Chasing Manchester City has broken Liverpool - fixing the Reds will be Jurgen Klopp’s toughest task ever

Jurgen Klopp Liverpool 2022-23 HIC 16:9
The Reds have been the only ones to compete with Pep Guardiola's winning machine in recent years, but they've been left counting the cost

The clock may have said 11pm, the end of a long and tiring day of travel, but the mood in the passport queue at Liverpool John Lennon Airport was one of delight, happiness and celebration.

This was May 4, 2022, and a group of Liverpool supporters, returning bleary-eyed to Merseyside having attended their side’s Champions League semi-final win over Villarreal, had landed to the best news imaginable. 

Improbably and implausibly, Manchester City had managed to throw away an unassailable lead to lose to Real Madrid in the other semi. They would not be joining the Reds in the final. Pep Guardiola’s side had blown their big chance. Again.

“Straight to town, surely?” came the shout as news of City’s collapse in the Bernabeu spread through the queue. Outside, as Ubers and Delta taxis waited to collect, a chant began.

“We’ll be running round Paris with the cup…”

The point of this story is not to remind City fans of their misery, or to poke fun at those Liverpool supporters for their premature celebrations – Real, after all, would go on to beat Jurgen Klopp’s side in the final. 

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Rather, it is to reflect upon the nature of this most modern of rivalries, and the manner in which the two clubs’ fortunes have been so intrinsically intertwined over the past few years...

  1. Winning everything

    Winning everything

    For Liverpool to win, City must lose, and vice versa. That’s the way it has been as, for half a decade, these two sides have been the twin powers at the top of English football, thrilling us with their football, amazing us with their intensity, and setting new benchmarks in terms of consistency and points totals along the way.

    What they have achieved is quite remarkable. In the space of five seasons between August 2017 and May 2022, City and Liverpool hoovered up four Premier League titles, two FA Cups, five League Cups, a Champions League, a UEFA Super Cup and a Club World Cup title.

    At least one of them has been present in four of the past five Champions League finals, and the last five winners of both the PFA Player of the Year and the FWA Footballer of the Year awards have come either from the Etihad or from Anfield.

    That kind of domination has not been seen in England since Manchester United and Arsenal did battle at the turn of the Millennium, when Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, the latest inductees into the Premier League hall of fame, were at their brilliant and antagonistic best.

  2. A growing enmity

    A growing enmity

    Klopp and Guardiola’s rivalry, in fairness, has never quite descended into the kind of petty, tit-for-tat we saw during that Ferguson-Wenger era, although the off-field enmity between Liverpool and City has undoubtedly risen in recent years. 

    Last October’s meeting at Anfield, for example, was marred by complaints from both clubs about chanting, vandalism and coin-throwing.

    There were unsavoury incidents at the League Cup fourth-round tie at the Etihad in December, while Saturday’s latest Premier League clash will be played in front of a reduced away end, City having restricted Liverpool’s ticket allocation by 20 percent following discussions with Greater Manchester Police – a move which led Liverpool to complain to the Premier League.

    Steps have been taken to ease tensions – a joint statement was issued in the wake of that League Cup tie in December – but it is fair to say that there is little love lost between the clubs, particularly at executive level, and that is unlikely to change any time soon, particularly as City fight to clear their name having been accused in February of more than 100 breaches of the Premier League’s financial rules. 

    Liverpool, it is safe to assume, will be watching that case as closely as anybody. They, after all, are the ones who have pushed City hardest, the ones who have kept the league competitive as others have floundered.

    Since 2018, the Reds have scaled heights few would have even countenanced previously. That they have 'only' one league title to show for such outstanding efforts is painful enough, so imagine if it were to now be proven that they, and the rest of the division, were playing against a marked deck all along.

  3. Chasing perfection

    Chasing perfection

    It is fair to wonder whether City’s presence in recent years helped push Liverpool towards greatness, sharpening minds, narrowing focus and offering endless motivation.

    But what has become apparent this season, too, is the toll that chasing such a powerful enemy has taken, on Klopp, on his players and on his supporters. 

    Life on a tightrope can be exhilarating, but it is also exhausting, and right now Liverpool look like a club which has been worn down by the endless quest (and need) for perfection, by the demands of going after the most expensively-assembled and brilliantly-coached team this country has seen. 

    How can it not take something out of you, when you produce three 90+ point seasons and don’t win the title in two of them? When you lose three league matches across two seasons and end up with only a pair of runners-up spots?

