There have been a number of defining rivalries in the Premier League era.
Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United went toe-to-head over a number of seasons in the late 1990s and early 2000s before Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea took on the Old Trafford outfit for their dominance of the English game.
Now, another defining rivalry is developing between Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, both currently the best teams in the Premier League. It’s been this way for a few seasons with the last four titles between them, but this season is proving to be the culmination of a captivating contest.
Not so long ago, City looked to be the 2021/22 champions-elect. Twelve successive victories in the Premier League put Guardiola’s team 13 points clear at the top of the table and had many resigned to the apparent inevitability of another trophy being added to the cabinet at the Etihad Stadium. At that point, Manchester City appeared unstoppable.
Since then, though, City have dropped points to Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur, opening the door to Liverpool who have strung their own winning run of six matches together. The Reds’ 6-0 thumping of Leeds United on Wednesday closed the gap between the Premier League pace-setters and the chasers to just three points.
The title race is well and truly alive.
The sensational goalscoring form of Mohamed Salah has propelled Liverpool back into contention. Indeed, the Egyptian has scored four times in his last three appearances for the club and 26 goals in 31 appearances over the season as a whole, lifting him to such a level that many now have Salah as the best player in the world.
Diogo Jota (12 goals) and Sadio Mane (11 goals) are also putting up impressive numbers in the Premier League this season while the January addition of Luis Diaz from Porto has also given Liverpool yet another dimension in the final third.
It used to be the case that Manchester City’s attacking depth gave them an advantage over their Merseyside rivals. That is no longer the case – the two teams are well-matched in that regard.
If there is one area where City do still have the edge over Liverpool, it’s in midfield. While Klopp has several good options to choose from, he has yet to find the right formula in the centre of the pitch this season. Fabinho is indispensable at the base of Liverpool’s midfield unit, but Klopp hasn’t found a balance between Thiago Alcantara, Harvey Elliott, Jordan Henderson, Curtis Jones, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
City, on the other hand, boasts a finely tuned midfield anchored by the increasingly impressive Rodri. The Spaniard took some time to find his feet in the Premier League, but now gives Guardiola so much in terms of lateral protection and coverage.
No Manchester City player has averaged more tackles per 90 minutes (2.3) than Rodri this season with the 25-year-old also the club’s most prolific passing midfielder (83.7 passes per 90 minutes).
Alongside Rodri is a rotating cast of Kevin de Bruyne, Phil Foden, Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva, all technically excellent operators in their own right. De Bruyne has made more key passes per 90 minutes (2.4) than any other City player this season with Foden, Gundogan and Silva contributing 19 Premier League goals between them.
Many predicted Manchester City’s failure to land Harry Kane or another centre forward last summer would hold them back this season. However, the fluidity of Guardiola’s frontline makes them so difficult to play against.
De Bruyne, Foden, Gabriel Jesus, Silva, Raheem Sterling and even Jack Grealish have all been used in the centre forward role this season, but not in the traditional sense. Foden, for instance, is deployed here to press from the front.
Defensively, City and Liverpool both play with a back four and have leaders in the form of Ruben Dias and Virgil van Dijk. The way Guardiola and Klopp use their full backs is very different, though.
While Manchester City asks Joao Cancelo in particular to drive into the centre of the pitch in order to free up a midfielder to push forward, Liverpool looks to Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson for creativity in the wide areas.
Alexander-Arnold is averaging 2.4 crosses per 90 minutes this season with Robertson averaging 1.5. Perhaps most remarkably, Alexander-Arnold is also averaging 6.4 long passes per 90 minutes for Liverpool this season, illustrating just how quickly Klopp wants the ball moved up the pitch to facilitate the likes of Mane and Salah.
Alisson Becker and Ederson have also changed expectations of goalkeepers in the Premier League with both quick to come off their line and good with the ball at their feet. Ederson in particular is a key supply line for Manchester City, giving them a way to play out from the back when other routes have been closed off.
Similarities are apparent in the way City and Liverpool play the game. They are both model, dynamic teams who need technical and intelligent players in order to make their system work, but there is still enough of a difference between Guardiola and Klopp’s respective approaches to make their meetings compelling to the tactical eye.
There have already been several memorable meetings between City and Liverpool in recent years – see the 2018/2019 Champions League quarter-final and the 2-2 draw between the two sides earlier this season – but April’s fixture could be the duel that determines the lasting memory of this rivalry. The 2021/22 Premier League title could be on the line.
Guardiola and Klopp are two of the finest coaches of their generation and they have forged a rivalry that transcends their own individual contest. City and Liverpool have set a new standard at the top of the Premier League and it’s possible their collective premiership has still to reach its peak. This season’s title race is shaping up to be one for the ages.