How Guardiola and Klopp transformed the Premier League – and took each other to new heights – The Athletic

Oliver KayMar 9, 2024

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It was one of those wet, blustery afternoons Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola had been told about.

“Fighting football — what we in Germany call, ‘English football’,” as Klopp had described it admiringly during his days at Borussia Dortmund. “Rainy day, heavy pitch, everybody dirty in the face.”

It was March 2017. Klopp had been at Liverpool for 17 months, Guardiola at Manchester City for just nine and it is funny, looking back at the line-ups that day, to note how much has changed in seven years.

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Liverpool’s back four included Ragnar Klavan and Nathaniel Clyne. City had Willy Caballero in goal, Fernandinho and Gael Clichy as their full-backs and a nearly 34-year-old Yaya Toure at the base of midfield. Both managers sent on an extra midfielder in the closing stages: Lucas Leiva for Liverpool, Fernando for City.

City and Liverpool were third and fourth in the Premier League at the time, with Chelsea already closing in on the Premier League title in Antonio Conte’s first season in charge. Four days earlier, City had been knocked out of the Champions League, beaten on the away-goals rule by Monaco in a chaotic last-16 tie. Approaching the end of a challenging first season in England, Guardiola was being doubted like never before.

But what really sticks in the mind from that Sunday afternoon in Manchester — other than the rain, of course — is the intensity. It was relentless, played at a tempo you really wouldn’t expect from two teams not yet really built or conditioned to play the Klopp or the Guardiola way.

The game between City and Liverpool in March 2017 (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

The opening stages were breathless: possession football performed at a frantic pace. The tackles flew in — Nicolas Otamendi on Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino booked for a late challenge on David Silva. From a Fernandinho cross, Sergio Aguero fell under pressure from Joel Matip and City appealed for a penalty. Michael Oliver waved play on and Guardiola looked furious. He let Klopp know about it too, shouting at the Liverpool manager as he ran towards him… only to break out into a huge grin and offer him a high five so flamboyant it seemed to be inspired by Borat. “High five!”

After a 1-1 draw that did little for either team in the pursuit of Champions League qualification, Guardiola called it “one of the happiest days of my life as a manager”. Not for the first time, journalists in Manchester were left wondering whether his use of superlatives was largely for his own amusement.

But he was serious — proud, he said, that his players had produced such an upbeat response to their Champions League trauma. “We were sad (in Monaco), so that is why I am so happy,” the City manager said. “My players put everything on the pitch. More than ever, I want to help the club — if they want to stay with me — and make the next step forward.

“I came here for three years and I want to stay for three years. And next year, play better.”

It is the rivalry that has defined the modern Premier League era: Liverpool vs City, Klopp vs Guardiola.

And while Mikel Arteta and Arsenal have forced their way into that conversation over the last 18 months, both in terms of title races and the balance of power within English football, it feels apposite that the two north-west rivals should face another title showdown this Sunday as Klopp’s tenure at Liverpool draws towards a close.

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It will be their 30th meeting over a period of 11 years, dating back to Guardiola’s baptism at Bayern Munich in July 2013, when his first official game in charge ended in a thumping 4-2 defeat in the German Super Cup at the hands of Klopp’s Dortmund.

The overall record stands at 29 games: 11 wins for Klopp, 10 wins for Guardiola and eight draws. Two of the draws were settled by a penalty shoot-out (one victory apiece). In league matches the record is eight wins for Guardiola, five for Klopp and six draws.

Both have suffered far more defeats against the other than against any other coach. Heavy defeats at times too; Guardiola, despite fewer wins overall, can claim a 5-0, a 4-0 and a couple of 4-1s. Both coaches could justifiably regard themselves as the other’s most dreaded opponent while acknowledging that the reverse applies.

With the benefit of seven years’ hindsight since that blustery afternoon in Manchester, some will say it was inevitable that City and Liverpool would emerge as the two great powerhouses of English football, neck and neck once more this season, ready to do battle at Anfield on Sunday as another Premier League title race intensifies.

With City, in particular, it is easy to look at the players Guardiola inherited when he arrived in 2016 (David Silva, Fernandinho, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Aguero) and the money spent since (on John Stones, Kyle Walker, Bernardo Silva, Aymeric Laporte, Riyad Mahrez, Rodri, Ruben Dias, Jack Grealish, Erling Haaland, Josko Gvardiol, Jeremy Doku and others) and to shrug your shoulders and ask what else did anyone expect.

