IT is clear English football has become a duopoly comprising Manchester City and Liverpool. It’s not necessarily a good thing for the game, but these two teams are among the best in Europe at this precise moment. Interestingly, Real Madrid beat both in the Champions League.
Many years ago, football folk in England laughed at the duopolies that existed in Scotland, Portugal, the Netherlands and other continental European countries. English football, they believed, was more open, more democratic and anyone could win the top trophies. In those days, the Football League Cup had been won by a couple of third division clubs (QPR and Swindon) and FA Cup lifted by no less than three second division clubs (Sunderland, Southampton and West Ham). Giant-killing was a peculiarly English thing, the classic David versus Goliath story. Perhaps this was why it took some time before English clubs could challenge for the European Cup, their opponents from Italy, Spain and Portugal just didn’t know how to lose the big games.
Most two-team rivalries have been short-lived
Twenty-four clubs have been English champions, 10 of whom were crowned for the first time before the first world war. The leading clubs of that era had emerged from the industrial regions of the country, places like Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and the north-east. Although there were fierce rivalries in the pre-WW1 footballing universe, such as Villa and midland neighbours who loved to beat them, and Newcastle and Sunderland, there was a broad range of contenders. In the Football League’s first 12 years, 10 clubs achieved top three placings and in the period 1900 to 1915, there were 14 top three teams. During this time, one of the most exciting seasons was 1912-13, when Aston Villa and Sunderland were the dominant forces. Sunderland won the league and Villa beat them in the FA Cup final. Both teams could have won the double that year.
Most two-team rivalries have been relatively short-lived. For example, in the 1930s, when Arsenal won five league titles, there were four different runners-up. Quite simply, most of their opponents didn’t have the consistency or financial resources to challenge them every year. At the same time, it should be noted Arsenal were never runaway winners, they won four of their five championships in the 1930s by four points or less.
The Manchester United team that came to an end in the tragedy of the Munich air crash may have gone on to win many more prizes and given Wolverhampton Wanderers took over as the leading side of the day, winning the league in 1958 and 1959, there might have been a two-way struggle for supremacy in the late 1950s. Furthermore, the Tottenham double winners of 1961 may have added to that equation, although would Spurs have been so successful had United’s young team not perished in the snow. We shall never know, of course.
The Liverpool age of 1975 to 1990 was an incredible chapter of success and came after teams such as Leeds United and Arsenal had developed a brief and abrasive spirit of competitiveness. Leeds were consistent and too manic for their own good, yet they were the best team in England between 1968 and 1972. Arsenal won the double in 1971, overtaking Leeds right at the death, but didn’t have the players to go beyond that memorable year. Leeds United’s real rivals were themselves, although Liverpool were waiting to become the new alpha club.
The big problem for English football was the lack of long-term competition for Liverpool. While the transition from Bill Shankly to Bob Paisley was seamless, they didn’t have a consistent challenger. Between 1975-76 and 1982-83, QPR, Manchester City, Nottingham Forest, Manchester United, Ipswich Town and Watford all finished second to the Reds. Although fans from Forest talk about the time Brian Clough’s team went head-to-head with Liverpool, it was only really a two season confrontation. It was not until 1984-85 that Liverpool had a week-by-week rivals to push them all the way, and ironically, it came from their own city and just across Stanley Park.
For three seasons, Everton and Liverpool could barely be separated, with Everton winning two of three league titles in that period. The two Merseyside clubs were two points apart in the league, the title being won by a Kenny Dalglish goal at Chelsea in his first season as player-manager. Then they met in the FA Cup final, with Liverpool winning 3-1 and completing the double with arguably their least effective side in a few years. But in truth, the Liverpool golden era was drawing to a close and in 1990, they won their last league title for 30 years.
Manchester United took over as the top side in the country, partly due to their sheer size and financial power, but also because they had the game’s top manager in Alex Ferguson. United had also tapped into youth development, bringing on group of highly talented players that would form the core of their team for the next decade, the so-called “Class of ’92”.
This is where the Premier League, which was formed in 1992, experienced its first two-team battle for power in the often fractious relationship between Arsenal and Manchester United. The dynamic between these two clubs saw some titanic struggles for the league title. Between 1998 and 2001, the two teams filled the first two places in the Premier every season. In a seven-year period ending in 2004, Arsenal won three titles to United’s four. The two teams were superior to the rest of the Premier because of their management and methods, Arsenal benefitting from the progressive approach of Arséne Wenger, which not only brought foreign talent to the club, but also a more scientific regime for players that included diet, training and mentality. In 2004, Arsenal under Wenger reached their zenith with the Premier title and an unbeaten league programme. But this duopoly was coming to an end as Chelsea became the richest club in the country thanks to their new owner Roman Abramovich.
