Last January, Liverpool could only bloody the nose of Manchester City. Now they head to the Etihad Stadium as dominant Premier League leaders.
Speaking ahead of Sunday’s redemptive 3-1 win over Southampton, the Manchester City manager was asked whether the playing philosophy he was told could be strained under Premier League pressure – only to yield 100 points last term– might be due for a rethink during this mid-season turbulence.
‘Oh, I was waiting for that question,’ he said before adding, with a deliberate head shake: ‘That is not going to happen.
‘No way. Why should I change? Because I lost two games? No way – that is not going to happen.’
There had been a similar sparky dismissiveness from Jurgen Klopp, whose relentless Liverpool meant Guardiola would face such questions before his team swatted aside Newcastle United on Boxing Day.
‘I heard all these things about the last 10 years, when you were first at Christmas you won the title, only Liverpool didn’t – wow,’ Klopp said, recounting a much-repeated statistical anomaly with hammed-up bemusement.
‘I know it, but it’s all b******* stories. It was a different team, a different time, it’s not interesting.’
On Thursday, City and Liverpool’s teams of the here and now meet at the Etihad Stadium. It promises to be very interesting indeed.
6 – The most points per game by clubs in the top four tiers of English football in 2018:
Liverpool – 2.38
Manchester City – 2.38
Tottenham Hotspur – 2.24
Manchester United – 1.95
Luton Town – 1.91
Accrington Stanley – 1.87
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 31, 2018
Klopp’s fine-tuning brings role reversal
Ahead of the 4-0 win over Newcastle, which preceded Saturday’s 5-1 demolition of Arsenal, Klopp dismissed the notion of the title being Liverpool’s to lose as ‘crazy’. However, if they beat City in Manchester to go 10 points clear, it will be somewhere close to crazy to think otherwise.
After 20 games last season, Guardiola was the operator of an undefeated winning machine. City had 58 points from 19 wins and a draw; Liverpool’s 54 points at the same stage outstrips the 39 they had in fourth 12 months ago.
By May, they were 25 shy of the champions in the same position. But three wins over City in the Premier League and Champions League meant Liverpool regarded to be the most likely challengers to the crown in 2018-19.
Until Arsenal were brutally punished for having the audacity to take a 1-0 lead on Merseyside, there was a sense of a side playing with the handbrake slightly applied. Yet, Opta numbers do not suggest a radical change in playing style.
Klopp has often operated with two deeper-lying midfielders to counter his lack of a dominating number six – a factor that possibly contributes to Liverpool putting together almost two more sequences of 10 passes or more per game when compared to last season (18.7 to 16.8 up to and including Boxing Day) – while Mohamed Salah’s
Sadio, Mo & Bobby’s record in 2⃣0⃣1⃣8⃣…
Tremendous trio. 🙌🔴 pic.twitter.com/oWGtnvDCvG
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) December 31, 2018
Nothing from Liverpool’s number of shots per game and their ratios of short to long passes has altered much. The only figures to alter hugely are goals conceded and clean sheets. Alisson and Virgil van Dijk are major upgrades who have changed the competence of Klopp’s backline beyond all recognition.
Given the variables at play, the Liverpool boss’ hit rate in the transfer market is remarkably high. Xherdan Shaqiri scoring of game-changing goals against Manchester United, having been relegated with Stoke City six months earlier, echoes the shrewd recruitment of unknown and/or unwanted players who performed impeccably during Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund glory days.
Guardiola the master front-runner faces the chill of the chase
Dortmund had already ceded the Bundesliga title to Bayern Munich by the time Guardiola arrived in Bavaria.
BVB beat their rivals 4-2 in the 2013 DFL-Supercup – a result that launched a head-to-head record where Klopp still holds sway – but Bayern stormed to the title, finishing 19 points clear of Dortmund.
In 2014-15 they were similarly rampant, and Klopp endured a nightmare first half of the season, recovering to a seventh-place finish as he bade an emotional farewell to Signal Iduna Park.
Guardiola made it three out of three in a Klopp-less Bundesliga before heading to Manchester, meaning his past four title triumphs have dominance in common. Since trading titanic blows with Real Madrid in La Liga, the ex-Barcelona coach’s slick, high-end teams have tended to lead from the front and then streak clear.
Conversely, in these seasons when Guardiola sometimes appeared close to realising his idea of footballing perfection, vulnerability lurked. Three successive Champions League semi-final losses at Bayern suggested the self-applied pressure of a relentlessly attacking and intensive style left players vulnerable to the external tensions of must-win occasions against elite opponents.
Last season’s losses to Liverpool – twice conceding flurries of goals at Anfield – and the recent setbacks in the face of the Reds’ furious pace at the summit, indicate that a glass jaw remains despite City generally sweeping all before them over the past 18 months.
No manager has proved more adept at punishing them in 90-minute segments than Klopp, but his team did so as the underdog. Thursday’s game is certainly no kind of David v Goliath act, and Liverpool’s 29-year wait for a league title means history is starting to beckon.
Guardiola has never finished below Klopp in four completed top-flight campaigns against each other, although the German is usually a speck in his rear-view mirror by this stage.
Both men know each other inside out and should be believed when they bridle at suggestions of changing their approach or attitude. But recent weeks mean the positions they find themselves in have, for now at least, changed significantly.
It will be fascinating to see how this new reality plays out on a crackling Manchester evening.