But the season before Guardiola’s arrival, City, under Manuel Pellegrini, had finished fourth in the Premier League with just 66 points, ahead of Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United only on goal difference.

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Yes, they had won the League Cup for the second time in three years and reached the Champions League semi-final before defeat by eventual winners Real Madrid, but this was a team that needed serious work. Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany, Toure, Fernandinho and David Silva were all the wrong side of 30, as were others, such as Aleksandar Kolarov, Clichy, Jesus Navas and Bacary Sagna.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and Manchester City counterpart Pep Guardiola in March 2017 (Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

City would finish Guardiola’s debut season empty-handed, 15 points adrift of champions Chelsea. His decisions to jettison Joe Hart and marginalise Toure were questioned, as was his insistence on using De Bruyne and Silva alongside Fernandinho in central midfield, where they, and City, were occasionally overrun. At that time, there were more than a few pundits, not to mention rival fans, suggesting the great Guardiola had met his match in English football.

For City to win the Premier League the next season with a record-breaking total of 100 points, while playing such mesmerising football at such a high tempo, was a triumph of coaching — rather than just, as some would have it, an inevitable consequence of chequebook management. (If you want a hint of where all that spending might have taken a club without an elite-level coach who reflected a clear, long-term vision, just take a look at Manchester United’s miserable performance since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in the summer of 2013.)

No team had won back-to-back Premier League titles since Ferguson led United to three in a row between 2006-07 and 2008-09, but City won it again the following season, this time with 98 points. That is 198 points over two seasons while also winning the League Cup twice more and an FA Cup. This was a level of performance, consistency and domination never previously witnessed in English football.

“Big Six”? City have been intent on turning the Premier League into a monopoly. They have won five of the past six league titles and, going into Sunday’s critical match with Liverpool at Anfield, they remain well-placed to become the first club in English football history to win four league titles in a row and six out of seven.

It has rarely felt like a procession, though. You could use that term for the titles they won in 2018 and 2021, with runners-up Manchester United finishing at a distance of 19 and 12 points respectively, but not for 2019 and 2022, when Klopp’s Liverpool pushed them all the way to the wire, missing out by a single point. And not this season either, the way it is going.

In February 2022 Guardiola was asked which team — if any — could stop City winning the lot.

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“Liverpool,” he said instantly. “Liverpool are six points behind us. Liverpool was our biggest rival in the last seasons. They always were there. A pain in the ass all the time.”

Not all the time, in truth. They were still fully to emerge as a force under Klopp when City won the first of their titles under Guardiola in 2017-18. They came in a distant third place in 2020-21 and an even more distant fifth place last season amid questions about whether Klopp’s tenure was unravelling.

But they have been, as Guardiola says, a pain in City’s ass — and vice-versa. Take Liverpool out of the equation and City’s domination over the past six seasons would have been as extreme as Bayern Munich’s in the Bundesliga: no interruption to City’s monopoly in 2019-20, no nail-biting title race or final-day drama in 2018-19 or 2021-22, just one procession after another.

They seemed to have fallen away last season, with Arsenal the new challengers to City’s supremacy. But to the surprise of many, Klopp’s team are back again this season, forcing their way to the front with 11 games remaining, determined to ensure that his last hurrah is the biggest and loudest of all.

Guardiola poses with his City side’s third Premier League champions’ trophy in four seasons last May (Photo: Tom Flathers/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)

In terms of time, Klopp had a head start on Guardiola. In terms of resources, he was working at a severe handicap. The line-up for his first game in charge, away to Spurs in October 2015? Simon Mignolet, Nathaniel Clyne, Martin Skrtel, Mamadou Sakho, Alberto Moreno, Emre Can, Lucas Leiva, James Milner, Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho, Divock Origi. The bench: Adam Bogdan, Kolo Toure, Connor Randall, Joe Allen, Joao Teixeira, Jordon Ibe, Jerome Sinclair.

There were uplifting early victories at Chelsea and Manchester City and stirring runs to the finals of the League Cup and Europa League (only to lose both) but this was an inconsistent team that lacked players with the technical and physical profile Klopp was looking for. And when it came to reinforcements, money was considerably tighter than among some of their rivals.

