Last Sunday, Liverpool and Manchester City played out yet another chapter of their thrilling, frenetic rivalry in the English Premier League.
Since then, both teams have booked their places in the Champions League semis, confirmation, if any was needed, that they are not just the two best teams in England, but two of the finest in all of Europe. As this goes to print, the Reds and Blues are leading fans on another wild ride down the rabbit hole of their FA Cup encounters.
Is this the greatest rivalry the Premier League has ever seen? It’s a question I will terminate with extreme prejudice. The greatest rivalry in English football occurred in that dazzling period between 1997 and 2005 when Arsenal and Manchester United won 10 titles between them, including United’s 1999 treble run and Arsenal’s Invincible season in 2003-04.
But there is data to suggest the supremacy of this Liverpool-City tussle — the sheer number of points the two teams have racked up in the league is unparalleled. Think back to the 2018-19 season, when Liverpool notched 97 points, only to be pipped by City’s 98 for the premiership. Manchester United’s best is 91 points, in the 1999-2000 season, where Arsenal finished second with 73 points. Arsenal’s best is 90 in 2003-04, where United finished third with 75 (Chelsea was second with 79). Besides which, Liverpool and City are on course to meet in the Champions League final, whereas United and Arsenal’s rivalry never extended into Europe.
Perhaps the question itself is a flawed one, meaningless when explored in earnest. After all, can two eras or two sets of rivalries really be compared? Is it not enough to say that Liverpool and City are locked in the finest footballing duel of the decade?
That frees us to sit back and enjoy the superlative football that the two teams produce each time they meet, as they did last Sunday, in a breathless, explosive, uber-skilled game. It’s a constant battle of wits while maintaining a high line, satiating an inexhaustible press and keeping up an attacking flair that’s the envy of every team in the world.
As much as this is a rivalry between two teams, the tone and tenor of it are shaped by two great managers, extending a clash that began in Germany, when Jurgen Klopp was scripting miracles with once-stolid Dortmund against the overwhelming might of Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich.
This is part of what makes this duel unique: sporting rivalries are characterised by aggression, often violence. They are meant to have hair triggers. At the height of their rivalry, Alex Ferguson called Arsene Wenger a “disgrace” and Wenger said Fergie had “lost all sense of reality”.
But Liverpool vs Manchester City (or Klopp vs Guardiola) has no beef. In this battle, once the fighting is done, the two managers call each other the greatest. This is a battle where Guardiola puts an arm around Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold to tell him what a fantastic game he is having. Where Virgil Van Dijk and Kevin de Bruyne exchange notes post-game about the school where their children are classmates. Where Guardiola hops up, brimming, to hug Klopp at the end of a game, as he did last Sunday, his expression was one of gratitude and glee, as if to say, thank you dear rival, for bringing the battle to me.
The two managers said more or less that in their post-match quotes.
Klopp: “It’s like a heavyweight boxing fight, you have your arms down for a second and bang, a massive knock in the face… hahaha… it’s always fantastic to play City.”
Guardiola, with a shy smile: “He likes that, you know, he likes the punching game…Liverpool is a joy to watch…”
It’s hard to rile Klopp, who lives on Planet Klopp, where all conflict can be solved with a touch of self-deprecating humour and a grin. It’s hard to be Guardiola’s enemy, because he is so consumed by the technical, tactical aspects of football, he’s a genuine nerd who does not believe in mind games because he believes only in the game.
Last Sunday, when Guardiola was asked who had the advantage in the Premier League (both teams have seven matches to play and City are ahead by one point), he said: “This team (Liverpool), I admire a lot. It makes me think a lot about how we break the structure, offensive, defensive… honestly, I want to win the Premier League, but it doesn’t matter, this is so good!”