Liverpool vs Manchester City: This is what a Premier League classic looks like – The Athletic

By Oliver KayMar 11, 2024

Jurgen Klopp summed it up perfectly: “What a game, what an atmosphere, what an afternoon.”

Even his wife enjoyed it. “She was completely buzzing,” the Liverpool manager said — and just about everyone inside Anfield must have felt the same.

It ended with the points shared: Liverpool 1-1 Manchester City. In that respect, perhaps the biggest beneficiaries were Arsenal, who remain top of the Premier League with 10 games left, ahead of Liverpool on goal difference. But it was one of those afternoons when it feels legitimate rather than trite to suggest football was the winner — another epic battle between these two teams who, in terms of speed and imagination, can give you the feeling you are watching 4D chess.


How do you even begin to choose a man of the match for a game like that? Sky Sports went for Liverpool captain Virgil van Dijk. Users on the Premier League app went for his team-mate Alexis Mac Allister. Both are sensible suggestions but you could equally make a case for Harvey Elliott, Luis Diaz, Wataru Endo, Kyle Walker or John Stones. Rodri and Kevin De Bruyne ran the show for City for much of the first half, even if they were knocked out of their stride in the second. Jeremy Doku’s exhilarating cameo almost turned the game back in City’s favour.

A high-quality game, it was suggested to Klopp afterwards. “The highest,” he grinned — and while some of us might still feel that pulsating encounter at the Etihad Stadium in January 2019 represented the apex of this rivalry, the final Premier League encounter of the Guardiola-Klopp era didn’t just live up to expectations. It surpassed them.


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

There was a time when the big clashes in the Premier League rarely lived up to the hype: so many cautious, cagey encounters, when one team or both would set up to defend and suck the life out of the game. Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez brought a degree of tactical discipline and organisation that defined the Premier League in the late 2000s, and which Sir Alex Ferguson came to emulate, particularly in European competition, but it was not always box-office stuff — in the press conference, perhaps, but not on the pitch.

The former Real Madrid and Argentina forward Jorge Valdano, one of the game’s great romantics, famously likened the succession of Liverpool-Chelsea matches in the Champions League to “s*** hanging from a stick”. “Put a s*** hanging from a stick in the middle of this passionate, crazy stadium (Anfield),” he said, “and there are people who will tell you it’s a work of art. It’s not: it’s a s*** hanging from a stick.”


The Chelsea and Liverpool teams of the mid-2000s, he said, were the “clearest, most exaggerated examples of the way football is going: very intense, very collective, very tactical, very physical and very direct. But a short pass? Noooo? A feint. Noooo. A change of pace? Noooo. A one-two? A nutmeg? A backheel. Don’t be ridiculous. None of that. The extreme control and seriousness with which both teams played the (2007 Champions League) semi-final neutralised any creative licence, any moments of exquisite skill.”

Bernardo Silva emerges victorious from a 50-50 with Darwin Nunez (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Granted there is a subjectivity to this debate. Some people find Guardiola’s City team too serious, too controlled, too clinical — too perfect, even. There is certainly a “very intense, very collective, very tactical” element to their play, as with Liverpool. But there is also wonderful skill, imagination, improvisation and finesse. Some of the touches De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden took in the first half in particular had the home crowd gasping and squirming in appreciation.

For a time, it looked like a mismatch. Rodri and Bernardo were dominating, with Stones switching effortlessly from the back four to the midfield and back again. Foden had picked up where he left off against Manchester United a week earlier. The performances of Walker, Manuel Akanji and Nathan Ake in defence suggested that Guardiola’s big call — leaving out Ruben Dias — was the right one.

Liverpool seemed to be there for the taking, depleted by injuries and fielding the type of line-up which, if you had seen it in September or October, you might have assumed was for an awkward fixture away from home in the Carabao Cup or Europa League: Van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Endo, Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai, Diaz and Darwin Nunez bringing a degree of experience alongside Caoimhin Kelleher, Conor Bradley, Jarell Quansah and Elliott.

Bernardo, Foden and De Bruyne kept appearing in pockets of space that Liverpool had failed to close down. Erling Haaland was largely kept quiet by Van Dijk and the admirable Quansah, but you had the feeling that a goal was coming — even if the nature of their breakthrough, a clever corner kick from De Bruyne squeezed in at the near post by Stones on 25 minutes, was almost disappointingly prosaic.

Mac Allister scores Liverpool’s equaliser from the spot (Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

At that point, it felt like Liverpool were there for the taking. They were going to have to take risks and they were going to have to disrupt City’s rhythm, which to that point, they had shown little sign of doing.