Mohamed Salah is unveiled at Liverpool in the summer of 2017 (Photo: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

There were no shortcuts in the transfer market. In his first summer in the job, he signed Georginio Wijnaldum from relegated Newcastle United for £25million and Sadio Mane from Southampton for £34million. Beyond that, it was bargain-basement deals (goalkeeper Loris Karius from Mainz for £4.7 million, Ragnar Klavan from Augsburg for £4.2 million and Joel Matip on a free transfer from Schalke) — and this in the same close-season when City, Manchester United and Chelsea, all under new management, spent £165 million, £150million and £120million respectively.

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But Liverpool’s progression under Klopp was clear: a team that had finished sixth (62 points) and eighth (60 points) in the previous two seasons came fourth (76 points) and fourth again (75 points) in his first two full campaigns. They became synonymous with fast, free-flowing, incisive football, as Mane began to link up with Coutinho, Lallana and Roberto Firmino.

To make more substantial investments in the squad, Liverpool needed Champions League revenue. Securing a top-four Premier League finish on the final day of the 2016-17 season was a watershed of sorts.

True, they were not able to compete in the transfer market with City or United, who spent £200 million and £150 million respectively in the summer of 2017. But who needs to spend £50 million on a left-back such as Benjamin Mendy when you can get Andy Robertson from relegated Hull City for an initial £8 million? And who needs to spend £75 million on a forward such as Romelu Lukaku when you can get Mohamed Salah from Roma for an initial £36.9 million?

In the opening weeks of the 2017-18 campaign, Liverpool were flying.

Then they came down to earth with a bump, beaten 5-0 by City at the Etihad Stadium. Much of the post-match discourse centred on Mane’s first-half red card for a high challenge on goalkeeper Ederson. Still, ultimately Klopp was more concerned by the ease with which his team had been dismantled by a City side who, after that challenging first season under Guardiola, were now threatening to sweep all before them.

For the opening goal on 24 minutes, De Bruyne showed typical vision and grace in assisting Aguero, but Liverpool’s defending left Klopp apoplectic. “It was so easy to defend!” he told reporters afterwards. “Push up!”

Liverpool’s trajectory had been upward in their first two years under Klopp, but the problem was that City were now going stratospheric with Guardiola. After 20 Premier League games in 2017-18, City had won 19 and drawn one, scoring 61 goals in the process. How do you even compete with that?

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By contrast, Liverpool seemed to have reached a plateau in late 2017: thrillingly incisive going forward but so brittle at the back, losing 5-0 at City, 4-1 at Tottenham, squandering winning positions to draw 3-3 away to Sevilla (from 3-0 up) and Arsenal (from 2-0 up). It is why eyebrows were raised when Klopp claimed, after that 5-0 defeat, that “everyone can see we are not 500 miles away” from a City who were already out of sight in the Premier League.

City celebrating during their win over Liverpool in the 2017-18 season (Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Doubts about Liverpool’s direction under Klopp grew when they sold Coutinho, arguably their most influential player at the time, to Barcelona in January 2018. But that deal enabled Klopp to recalibrate his team with the acquisition of Virgil van Dijk from Southampton for £75million, a world record fee for a defender, a valuation which even City baulked at.

Suddenly, Liverpool had the stability, authority and confidence to commit players forward without the constant fear of being hit on the counter-attack. Alongside Van Dijk, everyone, not least Trent Alexander-Arnold, Robertson and Matip, looked more self-assured.

Van Dijk was actually missing through injury on the day Liverpool ended City’s unbeaten Premier League record later that January. Three goals in nine second-half minutes put them 4-1 up at Anfield even though City made them sweat by pulling two goals back in the closing stages. Klopp, grinning from ear to ear, dropped an F-bomb in a live post-match interview with US broadcaster NBC.

Just like City’s 5-0 win in the reverse fixture the previous September, it was a landmark victory. And it planted seeds of worry in Guardiola’s mind. In the build-up to the two rivals’ clash in the Champions League quarter-finals three months later, the Amazon Prime cameras caught the City manager telling his assistants that “those three up front” — Salah, Mane and Firmino — “they scare me, they’re dangerous”.

He was right. All three scored in a breathless first leg at Anfield and Liverpool won 5-1 on aggregate — even if Guardiola was entitled to suggest the scoreline did not reflect the reality of the second leg, in particular.

Liverpool ended the season empty-handed once more, fourth in the Premier League and beaten by Real Madrid in the Champions League final, but it was now increasingly clear they were the only real threat to City’s growing domination under Guardiola.

