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The Liverpool And Man City Era Of Dominance Seems To Be Over
Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have created two incredible teams over the past few years, but is the end of their dominance just ahead? Has it already started? OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images
April 1st, 2023 | 08:11 AM | 123 views
If I told you -- before the season -- that Manchester City were gonna be eight points back of first by the beginning of April, you would've been surprised. But not, like, that surprised.
Although City have been the preseason favorites to win the league in each of the past six campaigns, this isn't a Bundesliga or Ligue 1 situation where any other outcome might shake your very belief in the fundamental nature of the sport. No: Liverpool finished one point behind City last season, and preseason betting markets projected them to finish four points back in 2022-23. These are just predicted average outcomes; they're not bedrock truths, and soccer matches are frequently decided by random events.
Liverpool pushing beyond City this season wouldn't have shocked anyone because, well, we'd already seen it happen once before -- in 2019-20, when Jurgen Klopp & Co. finished 18 points clear of Pep Guardiola's side. That, of course, is not what happened. Although they have a game in hand, City are eight points back of... Arsenal, who haven't finished higher than fifth since Guardiola's and Klopp's first full seasons in England.
Liverpool, meanwhile, are currently in sixth and are averaging only the seventh-most points per game. They're seven points back of fourth place; they're 19 behind City; they're 27 off the top.
Before the season, it seemed as if this Saturday's match at the Etihad would be the biggest of the Premier League season: the final game between the two teams expected to battle it out, once again, for first place. Now, it's still a massive match -- only that's for City's chances of keeping pace with Arsenal and Liverpool's hopes of climbing back into the Champions League places.
So after four years of near-constant excellence from Liverpool and Manchester City -- performances that would've won multiple extra trophies at any other time in English soccer history -- is the Premier League's preeminent rivalry officially over?
The four-year cycle
Across the history of the Premier League -- perhaps the history ... of sports? -- nobody had a better understanding of how to sustain long-term dominance than Sir Alex Ferguson. In 21 Premier League seasons as Manchester United manager, his teams won 13 titles. They won back-to-back titles six times. They never went more than three seasons without winning the league, and the one time they did go even three seasons without a title, they followed it up with three straight titles for the second time.
Ferguson's United were successful in just about every kind of way: slow-burn dominance, constant reinvention, high peaks, late-game consistency, frequent over-performance, attacking brilliance, defensive solidity, one-man teams, 11-man teams ... you name it.
In 2012, Ferguson talked to the Harvard Business Review about how they did it. "We identified three levels of players: 30 and older, 23 to 30, and the younger ones", he said. "The idea was that the younger players were developing and would meet the standards the older ones had set. I believe that the cycle of a successful team lasts maybe four years and then some change is needed."
Whether or not he knew it, the idea of the four-year cycle tracks with research into player peaks. Although it varies by position, the average player tends to have about four years of prime-level play from around the ages of 24 through 28. If players tend to sustain their highest levels of performance for only four seasons, then the same would seem to hold true for the teams that are composed of those players.
And so, if we look at all Premier League teams as collections of four-year cycles, then we just spent the past four years watching the two best Premier League teams of all time -- at the same time. OK, that's not quite true; we just saw four of the best Premier League squads of all time, but three of them are the same club.
Since the Premier League cut down to 20 teams in 1995, these are the best four-year runs:
1. Manchester City, 2017-21: 365 points
2. Manchester City, 2018-22: 358 points
T-3. Liverpool, 2018-22: 357 points
T-3. Manchester City, 2016-20: 357 points
Only eight teams have averaged at least 2.4 points per game in the 20-team era, and six of them are Liverpool and City sides over the past five seasons:
1. Manchester City, 2017-18: 100 points
2. Liverpool, 2019-20: 99 points
3. Manchester City, 2018-19: 98 points
4. Liverpool, 2018-19: 97 points
5. Chelsea, 2004-05: 95 points
T-6. Manchester City, 2021-22: 93 points
T-6. Chelsea, 2016-17: 93 points
8. Liverpool, 2021-22: 92 points
We've never seen two teams as good, at the same time, as Liverpool and City have been over the past four years. And the only team that's been better is, well, another City team that's including three of the same years as the other City team. Throw in the fact that Liverpool made the Champions League final in the 2017-18 season and you could probably say these were the best concurrent five-year stretches in league history, too.
The thing about cycles, though? Whether four years or five years -- they always end.
How to keep winning
When Ferguson gave his HBR interview, it seemed as if soccer was entering a new era. With the rise of the director of football position and Premier League clubs beginning to adopt something closer to the American model of sports organizations, managers suddenly had less power. They coached the team and had some input in who was acquired and who left the club, but the days of Ferguson controlling just about everything at one of the biggest clubs in the world were over. This structural reorganization made managers more disposable.
Much of Ferguson's insight is tinged with a bit of nostalgia for a bygone era. These new-fangled modern teams, they just don't have any patience anymore! "In today's football world, with a new breed of directors and owners, I am not sure any club would have the patience to wait for a manager to build a team over a four-year period," he said.
