The Premier League title chase took a massive turn this weekend. Liverpool dropped points at home to Tottenham, drawing 1-1 on Saturday afternoon. Buoyed by watching that, and in the wake of trying to recover from their Champions League collapse, Manchester City rubbed Newcastle’s ass in the moonshine to the tune of 5-0 on Sunday.
Liverpool fans will clutch 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 the smart money says that’s probably how it’s going to stay.
When it’s all said and done, it’ll be about how these two teams have exerted, and focused on, keeping control of matches. And it probably illustrates why City can’t quite master the Champions League, and why Liverpool can’t quite overcome City in the league (except when they completely collapse as in 2019-2020).
It is that collapse two seasons ago, and Pep Guardiola’s fixation with control that shapes his team now. Pep has no time for anything unexpected or unexplained or incalculable, as discussed after City crashed out to Madrid. Pep is sure he can control every second of a match, and, thanks to City’s squad and spending, he pretty much can. That’s why we’ve seen City slow down, especially the past two seasons. No one comes close to their amount of short passes per match (284.6 per 90 minutes. The next closest is Chelsea at 250. Only PSG in Europe’s top five leagues deploy 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 pressures in the attacking third.
What Pep doesn’t want is counterattacks against City when they’re stretched or open. That’s why their possession is so meticulous and rehearsed. They only want to cede possession after an errant or saved shot, or when they’re already in the defensive positions he wants, which he can get to after holding the ball for so long. And then also have the opposition so deep when having the ball they can be contained through City’s press.
Pep’s biggest and notable defeats are when they’ve lost that control. To Liverpool in the Champions League in 2018, or to Spurs in the CL in 2019. Madrid just last week was set up by the anarchy of the first leg. But those come in the Champions League, where each round is its own contained thing. And the teams get better and better as you go on, and the better teams can break through the maniacal devotion to control that Pep seeks (and often has).
Over a league season, the breakthroughs against City are far less frequent, and keep them metronomically picking up three points at a time. Brighton and Newcastle aren’t going to be able to cause the chaos that Pep loathes. And even if they occasionally do, the next five opponents won’t.
Jürgen Klopp, on the other hand, doesn’t mind chaos and strangeness. Liverpool exert almost as much control as City do, but simply accept that counterattacks and chances are going to be a byproduct of their borderline-death wish on getting everyone forward. Klopp figures he has Virgil van Dijk, Joël Matip, and Alisson back there to snuff out any danger. And for the most part, they do.
But when chasing the other best team in Europe, the margins are so thin. And when Liverpool have dropped points this season–Spurs twice, Chelsea twice, Leicester, West Ham, and City twice–it’s mostly been because their individual brilliance in defense couldn’t be perfect on that day. City outplayed them twice, and Chelsea at Anfield were reduced to ten men and just had to bunker in. But the other results were Liverpool getting caught on the counters they are so happy to concede in pursuit of offense.
The draw on Saturday to Spurs was easy to see coming, because Tottenham have been at their best when conceding the ball and then countering through perhaps the most lethal counter attacking force around, Harry Kane and Heung-min Son. While Liverpool will settle for being hit on the counter, Spurs are one of the few teams on the planet who can say they have an equal amount of talent in their attack as Liverpool do in defense, especially in space. It was perhaps folly to think Liverpool could hold out against such an imposing force.
This isn’t the same problem for them in Europe, because so few teams can out-chaos them. They lost control of 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’d either so decisively won the first leg (Inter and Benfica) or could live longer in the chaos (Villareal). Ask Barcelona about it.
Liverpool have been even more happy to lose control this season, as when they have possession they’ve been happy to let their right sided midfielder (usually Jordan Henderson) overlap Trent Alexander-Arnold out wide to bring the fullback more infield to open up his options. But it deprives them of one more midfielder to blunt counters before they start, and Fabinho at the base of midfield isn’t all that quick even if he reads the game tremendously well.
City and Guardiola opted for systematic control, whereas Liverpool have depended on individual excellence. It’s the only way the latter’s system will work. They couldn’t be as kamikaze with their high line and press if they didn’t have Virgil van Dijk. In fact, the title race could come down to Ibrahima Konaté starting on Saturday instead of Matip, and failing to step up to Kane before Kane created Spurs’s goal. It is a tiny margin, and Konaté has mostly been great this season, butut that’s how close these teams are.
In City’s world, counters are a bug. In Liverpool’s they are a feature. Both work, but City’s work a little better, and that’s why they’ll likely be champions again.