How best to quantify the difference between City and Liverpool in the 2018-19 season, when they produced a Premier League title race like no other?

You could say that City won it by a point, or you could recall the image of the goal-decision system saying that the ball came within 11 millimetres of crossing the line before Stones, at full stretch, produced a remarkable clearance to deny Mane when the sides met at the Etihad on January 3.

Image: Sky Sports

Liverpool, further reinforced by the signings of Alisson and Fabinho, had been unbeaten for their first 20 Premier League matches, but City proved just too strong that Thursday night, winning 2-1 to reduce the deficit at the top of the table from seven points to four.

It was Liverpool’s only defeat of the entire league campaign, but, up against such flawless opponents, it proved one too many.

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In terms of technical quality and breathless drama, it is debatable whether there has been a better game in the Premier League era.

If that meeting in March 2017 had offered hints of what was to follow, here were two teams who now perfectly reflected the vision and coaching identity of the respective managers. Both had artistry and creativity in abundance, but it was the relentlessness of Fernandinho and Bernardo Silva in the City midfield — as well as that Stones clearance and Leroy Sane’s winning goal with 20 minutes to go — that proved the difference.

“I don’t remember a league so tough,” Guardiola said afterwards. “There are so many huge contenders fighting for the title. Every game is a final.”

The reality is that City and Liverpool were streets ahead of the rest. We kept imagining there would be more twists and turns, that both teams would drop points along the way, but they didn’t. Liverpool won their final nine games and recorded a total of 97 points, but City just kept on winning — 18 of their final 19 matches after a Boxing Day loss to Leicester — and ended with 98, securing a second consecutive league title by beating Brighton 4-1 away on the final day.

Liverpool, still chasing their first trophy under Klopp, had to settle for winning the Champions League final three weeks later.

Not a bad consolation.

In the breathless hours after the victory over Tottenham in the Champions League final in Madrid, Klopp was ushered this way and that, going from one television interview to another. At one point, between interviews, a phone was thrust into his hand by Liverpool’s physio Lee Nobes, who had previously worked at City.

It was Guardiola, calling to offer congratulations. It was a brief conversation, but a very warm one. “We promised each other that we will kick each other’s butts again next season,” Klopp said. “We will go for everything and see what we get.”

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To say Liverpool went for it in 2019-20 is an understatement.

His was a team on a mission, winning 26 of their first 27 Premier League matches, including a memorable 3-1 victory over City at Anfield in the November, and drawing the other. City, after two near-impeccable campaigns, suffered a couple of unexpected defeats early on and looked tired and jaded, as well as short of bodies in central defence, as Liverpool surged away into the distance.

Nothing was going to stand between Liverpool and that first league title for 30 years. The only real threat came from the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused football to be suspended for three months and led to calls for the season to be declared null and void. When the games began again in June, it was behind closed doors, the stadiums empty.

The eventual celebrations, when Jordan Henderson lifted the Premier League trophy surrounded by his team-mates on an otherwise deserted Kop at Anfield, lacked anything like the expected fervour.

Liverpool celebrate winning the title (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

So did the season that followed, a campaign played out almost entirely in the shadow of the pandemic.

For the first time since the summer of 2018, questions were being asked of Guardiola, who had begun to look a little drained by the challenge of keeping City at the top. Questions were certainly asked of his defence and whether, for all the money they had spent, they had players who could fill the void left by the summer departures of Vincent Kompany and David Silva and by the lessening impact of Fernandinho and Aguero.

The answer, in the end, was a resounding yes.

Ruben Dias proved to be City’s new defensive linchpin. Rodri emerged as Fernandinho’s successor in midfield. Phil Foden began to develop into a top-class creative talent in the David Silva mould, albeit deployed a little further forward. As for a top-class centre-forward to take over from Aguero, Guardiola found ways for his team to function successfully without one.

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City made it three titles in four years, and if their winning points total (86) was considerably lower — perhaps reflecting the struggle to maintain the same levels of intensity in such strange conditions — it was still 12 points more than second-placed Manchester United.

Liverpool were another five points back in third, relieved to salvage Champions League qualification from a campaign that had been in apparent meltdown a couple of months earlier.

At the end of that season, Guardiola applauded the spirit and mental strength of his champions — a vastly underrated trait of his team of many talents — in retaining their focus while all their rivals lost their way at one time or another.

