the new rivalry that animates England

Let’s take a look at the new England rivalry between Manchester City and Liverpool ahead of Sunday afternoon’s clash at the Etihad Stadium. Are these the two greatest Premier League teams of all time? Did they create a duopoly?

Let’s talk about Manchester City and Liverpool. This is the game that will be talked about all over the world, it is the game that everyone will see this Sunday April 10th. This match between the two best teams in the world promises to be quite exciting and intriguing today, separated by a single point from eight Premier League games to go.

Five years ago, these teams weren’t on each other’s radars. In the 2016/17 season, Liverpool and City finished third and fourth respectively as they began to discover themselves among their new managers, who were at the club in their first full season. Chelsea were champions, winning 30 games out of 38, with Tottenham Hotspur topping the rest (eight points ahead of City!).

Today, Liverpool and City are not only by far the top two teams in England, but they have forged a rivalry that is now arguably the most important in the world. Some even go so far as to say it’s the best rivalry the Premier League has ever seen, better than Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal versus Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the 2000s.

Traditionally, the best rivalries have been built on the basis of history, matches played over the centuries and the clubs’ geographic location. But maybe it’s time to consider that the best rivalries can also develop from a purely sporting criterion.

In other words, to become a great rivalry, the matches between the two teams must be important. That’s what makes derbies like the Old Firm and the Superclasico so appealing. A lot of people don’t watch much Scottish or Argentinian football. But they will do anything to see those games. That’s what made Wenger vs. Ferguson — early on — so fun to watch. This is also why for a short time no game was followed more than that between Guardiola’s FC Barcelona and José Mourinho’s FC Madrid.

And while there’s no plot to speak of, we can now consider Liverpool vs City one of the best rivalries in the world. It’s a game of tactical sideline combat and clashes between some of the best players in the world.

It’s actually a good thing for the Premier League. The Premier League likes to present itself as the best league in the world because it is the most competitive league in the world. But for most of the last decade, the team that wins the championship usually dominated. Since the 2010–11 season, the league title has only been won three times by a margin of five points or less. The epic 2011-12 season (City beat United on goal difference), the 2013-14 season (City beat Liverpool by two points) and the thrilling 2018-19 season (City beat Liverpool by one point). That being said, managers like Mourinho, Antonio Conte, Claudio Ranieri, as well as Klopp and Guardiola have put together teams that have dominated the league, albeit rarely for multiple seasons. Guardiola is the exception.

Overall, this typical dominance meant that games between the big teams were rarely title-deciding, they relied on historical factors. Usually, the league leaders could afford to drop points occasionally (although they rarely did). But this match could end up being the match that decides the title, as was the case a few years ago. From a marketing perspective, the league hopes this season will be more of a norm than in the past two years, when injuries derailed one of its contenders.

Because while battles for the top 4 and relegation are fun, there’s nothing quite like the excitement that emanates from a title fight. This is what makes league football so exciting compared to knockout football. It’s part of the initial appeal for new fans of Spanish football. This is currently also deterring French and German football. Even if you’re not a fan, it’s exhilarating to check out the leaderboards and results each week to see the back-and-forth between title rivals.

So while some are worried about English football becoming a duopoly, it seems a good thing for English football to become an even more exciting league. That will attract new fans and help the Championship dominate Europe. This helps clubs with recruitment as smaller clubs can boast a chance to compete against the best and large teams can convince players to help them in this fight.

A duopoly in the making

And for what it’s worth, chances are this duopoly will be dead in the water within a year or two. There is much speculation about the future of Guardiola and Klopp, who could be leaving in the next two years once their contracts expire. So who knows what will happen next or how clubs Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur will develop in the near future. That’s the secret of the Premier League. This is the closest approximation to American sports where “This year can be our year”. There are still only six or seven clubs in England that can claim that, but that’s more than any other top European league. The championship lives on the fact that the other big clubs can agree to fight for the title with three, four or more. We’re not there yet, but we could!

But that rivalry will be the legacy of Klopp and Guardiola when they leave English football in a way no one could have predicted when they arrived. Both have undeniably changed the way we see football, both in terms of tactics on the field and team cohesion off the field. Their skills forged this rivalry. The animosity between City and Liverpool fans will never be greater than it is today, before or after their arrival. It’s a bloodless rivalry born of mutual respect and skill. Although none is as universally loved or even respected as Ferguson was. Many will never accept Guardiola given the money he has spent or Klopp who is said to be just a motivator.

But both have claims to fame few can match, and their achievements over the past few years are nothing short of remarkable. They have shared five out of six Premier League titles and reached three (possibly four) Champions League finals and won one or two.

For the first time in the millennium it is clear that England have the two best clubs in the world. This is partly due to the demise of some European giants, but also due to the work put in by both the managers and the players themselves. Whatever direction these two clubs and these two managers take going forward, enjoy at least the next 18 months. There are no such titanic shocks in sport, you have to make the best of them when they come.

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