For the final 20 minutes at the Amex, Manchester City indulged in a title procession, passing the ball in that familiarly hypnotic rhythm to remind us of their extraordinary talents, of the depth of power and control that Pep Guardiola’s side have held over the Premier League these last two years.
The raw statistics alone – 197 points and 201 goals, becoming the first team to retain the title since 2009 – make for extraordinary reading, but what is truly unprecedented about Guardiola’s success in Manchester is the beauty of the football underpinning it.
They are without doubt the best team in the history of English football and their manager the most influential in a generation. His Cruyffian aesthetic has re-popularised a style that had vanished by the late 2000s, although what is perhaps most undersold about Guardiola’s career is his tactical adaptability, his immersion in the culture.
Pep’s Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City sides have the same Rondo-obsessive foundation but are markedly different from one another, each infused with the local values and traditions. This City team, for example, carries the hallmarks of a Barcajax education but it also possesses a physicality and intensity that has long defined English football.
Had Liverpool lifted the title today we would celebrate their achievements, but not with quite such lavish praise for the aesthetic and the legacy. Theirs is a story of implausible resilience, of the steel it took to grind out victories in winter when performances had dimmed, and of the passion and self-belief Jurgen Klopp has given to his players.
No manager since Kenny Dalglish 20 years ago has tapped into the unique energy of Anfield quite like Klopp. No manager in Liverpool’s entire history has won 97 points in a single campaign.
It is sheer bad luck that Klopp and Liverpool found each other at this moment in time; scarcely believable that such a points tally could fail to top the table; and heart-breaking misfortune that Liverpool came within 11 millimetres at the Etihad from both winning the Premier League and achieving an invincible season. It will hurt, but as the stadiums empty and the reality sets in, at least the Liverpool players and fans are left without any regrets, any sense they bottled the title challenge.
Which isn’t necessarily a good thing. It may be less immediately painful to finish second after winning your final nine league matches, but in the long term it is perhaps more emotionally exhausting. What more could Liverpool possibly have done? They gave everything, they scored last-minute winners and battled against the odds, and yet in the end City shrugged them off and, to be frank, more or less walked through every game since defeat to Newcastle on January 29. Liverpool strained every sinew, but City still walked it. How, after that, do Liverpool get back on their feet and go again?
A lot will be written over the coming days about Liverpool’s brilliance, and they will deserve every gushing analysis, but it should be acknowledged that, time and again, everything that could have gone their way did. Huge strokes of luck kept them within touching distance of City, including Divock Origi’s bizarre winner against Everton, Toby Alderweireld’s bizarre own goal against Spurs, and even Daniel Sturridge’s basically impossible and utterly bizarre last-gasp goal at Stamford Bridge way back in September. You can even add to this City’s defeats to Newcastle and Crystal Palace, both of which were freak results for sides totally outplayed.
All that and it still wasn’t enough to topple a team that went the vast majority of the season without their best player, Kevin de Bruyne. This is not intended to diminish Liverpool’s accomplishments, but rather highlight that - since City swanned through the campaign - Klopp’s team are notably inferior and punched above their weight to finish within one point of the winners. If that seems harsh, then take a look at their respective benches on the final day of the season: one had De Bruyne, Leroy Sane, and Gabriel Jesus, the other Xherdan Shaqiri, James Milner, and Sturridge.
By challenging for the title Liverpool have overachieved to provide us with the comforting illusion of genuine competition for City, who in reality threaten to monopolize the division. This is partly a simple financial equation – they’ve spent £500 million on transfers in the last five years, more than double any other Premier League club aside from their shambolic neighbours – but partly, of course, because of excellent management from top to bottom. All the parts are now in place and, £1.5 billion into Sheikh Mansour’s project, we could be set for a period of City domination akin to those of Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, and Juventus.
The ease with which City are winning matches should worry any neutrals hoping for future title battles like the one witnessed this season. Look at the performances of the two clubs and it is difficult not to conclude that Liverpool’s campaign was an anomaly, City’s the new normal. As long as Guardiola is in charge (and since no English side has ever won four in a row, he will at least stick around for that) City don’t need to change anything, other than sign one or two world-class players per season to update the squad. Even the succession plan looks easy, Mikel Arteta waiting in the wings to seamlessly continue the Guardiola method.
We’ve been here before, of course, Liverpool themselves monopolizing the English game in the 1970s and 1980s before Sir Alex Ferguson did the same for the next 20-odd years, but should City continue as they are now it would feel very different indeed. Never have financial inequalities so clearly dictated league position, and as wealth self-perpetuates in the modern game Man City could emulate other European super-clubs by eliminating any sense of competitiveness at the top.
There is no reason to believe Man City will fall away next season, not with De Bruyne fully fit, not with a couple of new big-money signings. But when will Liverpool, or any other club for that matter, next rack up 97 points, next see tight Premier League games fall their way again and again and again?
Congratulations are in order for both clubs, who treated us to an enthralling title race. And yet, once the dust has settled, we may look back on an extraordinary, unrepeatable Liverpool season and wonder: if that’s not enough to topple Man City, this must be the beginning of a dynasty.