Come 2021-22, he was sure their biggest rivals would push them harder.

Even after a late rally in 2020-21, it was far from clear whether Liverpool would fully recover from the series of setbacks they had suffered — whether Van Dijk would return to his imperious best after a long-term ACL injury and whether, with Salah and Mane among so many players approaching or beyond their 30th birthdays, this team would regain the mental and physical intensity they had demonstrated in pursuit of the league title that had been an obsession.

They still seemed heavily reliant on that core of players signed between 2016 and 2018 — Mane, Salah, Robertson, Van Dijk, Alisson, Fabinho — as well as Alexander-Arnold. Had the club’s American owners invested enough to build on their breakthrough under Klopp? Had enough been done to stop this team from falling into decline?

Liverpool’s response in 2021-22 was emphatic. Players such as Diogo Jota, Thiago Alcantara, Ibrahima Konate and Luis Diaz brought fresh quality and vigour to Klopp’s squad. Going into the final months of the campaign, with the Carabao Cup already secured, Liverpool were still competing on another three fronts and dreaming of an unprecedented quadruple.

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But … just as they had been a near-constant threat to City — “a pain in the ass”, to repeat Guardiola’s description — so the reverse applies. With interest.

Liverpool lost just two Premier League games all season, winning 15 and drawing two of their final 17 matches, breaking the 90-point barrier for a third time in four years. But they needed City to slip up. And despite the odd wobble, it wasn’t happening.

Guardiola and Klopp after the draw at Anfield in October 2021 (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

A pulsating 2-2 draw at Anfield in October 2021, featuring dazzling contributions from Salah and De Bruyne, had set the tone for the season.

When the teams met again at the Etihad in Manchester six months later, they drew 2-2 again, keeping City one point ahead. “Two heavyweights, chomping at each other,” Klopp said afterwards. “It’s crazy, the intensity. A completely different level.”

Once again it came down to the final game of the season. Liverpool, by now having added the FA Cup, needed to beat Wolverhampton Wanderers and hope for Aston Villa to get something against City at the Etihad.

Astonishingly, Villa were 2-0 up in Manchester with 15 minutes to go. But City turned it around with three goals in an extraordinary five-minute spell: Gundogan, Rodri and Gundogan again. City were champions once more.

Guardiola was in tears at the final whistle, overcome by the emotion of another title race in which again there had been so little margin for error.

“The magnitude of the achievement,” he said afterwards, “is related to the magnitude of this rival. In your rival, I never see a team like Liverpool in my life.”

Klopp responded in kind, saying Liverpool had “chased the best team in the world to the wire”.

“We’ll build a team and go again,” he added. But that would prove easier said than done.

By the time City went to Anfield in October 2022, the landscape had changed. Liverpool had won just two of their first eight Premier League matches. A team that had been defined by energy and cohesion looked short on both, having failed to address the need for new energy in midfield. For Fabinho, Henderson, Milner and others, it was a season too far.

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City, meanwhile, were marching on, beaten just once in 37 Premier League matches dating back to the previous October. After playing without a specialist centre-forward for long spells over the previous two title-winning seasons, they now had the formidable, insatiable Erling Haaland to lead the line.

Liverpool won that game 1-0 with a defiant performance and a Salah goal, but it was one of a few false dawns in a wretched campaign — and a rare blemish for City.

When the two teams met again in April, City won 4-1 and, if anything, the gulf between the teams looked wider than that. Liverpool ended the season fifth. City not only finished as Premier League champions and FA Cup winners again but as European champions at last, emulating Manchester United’s treble feat of 1999. City had successfully rebuilt and were scaling new heights. Klopp and Liverpool had serious work to do.

Klopp has been known to overplay the underdog card, portraying his club as Rocky Balboa to City’s Victor Drago. It isn’t easy to make that comparison when you have broken the world transfer record for a goalkeeper (Alisson) and a central defender (Van Dijk), spent £60million-plus on Darwin Nunez and Dominik Szoboszlai and made a British record £110million bid to sign Moises Caicedo (only for the Ecuador midfielder to choose Chelsea).

But there has been a significant difference in transfer and wage budget over the period. City have spent £50million-plus on 14 different players (even if the signings of De Bruyne and Sterling preceded Guardiola’s arrival), Liverpool just five.

