The English Premier League has been the most famous and purely entertaining soccer league for ages now. No other domestic league can match England’s in top-to-bottom competitiveness, in the sheer number of historically and consistently great clubs, in blustery, throat-hoarsening fan engagement, in worldwide appeal and attention, and, crucially, in money. What the EPL hasn’t been for much of its stint as the world’s biggest league is the world’s best league—by that meaning the home of the sport’s savviest coaches implementing the most sophisticated tactics executed by its best players and, in the process, building the game’s most dominant teams. But if the league’s status is in the process of changing—if the EPL is to add World’s Best League to its sizable collection of superlatives—then this weekend’s Liverpool vs. Manchester City match was the first classic of this new era.
The reason why the Premier League appears to be making the jump from being the sport’s most compelling league to truly being its best is obvious: it’s all about the money. Realistically, only the giants of Spain—Real Madrid and Barcelona—and the bloody, oily money of PSG can compete with the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, Cheslea, Liverpool, and Arsenal when it comes to financial might. And in a wide-open economic system like international soccer, it’s financial might that matters more than anything.
What the league has lacked in years past are top-level coaches, cutting edge tactical strategies, and world-elite players. Each of these are things that can be had by teams with lots of money to spend. And since no one league has as much money to toss around as the EPL does, the league’s ascent to the top has been rapid.
Liverpool and Manchester City are arguably the best examples of the new, fully modernized EPL. Their managers, Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, are arguably the two very best coaches on the planet. This modern era of soccer tactics has been defined, at least at the elite level, more than anything else by the implementation and development of two ideas: buildup play—specifically building play from the back—and pressing. Guardiola and Klopp are two managers who’ve been at the very forefront of these strategic advancements, Guardiola more so since his iconic Barcelona teams rode both deeply built attacking possessions and high defensive pressing to innumerable trophies and plaudits, but with Klopp still making important contributions by pretty much mastering the high-pressing style during his time as manager of Borussia Dortmund. Guardiola- and Klopp-style pressing are different, as the former uses pressing to reestablish possession and control while the latter is more focused on creating attacking chaos once the ball is won, and Guardiola is more concerned with the construction of his own team’s buildup play while Klopp’s pressing-centric philosophy is intended to disrupt his opponent’s buildup. But the crux of both managers’ philosophies depend on how they address and respond to buildups and presses.
The reason why every single big team around the world is compared to Barça-style possession dominance can be fairly attributed to the heights of beauty and success Guardiola’s Barça ascended to. The reason why nearly every single club in the German Bundesliga counts itself as a practitioner of Dortmund-style gegenpressing is largely on account of Klopp’s similarly inspiring success with his underdog BVB teams. These are two legitimately legendary figures in the strategic development of the sport, and that they’ve both come to England in the primes of their careers to attempt to bring their philosophies and those philosophies’ attendant successes in competition with the likes of José Mourinho, Antonio Conte, Arsène Wenger, and Mauricio Pochettino—each of those men significant managerial figures in their own right—tells you everything you need to know about the ridiculous influx of intellectual capital the EPL has enjoyed in recent years.
Both Man City and Liverpool bear the marks of their managers’ influence, and both teams’ styles are centered on their approaches to buildup play and to pressing. Guardiola’s juggernaut of a team has steamrolled the rest of the league this season by being great at both facets of play. In attack, City are amazing at keeping hold of the ball for impossibly long stretches of time, pinging it back and forth between their absurdly gifted attackers and midfielders and defenders, torturing opponents with their dominance of the ball in the most dangerous areas of the pitch, waiting for the other team to finally break, and once that happens, slipping the ball past the usually deep-lying defenses and flipping it into the net. Their keeper, the Brazilian Ederson, has been especially important to their buildup play, as he is capable of doing such marvelous things with the ball at his feet that are rivaled only by Barcelona’s own building-from-the-back genius, Marc-André ter Stegen. In defense, to facilitate their ball-dominance and to circumvent the kind of deep-block defending their players wouldn’t be all that good at, City immediately hound their opponents once they lose the ball in an effort to restart their strings of possession as soon as one has been snipped off.