    Liverpool ended a 30-year wait for a championship in 2020, and that will never be taken away, but their team, and their performances, over the last few years would have been good enough to secure a dominant era in years gone by.

    It seems harsh to say, given the things they've won, the football they've played and the memories they've created, but Klopp's side have deserved more, and they would have had it were it not for Guardiola and City.

    Certainly, Liverpool could hardly have done more last season, reaching three finals, collecting 92 points and losing only four of 63 matches across four competitions, and yet somehow it all finished with a sense of disappointment as City held on to their Premier League crown with a late, final-day fightback against Aston Villa and Real Madrid followed up with the old one-two in Paris. 

    A bus parade through the streets of Liverpool, a day after the Champions League final, brought some consolation and plenty of emotion, but it is easy to look at what has happened since and wonder whether some of Klopp's players knew, even then, that the summit may have been reached.

    City would go again, everyone knew that, but could Liverpool?

  4. Falling off
    Getty Images

    Falling off

    Despite a belief, and indeed an insistence from within, that Liverpool would pick themselves up and challenge once more, the after-effects of that bruising 2021-22 campaign have been there for all to see since.

    The Reds still have the same players and still try to do the same things with them. They still look to play the same way, but something has broken with Klopp’s side.

    The legs don’t move as quickly, the minds don’t work as fast, and the fear factor has gone, or at least been significantly diminished. Important players suddenly look their age, new ones are yet to reach the same levels of consistency as the old ones, and the general mood around the club is one of doom and gloom, when for so long it has been defiance, optimism and certainty.

    This season, Liverpool have lost eight league games, two more than they did in the 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2021-22 campaigns combined. Mohamed Salah has continued scoring, but the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip, Joe Gomez, Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson have seen their form dip significantly.

    Only goalkeeper Alisson Becker and teenage tyro Stefan Bajcetic, you would say, have really enhanced their reputation, although there is obvious promise in the attacking trio of Cody Gakpo, Luis Diaz and Darwin Nunez, all of whom have been recruited in the past 14 months.

  5. The biggest summer
    (C)Getty Images

    The biggest summer

    Turning the ship around, you’d have to say, is Klopp’s biggest challenge since he walked through the door at Anfield eight years ago. Liverpool’s decline this season, and the strengthening of their rivals (including City), means that this summer has become one of the most important in the club’s recent history. 

    Every signing needs to work out, and there needs to be a few of them. The midfield needs a complete overhaul and a new centre-back is a must. That, as Klopp has already admitted, will cost serious money and will require skilful scouting and recruitment, something which is by no means a given when you consider the club’s director of football, Julian Ward, is currently working his notice period.

    Liverpool, generally, have tended to shop in different stores to City when it comes to the transfer market, but they could find themselves in direct competition soon, with both clubs targeting Borussia Dortmund star Jude Bellingham, and both monitoring the ongoing situation with Barcelona whizzkid Gavi too.

    City and Liverpool were two of the top three clubs in Deloitte's Football Money League for 2023, with respective revenues of €731m (£645m/$798m) and €701.7m (£619m/$766m), but there has long been an acceptance that Liverpool simply cannot compete when it comes to transfer spending.

    The Reds' policy has been about working smart, raising money through selling well and making gains through excellent recruitment, but there are question marks now as to whether that approach can continue, or whether Fenway Sports Group, who are openly seeking fresh investment, will need to change tack.

    This summer, it seems, will tell us plenty.

  6. Back on the tightrope

    Back on the tightrope

    Were Liverpool to miss out on Champions League qualification, as looks a distinct possibility at this point, then that summer task becomes 10 times as difficult.

    How, for example, do you convince game-changers to commit to the Europa League or the Conference League?

    Manchester United and Arsenal have been able to do it in the past, and Chelsea spent big in January despite being even further away from the top four than Liverpool, but there are already whispers that Bellingham is leaning elsewhere, and certainly it is hard to imagine the Borussia Dortmund star not playing in the Champions League next season.

    With 12 games to go, though, Liverpool still have the chance to save their season and drag themselves into the top four. They’ve done it before, taking 26 points from the last 30 when all had looked lost in 2020-21, and they will need a similar effort this time.

    Their next three fixtures look decisive, “a proper football week,” according to Klopp. City away, Chelsea away, Arsenal at home. We’ll know where Liverpool stand after those, without doubt.

    Whatever happens, though, we should not expect Liverpool to give up. Not now, not ever, and certainly not under Klopp.

    Chasing City may have broken them once, but they'd do it all again in a heartbeat. And how they'd love to land a knockout punch at the Etihad this weekend, just for old times' sake.