In the days following Manchester City’s away fixture against emerging foes Liverpool, there has been a surprising amount of cynicism aimed toward the events that unfolded on Sunday night at Anfield. Whether it was a product of the unrelenting media circus that markets every match as box office, or disappointment from those who hoped to see either team hit their stride, there has been one prevailing opinion — everything seemed rather boring.
It’s not hard to imagine how an otherwise engaging match had fostered such despondency. Prior to those ninety minutes, the narrative circulating around the north west of England had not been dissimilar to a heavyweight grudge match, Manchester and Merseyside trading blows in high stakes clashes that had rocked the landscape of English football at each turn.
In the blue corner was Pep Guardiola, the enigmatic purist whose flawless fight strategy had seen him outwit his opponents. Yet across from him in the red corner was Jurgen Klopp, the slugger who never failed to come out all-guns-blazing, his relentless energy and persistence able to sit the best firmly on their backsides.
Previous fights between the two had drawn in larger and larger crowds, and though Guardiola would hardly break a sweat in his pursuit of the domestic belt, their clashes of last year would be remembered for how the red gloves of Klopp had completely stunned his rival in blue. Following a hard-fought points victory in front of a ravenous home crowd in the domestic campaign, the boisterous German had gone on to stake his claim as the emergent force on the scene in two titanic battles that authoritatively knocked Guardiola out of the race for the illustrious European title.
With such powerful punches thrown, October 7th was thus billed to be the date of a tremendous rematch. Under the lights and infamous Anfield atmosphere, the stage was set. The two fighters walked out to vocal crowds, touched gloves, the bell rang and… the pacing began.
To the bane of those salivating for goalmouth action, this was to be the state of affairs for the evening. However, they need not despair, for in reality this stalemate may have signalled the start of a new age, the dawning of an exciting era that has been slowly blooming into life. This may well have been the genesis of a new Premier League.
Briefly stepping across to the other side of Manchester, the unrest endured with Manchester United since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson has betrayed the signs of a football league straining under the demands of change. This point is only further emphasised in correlation with the recent history of Arsenal F.C. also, where the latter years of Arsène Wenger’s tenure had seen the Emirates regularly populated by those with more ill will for the Frenchman than good. Whilst neither club have much to do with the rivalry between Guardiola and Klopp, their respective turmoils have indicated a wider turbulence afoot in the Premier League, that which in its instability, has craved fresh blood and new rivalries.
To the uninitiated, Sunday’s action might have appeared devoid of the nascent rivalry that has been emerging between Manchester City and Liverpool, with either side giving the impression that they were happy to bury the proverbial hatchet and walk away with equal shares of the spoils. Yet to return to that boxing metaphor, the cagey nature of the match belied the bubbling energy that now rests between Guardiola and Klopp. Having seen blood land on his blue shorts in their bouts prior, Guardiola was to be the one who altered his fight plan, with it rightfully noted the Catalan no longer sizes up his German contender as a distraction, but instead as a full-fledged title rival.
In making that first move, Guardiola did the one thing he said he would never do — concede his domineering approach. Whilst that might appear a sole credit to Liverpool’s ferocious attacking potency, Guardiola’s confirmation of a reenforced respect between City and Liverpool displays both an evolution of Premier League football, and of Manchester City.
“They are so dangerous, they kill you,” said the Catalan of Liverpool in his post-match remarks.
“If it is an open game at Anfield, you don’t even have one chance, not even one per cent of a chance.”
More than ever, the City manager’s comments have validated the work that Klopp has done to reestablish the Reds as a powerful force in English football. Coming from a manager who has only recently come to redefine what was possible in a Premier League season, these words speak volumes of how the attacking philosophies have enabled both men to lead their clubs to new-found successes, that which other teams have begun to take notice of.
Just look towards the capital. Another coach Guardiola has spoken highly of, Mauricio Sarri, has arrived at Stamford Bridge this season, his passing football a similar breed to the juego de posición championed by the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager, now breathing new life into a Chelsea team that had been suffering an identity crisis under the chokehold of Antonio Conte’s second season.
