Of all the numbers crunched and presented in the week since Liverpool clinched the title, nothing speaks louder than points to demonstrate their sheer dominance of the Premier League this season.
With seven matches still to go, Liverpool are a huge 23 points clear of their nearest rivals Manchester City, who they face at the Etihad Stadium tonight. A win will send them 26 points clear, and while that will be no easy feat against a team who called themselves champions for two years until last week, it is far from beyond the realms of possibility for a side who have won an incredible 28 of 31 matches this season.
When City won their first title under Pep Guardiola two years ago with a record 100 points – a record Liverpool have well within their grasp – Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool finished 25 points behind in fourth place. That means that if Liverpool do win tonight, there will have been a 51-point swing between the clubs in just two years.
Jurgen Klopp (left) embraces Pep Guardiola after Liverpool beat Manchester City in November
That is a quite astonishing achievement from Klopp, up against a man who many believe to be the greatest manager ever. Even after this season, Guardiola will have won eight league titles in 11 seasons as a manager – and he has been able to mould this current City team – and club – entirely as he wants to.
So how on earth has Klopp done it? How has he got one over Guardiola? Well, to understand this season, we have to go back several seasons. As ever, there is a bigger picture at play and this is not simply a freak occurrence.
Klopp’s first Liverpool title has been nearly five years in the making. He succeeded Brendan Rodgers in October 2015 and though he instantly won over Reds fans, the objective jury was still well and truly out when they finished eighth at the end of the 2015-16 season. While the damage to Liverpool’s season was already done before Klopp arrived, the way things ended with him at Dortmund did not bode well.
After winning two consecutive titles in 2011 and 2012, dominance by a Bayern Munich side managed by a certain Pep Guardiola ground Klopp down and Dortmund found themselves inexplicably in a relegation battle for much of his final season. Though they rallied to finish seventh, he was 33 points behind Guardiola, having finished 19 points behind him in second place the season before. Klopp could be forgiven then for cursing his luck when four months after joining Liverpool, Guardiola announced he would be moving to City for the start of the 2016-17 season.
The two managers exchange a word ahead of a Bayern v Dormtund clash in April 2014
Guardiola’s first season at City did not go as planned, however, as they finished third in the table on 78 points, two clear of Klopp’s Liverpool in fourth as Chelsea pipped Tottenham to the title. So at this stage three years ago, both managers found themselves facing similar challenges. They had established styles that were the easiest on the eye in the Premier League, but both City and Liverpool lacked defensive solidity, conceding 39 and 42 goals respectively and losing six games apiece.
It was then that City embarked on their record-breaking season, with the signing of Ederson proving a masterstroke as the goalkeeper position went from being Guardiola’s Achilles heel, with Claudio Bravo, to his strength, with the Brazilian. It was also during that season Klopp faced his sink-or-swim moment, in the face of a challenge from another ridiculously good Guardiola side.
With Mo Salah enjoying a record-breaking debut campaign alongside Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, Klopp could see he had a front three capable of matching City. It was elsewhere they were floundering though. Loris Karius was Liverpool’s answer to Bravo, they desperately needed a Vincent Kompany-like leader in the centre of defence and City’s midfield was a clear rung above Liverpool’s.
Knowing he needed to act or risk going backwards as City dominated, Klopp convinced the board to splash out £75million on Southampton centre-back Virgil van Dijk midway through 2017-18, and when yet another Karius error cost them the 2018 Champions League final, Liverpool went and bought their own world-class Brazilian keeper in Alisson from Roma for £67m. Fabinho was added for £39m to strengthen the midfield and suddenly Klopp had a team he felt could compete with Guardiola’s.
Guardiola with the Premier League title in 2018 – when City amassed 100 points
Klopp looks dejected after Liverpool are beaten in the 2018 Champions League final
He would be proved right as Liverpool led from the front last season and were only pipped to the title by City by a point in the greatest title race the Premier League has seen in terms of quality. Liverpool’s 97 points is the third-highest Premier League tally ever, yet it still wasn’t enough to topple Pep.
But then Guardiola made his fatal mistake. After captain Vincent Kompany – who hit the goal that effectively won the title against Leicester last season – announced his retirement, City opted not to sign a replacement. Pep’s reasoning was that there was no one good enough out there to come in to his squad and that the brilliant Aymeric Laporte was capable of marshalling the defence alongside either John Stones or Nicolas Otamendi.
He may well have been proved right had Laporte not suffered a bad knee injury at the start of the season, but to not at least sign a player to compete with Stones and Otamendi now looks arrogant at best, foolish at worst. Pep instead has used Fernandinho regularly at centre-back this season, which has in turn added more pressure on Rodri to slot right in as a midfield pivot, when he could have probably done with a season as Fernandinho’s understudy.
Meanwhile, Klopp, buoyed by going one better in the Champions League last summer, kept his squad together and kept Liverpool’s momentum going. The main factor in how Klopp caught and overtook Pep, then, is recruitment. Compelled to spend big as City smashed records in 2018, Liverpool propelled themselves into contention with City, who slipped back last summer when Kompany retired and was not replaced.
Guardiola looks on as City are beaten at Chelsea last week – handing the title to Liverpool
Klopp has been driven to improve Liverpoool by Guardiola’s excellence
Also working in Klopp’s favour as he has succeeded in catching Guardiola has been his approach to the job. He has entirely immersed himself in Liverpool Football Club and has spoken of building a dynasty from day one.
While no one doubts Guardiola’s obsessive commitment to the cause day-to-day when he’s in a job, there is always the feeling that he is just passing through and this can affect squad harmony in the long-term. When quizzed on his long-term future Guardiola is always coy and he doesn’t hide his desire to retire young. It was thought this was going to be his last season but Guardiola insists he is committed to staying on, even if City’s European ban is upheld.
Perhaps it is the challenge which Klopp has now presented Guardiola that is inspiring him to stay on in the Premier League. And if City can win the Champions League this summer, that could give the manager and club the same momentum Liverpool have enjoyed from reaching two successive finals. They will surely finally replace Kompany now, as well as Bayern Munich-bound winger Leroy Sane, who has also been missed this season through injury.
It is Klopp that is now driving Guardiola to dig deeper and to reach new levels, just as Guardiola did to Klopp two years ago. The German has risen to the challenge this time, unlike when they were in the Bundesliga together. Still, in the six league seasons they have competed together, Guardiola has four titles to Klopp’s one.
In the last two years, Klopp and Guardiola have turned Jose Mourinho into an irrelevance, when it comes to the title race anyway, with their teams’ swashbuckling styles and us, the neutrals, are the beneficiaries. Long may it continue.