FIVE POINTS is a substantial gap after five games, in fact it is, apparently, a record margin at this fledgling stage of the season. Such was the miniscule gap between Manchester City and Liverpool last season, Norwich City’s 3-2 win over Pep Guardiola’s treble winners that it may well be considered as one of the decisive moments of the title race.
In an age when big teams routinely trounce their opponents, gathering points and goals like eager shoppers frenetically and greedily embarking on a supermarket trolley dash, Norwich’s win was a retro victory, the sort of occasional headlining upset that used to characterise English football. But as we are only in mid-September, it is surely too early to start tying red ribbons on that hideous symbol of a gaudy age, the Premier League trophy.
City’s era of Petrodollar support has one last box to place a tick in – winning the UEFA Champions League. Pep, who last won the trophy in 2011, must be desperate to lift it again. Time after time, his teams, be it Bayern or City, have fallen short of European greatness while sweeping-up at home. This may be the season in which their concentration on the Champions League is total. Perhaps it is time to relax a little on the domestic scene. Let’s face it, they are a shoe-in for Champions League qualification, come what may.
City’s latest bid for European immortality begins with a visit to Shakhtar Donetsk and they have a very reasonable group that includes Atalanta and Dinamo Zagreb. Liverpool begin their defence with a trip to Napoli and then face Red Bull Salzburg and Genk. Both City and Liverpool should be involved in the new year in the knockout stages, barring a mishap.
There was a great deal of schadenfreudeabout City’s blip at Carrow Road, indeed, football folk revel in any Mancunian football setback, but there is a sense of drama about everything and anything involving the champions, ranging from VAR to transfer failings. Nobody ever mentions the word “complacency” because you sense Guardiola would freak at any suggestion that his players are not as hungry as a bunch of upstarts from East Anglia.
Meant to be?
But there’s an element of destiny about Liverpool’s charge this season. The momentum has continued, they are certainly hungry – perhaps ravishingly – to win the Premier League in order to anoint this team as the best since the era of the boot room. It’s also thirty years since they last did it, a title in 2019-20 will nicely bookend an era of near-misses, under-performance and the tragic hangover of Heysel and Hillsborough.
On the evidence of the first month or so of the season, Liverpool and City will be the main contenders, hardly a surprise but certainly affirmation of the gap between this duo and the rest of the pretenders to the throne. Manchester United and Arsenal can already be discounted, the latter creating the defensive antithesis of the “1-0 to the Arsenal” culture that once epitomised the club. Already, Emirates regulars are scratching their heads and starting to wonder why they wanted Wenger to leave after all. Chelsea may yet secure the third position, surprising everyone by the confidence of the youngsters who are taking advantage of a FIFA-induced ban on buying players. The likes of Tammy Abraham, if they seize the window of opportunity, may yet save the club lots of money. As for Tottenham, they are still Tottenham, capable of sublime football but still low on playing resources.
Liverpool never get tired of telling us they’ve won an eggbox-full of Champions Leagues, but would they sacrifice an extensive campaign in the competition if it meant they will have a better chance of a Premier League win? Of course they would, because Europe is part of the club’s heritage and even when they are not the best team around (2005), they can conjure-up a decent, emotion-charged run that gets the banners unfurled. In other words, Champions League finals (three in 15 years) come around more than league titles!
There’s another reason why Liverpool’s current team may be best placed to win the Premier in 2019-20: timing. The average age of Liverpool’s starting line-ups this season has been 27.1 and Jürgen Klopp’s team is probably at the peak of its powers Only four of the regular team are under 25 years of age, but only Lallana, Milner and Adrian are over 30. This could be their best opportunity, harnessing that classic mix of youth and experience.
Of course, Manchester City will not relinquish their crown easily and they have the squad diversity and depth to replace and refresh their line-up. It is, after all, one defeat, but Liverpool have moved into the City role of recent years and now the gauntlet has been thrown in the direction of Manchester.
Signs of the times
City v Liverpool is the new Chelsea v United, Arsenal v United and, going further back, Leeds v Liverpool. And Guardiola v Klopp is the new Wenger v Ferguson. City may have more money, but how much of a difference exists between a £ 100 million and a £ 60 million player? The differential in market values is not necessarily aligned to the true ability of players. Once you reach a certain point, it is really a case of market demand and agent tenacity, rather than skill sets, determining transfer fees. But extreme wealth allows a club to collect more assets, so a City or PSG will, by definition, have more options to call on.
Right now, Liverpool have a talented squad that, when fully fit, can match City. That’s why it’s too early to accurately predict that Liverpool will win the title. But there’s other factors that determine the outcome of title races. The modern game is about data, money and, thankfully, genuine talent. It is also about emotions, and there’s no club like Liverpool in the way they percolate emotion, heritage, local pride and the will of the people to influence performance. That’s why, in 2020, 30 years since they last won a championship, Liverpool will have their best chance of glory. Maybe.