Even if nobody discusses it publicly, it remains a bone of contention among Liverpool and some of their rivals that City’s growth into a sporting superpower over the past 15 years has been fuelled by financial arrangements which the Premier League have referred to an independent regulatory commission.

Klopp has at times raised a deeply held grievance about City’s ownership and financial model. He also said in 2020 it was “not a good day for football” when City, on appeal, overturned a Champions League ban for breaching UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations.

Klopp and Guardiola in November 2024 (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

But he has also made clear his enormous admiration for his opposite number. Whatever his feelings about the European champions’ ownership or finances, he recognises that if football was purely about spending power, Manchester United and Chelsea would have joined City and left Liverpool trailing in their wake over recent years.

“I know I am quite good at what I do,” Klopp said at his pre-match news conference on Friday. “I know I am not bad but he is the best. In my lifetime he is the outstanding manager.”

For much of last season, it looked as if Klopp and Liverpool had given up the chase and passed the baton on to Arteta and Arsenal.

It looked as if, after a sharp decline, the challenge at Anfield this term would be simply to regroup and re-emerge after a midfield rebuild that centred on Szoboszlai and Alexis Mac Allister before moving on to Wataru Endo and Ryan Gravenberch.

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Starting the season with an unconvincing 1-1 draw at Chelsea, Liverpool looked rather uncooked. But this is a team and a regime that has thrived on energy, belief and momentum. By the time they travelled to the Etihad to face City again in late November, they had it back.

It was an interesting game rather than a classic. City went 1-0 up through Haaland, had the better chances and were harshly denied a second goal when Manuel Akanji was deemed to have fouled Alisson before Dias put the ball in the net. But Liverpool hung on and equalised late on through Alexander-Arnold. Arsenal ended the day top of the table, but Klopp’s team were also more optimistic about the prospect of a title challenge.

That optimism has carried on through the winter months — seemingly intensified rather than diluted by Klopp’s announcement. Even if at times this team has looked a little too makeshift, whether due to unfamiliar combinations in midfield or an injury crisis in recent weeks, Liverpool have kept winning.

The question, as with Arsenal last season, is whether they have what it takes to last the course.

There is still a widespread feeling that City, like a year ago, are just waiting to hit their stride and surge to the front in the belief that they have the quality, know-how and durability to stay there. City’s next two games, at Liverpool on Sunday and at home to Arsenal on March 31, will tell us an awful lot about all three teams.

But whatever twists and turns await in this title race, they will not alter what is already clear about Guardiola, Klopp and this era in the Premier League.

To put it in context, when Manchester United won five out of six Premier League titles between 1995-96 and 2000-01, their winning points totals were 82, 75, 79, 91 and 80, an average of 81.4 points. When City won five out of six between 2017-18 and last season, their winning points totals were 100, 98, 86, 93 and 89, an average of 93.2 points.

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City have claimed 609 points over that period, an average of 2.39 points per game. It is the equivalent of a 90-plus point campaign, sustained over a period that is now approaching seven years.

For much of that period, Liverpool matched them almost stride for stride. Between the start of the 2018-19 season and the end of 2021-22, they claimed 357 points from 152 games. That is a level of consistency that was unprecedented in English football history … except that City won 358 points over the same period and beat them to three Premier League titles out of four.

When Guardiola said in March 2022 that Liverpool are the toughest opponents he has faced in his career, Klopp said he was inclined to agree. “We pushed each other onto insane levels in the last few years,” the German said.

“Insane levels” is a good way of putting it. And it leaves you wondering just how much easier life could have been for either of these teams if the other had just settled for the dysfunction and mediocrity that has taken hold of United, Juventus and various other big clubs over recent years. But then again, it might just be the case that, like Ali and Frazier, like Senna and Prost, like Messi and Ronaldo, City and Liverpool have found themselves driven on by the excellence of their rival.

Klopp said on Friday that Guardiola had made him a better manager. Guardiola has said similar in the past. Both have said the challenge is invigorating. There must have been times when it has been exhausting too. For the rest of us, it has rarely been less than thrilling.

(Top image: Paul Ellis/AFP, James Gill – Danehouse via Getty Images)

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Before joining The Athletic as a senior writer in 2019, Oliver Kay spent 19 years working for The Times, the last ten of them as chief football correspondent. He is the author of the award-winning book Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius. Follow Oliver on Twitter @OliverKay

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