Before this new chapter in the rivalry that defined English football of the decade, comparisons were made with the last two clubs to dominate the scene to this extent.
For many, Manchester United and Arsenal in the late 1990s and early 2000s had it all. There was the genius of Thierry Henry and Ryan Giggs. The raw aggression of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira. The open hostility between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. Once too they all threw loads of pizza on each other.
In contrast, their modern day equivalents Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp are known to exchange congratulatory messages after their important accomplishments. There is a healthy respect between Manchester City and Liverpool players. There is no record of a post-match food fight to our knowledge. It’s a friendlier duopoly, to some extent.
There is still an advantage. You have the Kopparberg bottles and the broken bus. The opposites of Raheem Sterling and Joe Gomez in the canteen in St George’s Park. But it all says that, rather than pre-match set in the players’ tunnel, the most serious sticking point between these two clubs in recent years is the alleged hacking of a scouting database.
This rivalry is a completely different beast from those of the past. It’s a 21st century rivalry. It is decided by finely tuned algorithms and moments of artistry, in the air-conditioned offices as much as on the training ground. And when you trade some of the mud, blood and guts we knew for a culture of marginal gains, battles are won and lost in that respect.
This is an old cliché of course – that football is about “thin margins” – but it has never been truer of a rivalry during the Premier League era than that between Guardiola’s City and Klopp’s Liverpool. Indeed, in their case, it is not only the league titles that are decided along fine and weak lines, but also the substance of their legacies. Both these teams and the managers will be remembered as great. Both could be greater.
Were it not for the 11.3mm separating the ball from the goal line that night here in early 2019, it’s entirely possible that Klopp would have two titles instead of one, ending the long wait even earlier. Instead, Guardiola can almost boast a clean sweep. Almost. Klopp’s Liverpool would have a strong claim to be the best of the post-1992 era if City weren’t around. If Liverpool weren’t there, City would have an open and closed case.
One statistic dominated the preparation of this game. Since the start of the 2018-19 season, City have won 338 points. Liverpool had won 337. In four seasons to date, there was really only one Rizla card between them. It is remarkable, even before considering those totals they have accumulated are among the highest ever seen, and that inability to separate the two colors and shapes their encounters.
The beauty of these games, compared to those of United-Arsenal, is that they are finely balanced to the point that the slightest adjustment, hesitation or error at any time can make the difference between victory and defeat and so much more. That is why, in the middle of the first half, Guardiola briefly took the position of right back, moving away over the white line and entering the field to direct the players on a possession, marking his brothel creepers with his chalk.
It’s also why just two minutes after this pulsating 2-2 draw, Kevin De Bruyne was maniacally barking instructions at his fellow strikers while in the middle of triggering a high press, fixing things on the fly, in hopes of getting that minimum. nick on the ball that could turn it in his favor. It was that kind of energy and intensity that led him to breakthrough, deflected by Joel Matip.
These are the thumbs Liverpool might be cursing tonight – that a detour should put them at a disadvantage so early in the match – but the breaks have also gone their own way. The high line that Klopp boldly employs lives to the limit by definition. He has been exposed on several occasions, failing to catch Gabriel Jesus’ run to the far post for City’s second, but he also captured Raheem Sterling in what Etihad thought was a potential winner.
That much-derided high line also provided the platform for the frantic pressing that upset City’s pace time and time again. There were long periods where Liverpool felt in second place, as if a gap between the two had finally been uncovered, until they hit a counterattack that restored the balance. Sadio Mane’s equalizer, 47 seconds from the second half, was one of these moments.
Eventually, and perhaps typically, they couldn’t be separated. As a result, little has changed. A dot still separates both sides at the top of the rankings, as it would if you went back almost four full years. The only major difference is that Liverpool now need a favor. I’m slightly behind. Here is the beauty of this rivalry made up of finer margins. It only takes a moment, between now and the end of May, to turn everything upside down.