Klopp’s team gradually grew into the game as half-time approached. There were moments of quality; enough to give Liverpool some hope but not enough to shake the conviction that this looked like being City’s day. There was an enthralling duel between Haaland and Van Dijk in first-half stoppage time, irresistible force taking on immovable object. Haaland got his shot away but it was to prove a rare opening on an afternoon when the City forward was successfully kept in check.


Guardiola spoke afterwards about how he had told his players at half-time that “in this stadium, if you have to defend something, you have to play and play and play” but two minutes after the restart, Ake sold Ederson short with a back pass, Nunez intercepted, Ederson clattered him and referee Michael Oliver awarded a penalty, which Mac Allister converted to equalise.

“And sooner or later, with this stadium,” Guardiola said, “you have 15 or 20 minutes where (Liverpool) looks like a tsunami, coming for everybody who has the ball.”

Klopp and Guardiola on the touchline (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

They did. For the next half-hour or so, Liverpool were like a team possessed. Klopp said it was the best his team had ever played against City. That is not an easy assertion when you consider the way they blew City away twice at Anfield in early 2018 or the FA Cup semi-final in 2022, but he pointed out that on those occasions, they played quite direct and scored with speculative shots from distance. The second half here, he said, was a more controlled, more dominant performance than they had ever produced before.

The names on the Liverpool teamsheet were nothing like as frightening as Guardiola once described, but this Liverpool team suddenly had the Premier League and European champions up against the ropes. Did Endo really spent the previous few years scrapping to avoid relegation from the Bundesliga with Stuttgart? Did Quansah and Bradley really spend last season on loan at Bristol Rovers and Bolton Wanderers in League One rather than in some kind of cloning laboratory? Is this “Kelleher” lad not just Alisson wearing a mask and a blond wig?

There were so many thrilling moments in that second half. It was breathless stuff and it was perhaps embodied by the contribution of Diaz. There are times when, like Nunez, he looks unrefined, a little too rough around the edges, a little too rushed. He lacked composure in front of goal. But he is also electrifying.

Klopp couldn’t help laughing as he recalled the Colombia winger picking up the ball deep in Liverpool territory and getting away from Walker and Rodri not once — no mean feat — but twice and three times before reaching the byline to cross it. “I don’t know if this will ever happen again,” Klopp said. “Someone has the ball and you have Rodri and Kyle Walker chasing you, and you come away with the ball.”

Premier League table

Position Team Games played Goal difference Points
1 Arsenal 28 46 64
2 Liverpool 28 39 64
3 Manchester City 28 35 63
4 Aston Villa 28 18 55
5 Tottenham Hotspur 27 20 53
6 Manchester United 28 0 47
7 West Ham United 28 -4 43
8 Brighton & Hove Albion 28 6 42
9 Wolverhampton Wanderers 28 -2 41
10 Newcastle United 27 12 40
11 Chelsea 26 1 36
12 Fulham 28 -4 35
13 Bournemouth 27 -12 32
14 Crystal Palace 28 -15 29
15 Brentford 28 -12 26
16 Everton 28 -10 25*
17 Nottingham Forest 28 -16 24
18 Luton Town 27 -17 21
19 Burnley 28 -35 14
20 Sheffield United 28 -50 14
*Deducted six points

Neither team wanted to settle for a draw — again such a contrast with that Mourinho/Benitez era. As well as Doku hitting the post on 89 minutes, there was Cody Gakpo hitting the City crossbar in stoppage time and Elliott lashing the loose ball into the empty net, albeit with the offside flag up. City were trying to take the sting out of the game but they weren’t being allowed to. Liverpool’s players and their supporters wanted blood.


They almost got the victory. Doku raised his foot and caught Mac Allister in the penalty area deep into stoppage time and, although referee Oliver dismissed Liverpool’s appeals, the length of time taken over the VAR check suggested there might be a twist in the tale. Eventually, the word came back from Stockley Park: no penalty.

Doku’s challenge on Mac Allister provided late drama (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

Klopp did well to keep his emotions in check, saying that “the only thing I can think is that if he (Oliver) whistles a penalty, it would not have been a scandal” and then wondering aloud what VAR Stuart Attwell “must have for lunch” to think it was not a foul.

At the end, there were boos from the home crowd, frustrated that the penalty appeal had fallen on deaf ears. But frustration quickly gave way to resounding applause from both sets of supporters as Klopp and Guardiola embraced on the touchline and congratulated each other on one last thrilling encounter in the Premier League — “a game that defined where both clubs have been for many years,” the City manager said.

“Incredible,” Klopp added. “Massive hearts, sensational atmosphere, one point, let’s keep going.”

(Top photo: Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC/Liverpool FC 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