The Premier League title hunt took a huge turn this weekend. Liverpool dropped points at home to Tottenham to draw 1-1 on Saturday afternoon. Buoyed by the sight and after trying to recover from their Champions League meltdown, Manchester City rubbed Newcastle’s butt to the tune of 5-0 in the moonlight on Sunday.
Liverpool fans will be clutching the desperate Stranger Things Have Happened flotation device for the final three games, but the results leave City with a three-point lead and a better goal difference, and smart money says it’s likely to stay that way .
When all is said and done it will be about how these two sides have focused on staying in control of the games. And it probably shows why City can’t quite master the Champions League and why Liverpool can’t quite beat City in the league (unless they collapse completely like they did in 2019-2020).
It’s that collapse two seasons ago and Pep Guardiola’s fixation on control that now define his team. Pep doesn’t have time for anything unexpected, inexplicable or unpredictable, like discussed after City crashed to Madrid. Pep is confident that he can control every second of a game, and Thanks to City’s squad and expenses, he’s pretty good at it. That’s why we’ve seen City slow down, especially in the last two seasons. Nobody comes close to their number of short passes per game (284.6 per 90 minutes. Chelsea are closest with 250. Only PSG in Europe’s top five leagues use more). City’s press isn’t nearly as high as it used to be or as often, somewhere around sixth or seventh in the Premier League for pressure in the attacking third.
What Pep doesn’t want are counterattacks against City when stretched or open. That’s why their ownership is so meticulous and rehearsed. They only want to release the ball after a miss, a saved shot, or when they’re already in the defensive positions he wants him to be able to achieve after holding the ball for so long. And then you also have the opposition so deep when they have the ball that they can be contained by City’s press.
Pep’s biggest and most notable defeats are when they’ve lost that control. 2018 to Liverpool in the Champions League or 2019 to the Spurs in the CL. Madrid were set up by first-leg anarchy just last week. But they come to the Champions League, where each round is a separate thing. And teams only get better as time goes on, and the better teams can break through the maddened dedication to control that Pep seeks (and often has).
Over the course of a league season, breakthroughs against City are far more rare and keep them metronomically racking up three points at a time. Brighton and Newcastle will not be able to create the chaos that Pep loathes. And even if they do occasionally, the next five opponents won’t.
Jürgen Klopp, on the other hand, have nothing against chaos and strangeness. Liverpool wield almost as much control as City but simply accept that counter-attacking and chances will be a by-product of their death wish to push everyone forward. Klopp reckons he has Virgil van Dijk, Joël Matip and Alisson back there to wipe out any danger. And for the most part they do.
But when you’re chasing the other best team in Europe, the margins are so thin. And if Liverpool have dropped points this season – Spurs twice, Chelsea twice, Leicester twice, West Ham twice and City twice – it’s largely because their individual brilliance in defense couldn’t be perfect that day. City played them twice and Chelsea at Anfield were reduced to ten men and only had to bunker. But the other results were that Liverpool stuck on the counterattacks they loved to concede on offense.
Saturday’s tie against Spurs was easy to predict as Tottenham were at their best as they conceded the ball and then countered through perhaps their deadliest counter-attacking power Harry Kane and Heung-min Son. While Liverpool will be content to get hit on the counterattack, Spurs are one of the few teams on the planet who can say they are just as talented in attack as Liverpool are in defence, particularly in space. It was perhaps foolish to think that Liverpool could hold their own against such an imposing force.
This isn’t the same problem for them in Europe because so few teams can beat them out of the chaos. They lost control in the first half of the second leg against Villareal. Or the second half of the second leg against Benfica. Or the whole second leg against Inter. It didn’t matter because they either won the first leg so decisively (Inter and Benfica) or could live longer in chaos (Villareal). Ask Barcelona about it.
Liverpool have been even happier at losing control this season as when they had possession they would let their right midfielder (usually Jordan Henderson) wide overlap Trent Alexander-Arnold to field the full-back more to open up his options . But it robs them of another midfielder to blunt counterattacks before they start and Fabinho isn’t too quick at the base of midfield, even if he reads the game tremendously well.
City and Guardiola opted for systematic control while Liverpool relied on individual excellence. That’s the only way his system will work. They couldn’t be so kamikaze with their high line and pressing if they didn’t have Virgil van Dijk. In fact, the title race could have come down to Ibrahima Konaté starting in place of Matip on Saturday and failing to face Kane before Kane scored Spurs’ goal. It’s a tiny margin, and Konaté has been great for the most part this season, but that’s how close these teams are.
In the world of City, counters are a mistake. In Liverpool they are a feature. Both work, but City works a little better, and that’s why they’ll probably be champions again.