Back at the Emirates, new manager Unai Emery has been leading Arsenal into a brave new world without Arsène Wenger. However, as much as three consecutive Europa League trophies with Sevilla will delight Arsenal supporters this season, the Spaniard’s time at Valencia displays he was a manager who tested Guardiola like few others in La Liga, as despite not winning any of their ten meetings, Pep’s vintage Barcelona side only managed one win in their five games when lining up at Valencia’s Mestalla Stadium.
Even before Guardiola and Klopp’s philosophies had fully taken root on English shores, Mauricio Pochettino was laying foundations at Tottenham, the Argentinian crediting his high-pressing football to the enigmatic figure of Marcelo Bielsa, a man whose obsession with fluid attacking football has inspired many of the best coaches in the world. It should be of no surprise then that Guardiola, who has labelled Bielsa “the best coach in the world”, finds Spurs one of his favourite, and toughest, teams to play against.
Then finally, who can forget Jose Mourinho? Back at Manchester United, the Portuguese may lie in wait over word of his immediate future, but for now, he will doubtless be wondering how best to combat his long-time rival Pep Guardiola. The two share a long history going back to Mourinho’s first job as a translator at Barcelona, but all will surely remember how they clashed when the current United manager was at Real Madrid. Now at rival clubs once more, there is perhaps no one better at frustrating his opposite number than Mourinho.
With all these players for now firmly in the game, there are sure to be fireworks at one point or another. One might remark that Mourinho is the last of a breed from that prominent 2000’s era, when remarks were traded as often as tactical notes. In the present company however, the latter has become the modern feast, though perhaps not for the eyes on all occasions. Whilst incomprehensible scorelines undoubtedly make for good television, they are not necessarily the mark of an astute tactical battle.
In this respect, Guardiola’s pragmatism at the weekend was not the resignation of defeat, but a commitment to the long haul. With the City manager signed on to what will be his longest managerial tenure come 2021, and Klopp tied to 2022 at Anfield, there will certainly be more opportunities for one to outwit the other, but for now, both men will hope to circle one another a while longer as they hope to make it to the final rounds.
The single point that Liverpool and Manchester City walked away with can thus not be seen as two managers settling their differences then, but the first step in what might be a new era of Premier League football. Meanwhile, Sarri will continue to develop ‘Sarri-ball’ as he searches for that elusive first trophy; Emery will seek to rebuild the attacking brand of football so desperately longed for at the Emirates; Pochettino will await his new stadium as he fights to keep the foundations of his team intact; Mourinho will search for a way to frustrate them all.
In the meantime, erring on the side of caution allows for all involved in this year’s title race to gain the lie of the land, for as Klopp and Guardiola have recognised, this is certainly a new landscape.
It might have seemed Klopp and Guardiola had cancelled each other out, settled their stylistic differences and sacrificed box office for boredom. In the grand scheme of things however, there was now simply more on the line as the top three teams sit level on points, with them and those just below them all looking to go the distance in this year’s Premier League.
At the very least, there has been some measure gained. Liverpool, billed as the only team who could firmly beat Manchester City, have emerged more impotent yet sturdier than ever. City, weakened by the psychological kryptonite of Anfield, found confidence in their ability to brave adversity yet may well rue missing the opportunity to snatch all three points at the death.
For City fans particularly though, there will be confidence from seeing a team that has broken one hundred points in a season go on to better the points gained in equivalent fixtures in that record-breaking Centurions season. If Guardiola is showing signs of evolution himself (or perhaps it is regression to a philosophy more in keeping with Cruyff’s ‘total football’), then it may be a matter of necessity before others follow suit, particularly with Liverpool’s furious intensity bearing signs of fatigue.
The short game has been revealing though. Weaknesses have been exposed. Stances have been taken. Tougher matches are yet to come. In those later rounds though, the killer blow is yet to come.