Arsenal drifted away from the forefront gradually and Chelsea took up an arms race with Manchester United. For a while, the league’s chief rivalry was between these two clubs, but it was never as hectic as the Arsenal-United bout. Wenger was never happy about Chelsea and their sudden wealth and to some extent, this became something of a psychological hurdle for both club and coach.
The Chelsea-United period of dominance began in 2004 and really ended in 2011. Chelsea’s second season under Abramovich – and first with José Mourinho – saw them win the Premier League with 95 points,12 ahead of Arsenal, they retained the title a year later with 91. From 2004-05 to 2010-11, United still managed to win more Premier Leagues than Chelsea, four to three, and although they were both champions afterwards, their position was now under threat from Manchester City.
If Chelsea’s success was considered “bought” by the club’s critics, the same could be applied to City’s elevation. Both clubs, along with France’s Paris Saint-Germain were examples of a new breed, clubs who climbed the ladder thanks to huge investments of cash. In the case of Chelsea and City, they were both relative underachievers before being taken over. They were now looking the traditional giants of the English game, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool in the eye, much to the irritation of the establishment.
City and Liverpool simply have the best squads, the smartest management
But City’s wealth was enormous compared to Abramovich’s money and so the advantages Chelsea had between 2003 and 2010 were no longer quite as significant. Similarly, Manchester United and Arsenal’s US ownership, were now running their clubs far differently, no longer able to compete with the model adopted by City or Chelsea. The financial position of both United and Arsenal eroded over a period of time and they were no longer certainties for Champions League football.
Although Liverpool were also owned by Americans, the club started to break free of the malaise that descended upon Anfield after a prolonged period without the league trophy. They pulled off a major coup in hiring former Borussia Dortmund manager Jürgen Klopp and although the trophies didn’t flow at first, a new, vibrant team was moulded at the club. City, who by 2016 had secured Pep Guardiola, were also building something more substantial than their rivals off the pitch. The City project was not just about playing success, it was also about creating something with much more depth and longevity. By 2021, the club had overtaken United in terms of revenue generation, which underlined the stagnation at Old Trafford after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson as much as it emphasised the smart thinking of City’s owners and management.
Between them, City and Liverpool now had the best coaches, the most intelligent approach to transfer market activity and the most fluid teams. In 2018, there were signs Klopp was creating something special at Liverpool when they reached the UEFA Champions League final, trouncing City on the way. A year later, Liverpool finished just one point behind City in the league and returned to the Champions League final, beating Tottenham in Madrid. Liverpool lost just one game in the Premier and notched up 97 points, but City were still ahead of them as they won the domestic treble. Between 2017-18 and 2018-19, City won five of the six domestic prizes on offer.The power and consistency of the front two was also evidenced by the 15-point gap between Liverpool and Chelsea in third.
The Premier League was arguably the most coveted prize for Liverpool after a 30-year gap since their last triumph. Liverpool topped the table from the start and lost only three games, winning 18 of their 19 home games. City were 18 points behind in second place, but scored 102 goals to Liverpool’s 85. The two teams were still way ahead of the competition, Manchester United, in third, were 15 points worse off than City.
Winning the title may have taken more out of Liverpool than they expected, for they seemed to run out of steam in 2020-21, but in 2021-22, with some squad additions, they chased City all the way. The two teams are finely matched and there’s very little between them, but there’s a considerable gap between City and Liverpool and the team just behind them.
City topped the Deloitte Football Money League for the first time in 2022, their revenues rising 7% to £ 571.1 million. This is an impressive statistic given the pandemic and impact it had on club income. Manchester United, traditionally the highest-placed English club, generated £ 494 million, while Liverpool were not far behind with income of £ 487 million.
The simple fact is, City and Liverpool are now standing astride the Premier League because they have the best squads. A remarkable 20% of the Guardian top 100 for 2021 comprised players from these two clubs, while 13 of the top 40 most highly valued players are from Liverpool and Manchester City (Football Benchmark).
But is this really good for English football? Will we look back in five years and see the continuation of a two-horse race? It is unlikely for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is a certainty that neither Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp will still be in charge at their respective clubs. In fact, their reign may end sooner rather than later. This is important because they are arguably the two most influential managers of their generation, and there are not many coaches to compare. Secondly, the two teams will need to rebuild at some point, they have players who are past or approaching the end of peak marketability. Thirdly, other rivals will come to the fore – Newcastle United will be a rising force in the next year or two as their new ownership starts to really shape their playing resources. Other clubs will also be beneficiaries of investor money and become challengers. Finally, nothing lasts forever in football, just recall the fall of Liverpool after 1990 and the current mess that is Manchester United. And who would have predicted Abramovich leaving Chelsea? The current duopoly, by historic standards, is approaching maturity and may have already peaked. For the game’s sake, it needs to change, even if we do enjoy the high quality of two excellent teams.