A performance of champions – by the team that has just lost that status.
What it did reflect was a grander debate regarding these teams: who, at their absolute peak, is actually better? There clearly isn’t much in it.
The millimetres of goalline that ultimately separated them in this very fixture last year were probably a truer illustration of the actual difference than the points gap in this season’s league, or the scoreline on Thursday.
Worthy and emphatic champions as Liverpool are, after all, you can’t bring this escalating rivalry down to single seasons or games. We could even have a second successive campaign where one of them is the English champion and the other the European champion, with the potential manner they exchange places further displaying their excellence.
One of the reasons that Liverpool finally secured the domestic title, and in such a fashion, was because City weren’t close to their best often enough. There were too many off-days.
There were still a number games, however, when City showed they’re every bit as good when they actually perform. This was one of them.
It was not just about the force or intensity of it, either. It was as if City wanted to showcase what is so good about their philosophy, too; that Jurgen Klopp’s approach isn’t superior, or more modern.
The second and third goals screamed this. They were flowing and smooth moves of the manner Guardiola would idealise and surely purr over – when he wasn’t castigating Benjamin Mendy for trying a nutmeg on Sadio Mane.
Raheem Sterling did put the ball through Joe Gomez’s goals for the second goal, efficiently finishing a fine move. It also added to the edge between the two, after their infamous incident with England, and the penalty claim for Kevin De Bruyne’s first.
The third goal meanwhile involved all of the glorious intricacy of Guardiola’s best teams, a divine interchange at the edge of the box for De Bruyne to release Phil Foden and the young English attacker to finish explosively. It was too fast for Liverpool to handle. That is another element to this illustrious rivalry.
While their fundamental philosophies are from different tactical ideas, it is by now clear both managers have taken something from the other. Klopp has clearly added more possession and control to his team, which is almost personified by Virgil van Dijk. He’s added a composure that runs through the side, and has been seen in games over the past two years where they’ve had to be more patient. There was even a little of it on show here, in some of the early chances that Liverpool did have.
Guardiola has meanwhile added a greater directness to his teams from his time in Germany, where Klopp’s counter-pressing Borussia Dortmund was so influential.
Some of the coaching manuals call it “verticality”. You couldn’t have a better example of this than Foden’s own run and assist for the second goal.
As to what’s actually better, that is really about subjective preference. City’s football is for those who prefer the smoothly technical. Liverpool’s is for those who prefer the raucously exciting. Guardiola’s, to borrow a phrase from mathematics, is bound by the parameters of perfection. Klopp’s is always about pushing parameters, breaking limits.
The truly important point is that both represent the peak of the modern game, the dichotomy that dominates that, that has moved on from the old dialectics of attack vs defence. Both are fundamentally forward-thinking. You only have to look at Jose Mourinho’s dismal defeat earlier in the day to see how that more defensive football has fallen away.
These two teams are the present, and the future. Liverpool showed that all season. City showed that on the day. They now need to show it again in August, to really prove the point.
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