As if out of nowhere a title race appeared. Manchester City’s 12-point lead is reduced to six, meaning if Liverpool win their game in hand and if Liverpool win at the Etihad Stadium in April, the two clubs could be level on points.
City are still in a better position, especially since they haven’t lost a league game at home to Liverpool under Pep Guardiola. But what had begun to look like a procession has, quite unexpectedly, regained a sense of intrigue.
It’s an indication of how the dominant city had appeared that it seems surprising. Liverpool, after all, have won 11 of their last 14 Premier League matches. In any previous era, this would have been an obvious form of title. Drawing at Tottenham and Chelsea and losing by a single goal at Leicester should not be a swing from which there is no return.
It’s a wider concern: It’s always tempting for English football to congratulate itself because it hasn’t gone the way of many European leagues and has become a monopoly, but it’s still troubling whether winning the title means must collect at least 95 points. This is not a sign of a league that regularly offers healthy competition. That standards are partly thanks to the genius of Jürgen Klopp and Guardiola, but also to a broken financial structure.
More immediately, however, what is striking is that Liverpool were expected to falter in January and February as Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané made it to the Africa Cup of Nations – not just for the two league matches they would miss, but because there is always a risk after any tournament of an emotional hangover. That the pair faced each other in the final might have accentuated this; it took a lot of English players until the end of autumn to start to find their rhythm after the European championship. So far, however, there is no indication that either is suffering from any kind of reaction.
In that, it helps that the big three now have a backup. Diogo Jota had already given an extra option but Luis Díaz settled in remarkably quickly. Playing for Klopp seems complicated; it takes time for players to learn the pressing pattern and assimilate the patterns but, as Klopp said, Díaz looked like a Liverpool player from the moment he first stepped onto the pitch for them.
The famous front three have scored four goals between them in the last two games without all being on the pitch together at any time. Jordan Henderson and Thiago Alcântara also made significant contributions from the bench last week: it’s no wonder Klopp talks about this team as the greatest he’s had.
The danger for those hoping for a real title chase is that it becomes a two-team procession like 2018-19 was. Then, a run of four draws in six games from late January to early March was enough for Liverpool to cede their advantage to City; Liverpool have won their last nine league games of the season but could not overtake City as they won their last 14 games. It was all very impressive, a fine display of both ability and nerve, but it was also, for the neutral, rather lacking in drama. A big title run, like 1971-72 or 2011-12, demands fallibility.
City looked ruthless. The title race had seemed over less because it was inconceivable that Liverpool would go on a winning streak than because it seemed implausible that City would drop enough points to let them return. When a team wins 14 out of 16 games, it seems absurd to identify flaws, but perhaps in retrospect there were hints that they weren’t as impervious as they seemed.
Leicester, losing 6-3 to them, showed in the second half that City could still be vulnerable to counterattacks, that those balls played behind the defensive line that have always been a potential vulnerability could still cause problems. Spurs were ruthless in exploiting this in Saturday’s 3-2 win, largely because City struggled to deal with Harry Kane as he left the front line. He was a danger both with balls played on the turn to runners outside of him and with his late runs.
The attacking nature of City’s full-backs means the type of running from Son Heung-min that led to Tottenham’s first goal is still a potential danger, but where City have been able to neutralize is in the form of blocking Rodri space operated by Kane. in the spring Son. Kane, despite all the complaints that he should spend more time in the box, is exceptionally good at it. His relationship with Son is very close, but other parties can look at that, and the way James Maddison played against City, and see an opportunity.
We still need a step back. City still had best expected goals (xG) against Tottenham. It’s not since the loss to Brighton in the penultimate game of last season, when City’s attention had turned firmly to the Champions League, that City had a lower xG than of his opponents in a championship game. They remain an impressive force.
But there may finally be a glitch in their relentlessness and, if Liverpool maintain their outstanding form, there may still be some life left this season. At the very least, a neutral can hope there’s enough doubt that this April 9 game makes sense.