As is typical of Klopp’s teams, Liverpool are specialists in pressing. From front to back, the Reds are a squad of athletic specimens who can run and run and run all day as they harry opposing ball-carriers in packs wherever the ball goes. When they win the ball back, they immediately spring into a counterattack that, with their terrifyingly fast and powerful forward line, makes for one of the most fearsome attacks in Europe this year.
This style of play has been outrageously successful in big matches against the league’s best clubs for as long as Klopp has been in England, since high-pressing is a strategy proven to thwart the kinds of possession-minded, building-from-the-back styles most big teams use. However, it hasn’t been quite as successful when Liverpool face smaller teams that have no interest in holding onto the ball and prefer smacking it long over the heads of those tenacious high-pressers to attack the goal directly. It’s Liverpool’s relative lack of ability to control games against teams that don’t play into their high-pressing hands, especially once Liverpool already have the lead and look to relax and close out a match, that makes them merely very good rather than truly great this season.
But in a one-off match? Very few teams in the world can withstand the frenzied havoc Liverpool’s press wreaks at its best, and this weekend’s match was a perfect example. The story of the game was how Liverpool’s intense pressing flat-out ripped apart Man City’s buildup play. Three of the Reds’ four goals originated from the ‘Pool Boys winning back possession in City’s half of the pitch and going all out in attack right after. Liverpool pressed the hell out of City’s keeper, defenders, and deepest midfielder whenever they picked up the ball, which prevented the visiting presumptive EPL winners from settling into their normal groove of starting attacks comfortably from deep. This meant City were never able to demonstrate the composed mastery and ruthless efficiency of their typical performances.
And while passing the ball short with your keeper and defenders—allowing players not typically adroit at the art of passing to dally on the ball rather than lump it long in search of a cutting pass that will jumpstart an attacking move full of neat and dextrous little exchanges of the ball—will please the purists, as will keeping a high defensive line and sending wave after wave of forwards and midfielders and even defenders charging up the pitch to press opposing players deep into their own half, they are also strategies that can’t work without players capable of executing such advanced, high-risk/high-reward tactics. And this, the collection of honest-to-god great players, is the other factor contributing to both this weekend’s awesome Liverpool-City match and the improvement of the Premier League itself.
Thanks to the quality of the players and the seamless integration of tactics that fit these players’ skillsets like gloves, there aren’t five teams in the world with better forward lines than Liverpool and Man City on current form. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, Leroy Sané, Raheem Sterling—these are all players who would start and star for almost every single other club in the world. And besides the forwards, David Silva, the soon-to-arrive Naby Keïta, the recently departed Philippe Coutinho, and especially Kevin De Bruyne are attack-minded midfielders who could walk into pretty much anyone’s starting XI. Even Barcelona and Real Madrid, the two teams whose dominance of Europe over the past decade plus has gone a long way toward crowning La Liga the singularly best league in the sport, would love to bench players currently starting for them in exchange for some of these names. (Barça in fact more or less did just that when they stole Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool earlier this month.) Guys like that, plus the likes of Eden Hazard, Harry Kane, Paul Pogba, Mesut Özil, and more show that for the first time in a long time, the Premier League is home to a whole lot of players who should be considered amongst the very best at their respective positions.
While it was Liverpool’s stars whose tactical setup allowed them to take all three points against City on Sunday (Firmino, Mané, and Salah each scored), the unbelievable individual quality of the Citizens’ squad almost saw the away team snatch a point before the match was over. This was a match defined by how Liverpool’s press shattered City’s buildup play for the vast majority of the match, only for City’s talents to eventually fight their way back into what should’ve been a blowout (as well as some fantastic feats of finishing, it should be said). It was a display of the world’s most cutting edge tactics, as implemented by the game’s smartest managerial minds, and executed by some of the very best players currently lacing up boots. The EPL has always been a fun league to watch and follow, all het up players thundering up and down the pitch, clubbing the ball this way and that, storming into tackles as the bloodthirsty crowds bay for more passion, more energy, more everything, demonstrating a way of playing that resembled not as much “the beautiful game” as a transfixingly chaotic one.
The EPL can and has retained its spirit and atmosphere (it would be silly to ignore the influence Anfield’s bellowing fans had on proceedings) while also adding things like formations other than the 4-4-2 and running that has a broader purpose and players gifted in other ways than simply their lung capacity and squat numbers. By combining the best of what the Premier League has been with the best ideas and players from elsewhere, this league is at last living up to its potential.