems certain is that something is going to break here, something is going to end here, one way or another. The pressure is simply too great, the stakes too irremediable, the margins of error too thin. Both sides are relatively injury free. The recent international break means they will be well rested. No hiding and no excuses.
And yet, while this looks like a dynastic era in English football, we are probably already closer to its end than its beginning. Klopp has been at Anfield for six and a half years; Guardiola at the Etihad for almost six years. The City v Liverpool rivalry meant shortly before they arrived and will likely return soon after they leave. All the more reason, then, to cherish this fleeting alignment of fates: to revel in the kind of game that not only tells us where football is right now, but where it could be headed.