They were so nearly perfect. But they had a flaw, and it still haunts them. Manchester City came as close as any team ever has to a perfect season, but their flaw made it clear that they were still vulnerable human beings like the rest of us. The name of that flaw was Liverpool. Now Manchester City must make the short trip to Anfield for a match that will go some way towards defining both their seasons.
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Liverpool finished fourth last season but, unbeaten in six league games at the start of the season, they are already seen as City’s main rival for the Premier League title. It would be an understatement to say that Manchester City won the title last season. They triumphed, setting a number of records while they were at it. Most points: 100. Most goals scored: 106. Most consecutive wins: 18. Most away wins: 16. Best positive goal difference: 79. Biggest gap to second place: 19. And there are probably a few more records I’ve left out.
But in the course of making all that history, Manchester City lost to Liverpool – three times. In one view, this failure, by humanising the heroes, makes their deeds more remarkable. But professional athletes don’t tend to see it that way; they will see only the stark failure.
City seemed to transform football into a kind of ballet: one based around speed and grace, with players who seemed incapable of surrendering possession, even for an instant. There would be long periods when this looked like pointless self-indulgence: and then their opponents would make a tiny miscalculation and, in a moment of bewildering speed, City would strike. Again.
Their style lacked the swashbuckling joy of the best Manchester United sides under Sir Alex Ferguson, looking more like a form of chess than the swing-on-the-chandeliers stuff you got from Fergie’s boys on the counterattack. But it had a kind of austere beauty, and not beauty for its own sake, because the football was – sometimes cruelly – functional. It was perhaps the best football ever seen from an English club.
Except that they lost three times to Liverpool. Once in the league, in January, when Liverpool beat them 4–3 at An eld, and then twice over two legs in the Champions League quarter-finals, Liverpool winning 5–1 on aggregate.
There was nothing remotely lucky about it. City were outplayed, knocked off their spindle by the energy and commitment of Liverpool’s gegenpress: a tactic by which you harass your opponents out of their possession- based game.
Why don’t all teams play like that, then? Because it’s difficult and hugely demanding. But City can be harassed into error, as was shown by their recent home defeat to Lyon in the Champions League.
Sunday’s match will be seen as a contest between two managers: Pep Guardiola of City and Jürgen Klopp of Liverpool – both passionate and clever men. But the game will be about which of the many highly skilful players on show will find in this fraught encounter the very best of his talents. It’s October: the right time of year to get serious about football again, and for football in turn to get serious. The season turns right here.