Manchester City won the title race but Liverpool made it great.
Without Jurgen Klopp’s side the Premier League would be Ligue 1, a championship entirely dominated by a behemoth overpowering all opposition through financial might.
The football authorities owe Liverpool a debt of gratitude for making the Premier League look more open than it actually is. But all the Sky Sports PR guff about the greatest league in the world can’t disguise the fact that this race never includes more than two horses – 18 points separated second and third place this season. Four years ago when City also pipped Liverpool, that gap was 25 points.
More often, there’s just one contender. Last season City had 12 points to spare at the top. Liverpool finished 18 points ahead of the runners-up in 2019-’20, City were 19 clear of the second-placed side at the end of the 2017-’18 season.
This term’s title race may have been ferociously competitive but the league in which it takes place is not. Aston Villa put in a gallant effort yesterday but the bottom line is that when City got their act together they rattled in three goals in five minutes to win game and title.
There was a certain inevitability about it. In the end Liverpool too got the goals they needed against Wolves. They were always going to.
Predictions that Liverpool’s failure to beat City at the Etihad six weeks ago essentially doomed their title challenge turned out to be correct. It was easy to imagine the champions maintaining their two-point lead by winning all eight remaining games.
They slipped up once, drawing with West Ham. So did Liverpool when they were held by Spurs. Otherwise both teams swept aside the opposition. It was to be expected. Out of 76 games, they lost just five between them.
That’s in stark contrast with other famous down-to-the-wire title races. Ten years ago Manchester City and Manchester United had lost 10 games between them before Sergio Aguero settled the contest at the death. Back in 1989 Arsenal and Liverpool shared 12 defeats before Michael Thomas did likewise. Those were contests with real twists and turns.
The big two’s dominance reflects a common trend in Europe’s major leagues. Paris Saint-Germain won Ligue 1 by 15 points this season and Real Madrid La Liga by 13. Bayern Munich took a 10th Bundesliga on the trot.
Liverpool prevented this season’s Premier League from following the Spanish or French model as they have prevented City from enjoying Bayern-style absolute rule. But this makes four titles in five years for Pep Guardiola’s team and more will follow.
Carelessness left City without a top-class striker for the last two seasons. Their big signing this season was Jack Grealish whose presence on the bench yesterday confirmed his status as the world’s most expensive luxury player. Erling Haaland will be a much more substantial addition and add to City’s advantage over their rivals.
The big-money additions will continue as everyone else suffers further collateral damage from their quest for the elusive Champions League crown.
Klopp’s achievement in running them close with a weaker squad is a miracle of management but can’t be sustained for much longer. By the start of next season Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Jordan Henderson, Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip, Thiago, Alisson and Roberto Firmino will all have turned 30 while Andy Robertson and Fabinho will be 29. Klopp’s great side is nearing its end.
City’s key men are largely younger but that matters less than the club’s ability to replace departed stars with high-quality replacements at will. Liverpool’s effort this season was colossal but if winning 15 out of your last 18 league games and drawing the other three isn’t enough to take the title, it’s hard to see what will be.
Yet with Chelsea and Manchester United heading for a period of transition and Antonio Conte probably heading for Paris, Klopp’s side should be the champions’ closest rivals again next season. They just won’t be as close as they were this term.
City should be grateful to Liverpool because without the challenge offered by the Reds their title triumph would seem an oddly bloodless and clinical achievement.
Guardiola, with typical good grace, has complained that everyone else wanted Liverpool to beat City.
The differing reactions of both sets of fans when their teams struggled in the second half showed why this is so. Anfield was a seething cauldron of anxious excitement with supporters trying to lift their team over the line by force of will.
The prevailing note at the Etihad, on the other hand, was a kind of sulky disbelief. “Why is this happening? We didn’t pay for this kind of thing.” The contest between City and Liverpool is a contest between the synthetic and the organic. And we live in a synthetic age.
As the match neared the end of injury-time, Guardiola stalked along the sideline as if about to take the ball and go home with it.
Frantically, he managed to browbeat a weak referee into ending the game when an injury to Ederson meant there was probably another minute and a half left to play.
Villa would hardly have scored during those 90 seconds but, like his employers, Guardiola doesn’t believe in leaving things to chance.
It was a fitting sign-off for a classless man in charge of a classless club run by classless people.
City are the perfect champions for the neo-liberal era, true believers in the creed that money makes its own morality. They are football’s Facebook, its Twitter, its Airbnb, its Amazon, its one-per-centers. But they’re not Liverpool and they never will be.
Only the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Sovereign Wealth Fund and Newcastle United can save The People’s Game now.