These are, quite possibly, the very best of times for Manchester City, and that is unfortunate for Liverpool. City are staking their claim for a consecutive Premier League title that would surely turn this team into ‘winners’; they already are – by looks, at least – the best team the Premier League has seen. And yet, that same strength is providing frustration for Liverpool. They also have not had it so good for some time; the development of Jurgen Klopp’s team over the past 18 months has been dramatic. This would be their most realistic chance of Premier League glory in over 25 years…if it were not for City.
One-third of the league season has been played and both currently remain unbeaten. At Anfield in October, they drew 0-0 in what was an abysmal affair, but that should not deter from the fact that Liverpool are City’s only concrete challengers this season. Chelsea are still with them – unbeaten and impressive – but there is a common consensus that they will come short this season. Therefore, just how do the top two compare in the various departments?
In the dugout
Both coaches have personality; they are both extremely driven and are capable of bringing the very best out of their players. Klopp is – like most modern managers – always on the practice pitches. Liverpool have changed their approach to matches in the first part of this season – seeking greater control and relying on a well-built defence – and that they still remain unbeaten is credit to Klopp and his fellow coaches. But as Pep Lijnders, one of the first-team coaches, once said his boss is “30 per cent tactics, 70 per cent team building.” The emphasis that Klopp places on togetherness and man-management is obvious and, arguably, is his greatest strength.
Pep Guardiola is obsessive and his meticulous preparation is well-noted. The intensity that he demands from his squad is almost beyond comprehension; the Spaniard gets grumpy about one bad pass let alone a bad half of play. But such demands have made him one of the most highly thought of coaches in world football, like Klopp, players improve under his tutelage both on the pitch and in practice sessions. The one-on-one nature of Guardiola’s coaching is also key to his success as a manager.
Liverpool’s most dramatic improvement has been in defence, where an outlay of £75 million last January on Virgil van Dijk and further spends this past summer on Alisson have created a defence that opponents now struggle to break down. One of the reasons that Liverpool had to carefully manage last season’s run to the Champions League final was a lack of depth in the squad. Even with injuries to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the slow reintroduction of Adam Lallana, Liverpool have far more options in midfield than they did last term. Such large numbers are needed given Klopp’s demanding approach.
How do you add to a well-balanced title-winning squad? Simply, dust a little more stardust on top. The purchase of Riyad Mahrez and the increasing faith being placed in Phil Foden, both only enhance a phenomenal City squad. It is hard to remember that Guardiola inherited an ageing team given how youthful it is now. Also whilst City have been spending well, Manchester United have been spending similar amounts, but poorly. One area that City do need to address with a fair matter of urgency is central midfield, as Fernandinho – although so conductive against United in last weekend’s derby – is not getting any younger.
At the back
The introductions of Alisson and Van Dijk have steadied a defence that were prone to making mistakes – albeit not exactly shipping goals. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson and Joe Gomez are three of the most promising British defenders around and are already forging a comprehensive understanding of each other’s game. Liverpool have also altered their defending with a more disciplined approach in midfield where they are less open. Klopp has tinkered with formations – deploying a 4-2-3-1 against Fulham on Sunday – but still prefers a 4-3-3.
Whereas Liverpool have been relatively consistent in terms of personnel recently, Guardiola has been guilty of chopping and changing. Their best back four of Kyle Walker, John Stones, Aymeric Laporte and Benjamin Mendy is formidable; being sturdy and creative in equal measure. A back three has been used, but such a setup did affect City’s wing-play, with Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane not particularly benefitting.
Last season, Liverpool’s front three masked the void of creativity that Philippe Coutinho left when he was sold in January. Now Klopp has encouraged Roberto Firmino to drop a little deeper – he did begin his professional career as an attacking midfielder – and provide the crucial balls to release his fellow forwards. Summer addition Naby Keita also adds another dimension to Liverpool’s midfield as he is both creative and combative, whilst Fabinho is slowly becoming the team’s nominated deep-sitter given the task of breaking up play and feeding the creators.
City’s creativity comes from all angles. Despite the injury that Kevin De Bruyne is currently out with, City still have more than enough players to conjure and feed the forward-line. The best are David and Bernardo Silva, who both possess the ability to unlock defences with neat and talented feet. They are magicians and often seemingly deploy an invisibility cloak to suddenly appear on the goal-side of a defence. The role given to the midfielders has increased further this season as City are achieving even more possession than last.
The final third
Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Firmino achieved such high standards – both collectively and individually – that it was almost impossible for them to replicate it this time around. It is clear that they are not quite firing to the same degree this season, but are still vital to Liverpool’s attacking play. The speed of Liverpool’s attacks have slowed and, thus, the pace that Mane and Salah possess has been used less frequently to rip defences apart. Changes have been made by Klopp, both in terms of structure and personnel, to ensure that his leading line are fresh and efficient. Daniel Sturridge and Xherdan Shaqiri have brought more strings to Liverpool’s attacking bow.
Sergio Aguero remains City’s main goal-threat. It had looked like the striker’s opportunities might be limited when Gabriel Jesus was signed but undoubtedly Aguero is Guardiola’s centre-forward of choice. Goals though do come from everywhere for City, and no one has improved more in front of goal than Sterling, who is continuing to show his worth in the opposition’s area.