There’s been a lot of discussion in the past few days as to where the Manchester City and Liverpool teams of the Guardiola-Klopp era rank in the all-time great footballing rivalries. As ever, the discussion gets mired in Language Games as we see what individual commenters value in a sporting rivalry. It’s hard to compare this particular rivalry to, say, Birmingham-Aston Villa, because the two are entertaining for different reasons.
I think everyone can agree that there are different kinds of rivalries. Some have historical, sociopolitical, or geographic significance (think: Rangers-Celtic, Sunderland-Newcastle, etc). Some are more contextual, springing into life from a specific incident, personal enmity, or controversy (think: Chelsea-Liverpool, Stoke-Arsenal, etc). Others still are the products of simply competing for the same trophies at the same time. I think the Manchester City-Liverpool rivalry falls into the latter category more than any other. These are two teams that have come into their prime at exactly the same time, each of whom- were it not for the existence of the other- could undoubtedly claim the mantle of the greatest Premier League dynasty ever. And I don’t say that lightly.
In this sense, their rivalry reminds me a lot of that between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors that emerged in the N.B.A. in 2015. Neither of these teams had a history of rivalry between them, but they became great teams at the same time. If one of them hadn’t existed, then the other would have won four straight championships. Everyone knew that the two of them were in a league of their own. More than anything else, they were fighting for legacy.
During those four seasons from 2015 to 2018, the Finals matchup was always the same. Lebron versus the Splash Brothers. I remember at the time a not insignificant number of fans bemoaned this state of affairs. To them, the N.B.A. had become stale and boring. They argued that we might as well do away with the regular season and all the other teams, and just host an annual showmatch between the Warriors and the Cavaliers. That game was the only one that mattered. I could understand this frustration; generally speaking, I don’t enjoy monopolies in sports. If my particular team has no shot at winning, then I always root for someone new to win it. But with the case of the Warriors and the Cavaliers I had mixed feelings. I was thinking about the whole thing in terms of legacy.
There was something satisfying about imagining these four identical rows in the archives, at future historians looking back at this period as defined by these two mythic giants that rose from their slumber each summer to commence a titanic battle far beyond the understanding of us mortals. There was a real poetry in it. And I think the same can be said for Manchester City and Liverpool. For the past four years, the Premier League title has been solely competed for by these two teams. Not only can no other team touch them at the moment- but neither can any other legacy. Both of these teams would annihilate the 1999 Manchester United treble winners, the 2004 Arsenal Invincibles, and even- much as I hate to admit it- Chelsea’s 2005 defensive juggernaut. This is not to take away from the achievements of those great teams, but the quality of football now being played by City and Liverpool is that much higher. They’re faster, fitter, more clinical, more versatile, and more tactically-astute. They can sustain extremely high levels of performance over greater periods of time than those that came before them. This is best illustrated by the fact that the top four longest winning streaks in Premier League history belong to these two teams, all within the past four years. The number one spot- 18 consecutive wins- is jointly held by both clubs, with City’s run lasting from August 26th 2017 to December 31st 2017 and Liverpool’s from October 27th 2019 to February 29th 2020 respectively.
The most compelling stat of all- in my opinion- when comparing teams is simply raw points. The Manchester City side that won the 2017-2018 season got 100, which is the most ever. No other team has a stat that can compete with that. Until someone reaches 101 points, they will always be the best. Personally, I hope it’s Chelsea, but I won’t hold my breath. The following year, City retained their title by getting an incredible 98 points, narrowly edging out Liverpool’s 97. Statistically, that’s the greatest title race of all time, with almost 200 points shared between them. While they might not have won the league, that Liverpool side that achieved 97 points can- and should– be considered greater than Arsenal’s Invincibles. It’s right there in the numbers.
A lot of the arguments in favor of the Manchester United-Arsenal teams from 20 years ago seem to be driven by rose-tinted nostalgia on the part of their respective fanbases, which is quite natural since both are suffering at the moment. There’s no doubt the Manchester United-Arsenal contests of the Ferguson-Wenger era were much more bitter. Again, it comes back to how you define a great rivalry. I don’t think it’s a knock against the City-Liverpool rivalry of the Klopp-Guardiola era that it’s characterized by a healthy level of respect. I personally value high-quality football over tabloid drama. The sportsmanship displayed by the players and the managers alike is refreshing. The vigorous high-five Guardiola gave Klopp as they embraced yesterday was a moment of recognition at how well their two sides had played- both that afternoon and over the past four years. It was a demonstration of raw passion for the game, regardless of who ultimately takes this year’s crown- and I love that. It encapsulated what makes this rivalry special.
The most compelling stat of the weekend was that, since the start of the 2018-19 season, Manchester City have won 338 points compared to Liverpool’s 337. The single point that separates them now is the one that’s separated them over the past four seasons. That’s insane. I honestly can’t predict which of them will win the league because they both seem so evenly-matched. Maybe it will come down to a single, crazy fluke, like a goal being given that shouldn’t have been or vice versa. Or a moment of madness that leads to a red card or a penalty.
There is also a very real chance that we could see the two teams compete in the Champions League final, which would be an amazing advert for both the rivalry and the Premier League. I don’t think any of the teams in the competition can stop either of them getting to the final at this point. For the past few years, both Liverpool and City have been far above any other team in the world, and there’s a romantic appeal to the idea of that fact being represented by a showdown on football’s biggest stage. It’s hard to imagine a single Real Madrid or Bayern Munich player making either City or Liverpool’s starting eleven. Naturally, I’ll be rooting for Chelsea to win the competition- but if we don’t, I’ll be so hyped to watch a City-Liverpool final as a neutral.