Although he was right -- most Premier League managers last for only a couple of seasons -- both Klopp (seven-and-a-half years running) and Guardiola (in the midst of his seventh full season) have achieved the kind of longevity Ferguson believed was necessary to create consistent success.
"We tried to visualize the team three or four years ahead and make decisions accordingly," he said. "Because I was at United for such a long time, I could afford to plan ahead. I was very fortunate in that respect. The hardest thing is to let go of a player who has been a great guy -- but all the evidence is on the field."
Although Liverpool beat City multiple times across the 2017-18 season, the first game between the two sides where it truly felt as if they were equals was the second match of the 2018-19 campaign. Their first game of that season -- an awful scoreless draw at Anfield -- came while Liverpool were still in the early stages of proving their title bona fides, but the match at the Etihad was a genuine championship six-pointer. John Stones cleared a ball off the goal line, prompting half of the city of Liverpool to question the validity of Sony's Hawk-Eye technology, and City won 2-1.
It's instructive to look back at who started in that match. For City, Ederson was in goal, Aymeric Laporte at left-back, Danilo at right-back, with Vincent Kompany and Stones in the middle of the defense. The midfield was anchored by Fernandinho, with David Silva and Bernardo Silva in front, while the attack had Sergio Aguero in the center, with Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling on the wings. Only two of those players -- Ederson and Bernardo Silva -- are still consistent starters, while just two others (Stones and Laporte) are still with the club.
For Liverpool, it's a different story. Alisson was in goal -- and he still is. Three-fourths of the current backline -- Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson -- were already there, and the fourth, Dejan Lovren, is playing for Lyon in Ligue 1. Two-thirds of the midfield are still with the club -- Jordan Henderson and James Milner -- and Georginio Wijnaldum is now with Jose Mourinho at AS Roma. Same story with the front three: Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino remain, and Sadio Mane is already on his second manager at Bayern Munich.
Eight of Liverpool's starters from that match have made more than 15 Premier League appearances this season. Just two have done the same for City.
So is this the end?
Among players who have featured in at least 50% of the domestic minutes this season, eight City players fit into that general 24-28 peak-age range: Rodri, Bernardo Silva, Manuel Akanji, Jack Grealish, Nathan Ake, Ruben Dias, Stones and Joao Cancelo. Of course, Cancelo still hits that mark despite leaving the team for Bayern Munich in January, but that saga is symbolic of the team's larger squad-building approach.
Last year, Cancelo was arguably the best full-back in the world. Midway through this season, he was City's most-used outfield player... and now he's gone. Now, whether part of this is because Guardiola is particularly hard to get along with or because he's willing to take chances on players who don't necessarily fit whatever the team's culture is -- that's an unanswerable question for now. But whatever the reasons, City have been willing to turn over the roster very aggressively across Guardiola's six-plus years with the team.
Ferguson was also frequently willing to risk cutting ties with a player too early to make sure his club didn't get stuck with a declining veteran who suddenly had little value to anyone else. Famously, he let center-back Jaap Staam go at age 29, and the Dutchman went on to have five more successful seasons with Lazio and AC Milan. City's outgoing players suggest a similar approach from Guardiola-era City: Sterling, Ferran Torres, Sane, Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko all moved for at least €35 million, and none of them was older than 27 when they left.
Liverpool, meanwhile, have hung on to most of their stars for as long as they can. Just two of the players who've featured in at least 50% of the minutes this season fall into that 24-28 bracket. One is Alexander-Arnold, and the other is Joe Gomez, the club's fourth-choice center-back when everyone is healthy.
Under Klopp, Liverpool made one of the most impactful outgoing transfers of the 21st century when 25-year-old Philippe Coutinho moved for €135 million to Barcelona. The revenue seemed to finance the arrivals of both van Dijk and Alisson -- two of the driving forces behind all the success over the past four seasons. However, that was it. Mane left for Bayern at age 30, and no other key players have moved on while still in or near their prime years.
Now, they've been brilliant with other transfers on the margins; Christian Benteke, Mamadou Sakho, Danny Ings, Dominic Solanke and Neco Williams all brought in at least €20 million each in transfer fees. There just hasn't been much change at the top of the roster.
That last sentence cuts both ways; it allowed Liverpool to win more points over four years than any Premier League team not owned by a sovereign wealth fund ever had. But it also helped lead them to where they are right now: giving 20 league appearances to 37-year-old James Milner. The core of this team is built around players in the 29-32 age range -- guys whose entire peaks occurred over the past four years, at the same time.
In short, the payoff of the past four years comes with the cost of this season. It bites especially hard with the near wins in both the league and Champions League last season, but it was worth it, absolutely.
While some players maintain their performance deeper into their 20s and into their 30s, most start to decline or start to get hurt as they age out of that prime-age bracket. And when your team is mainly built with those players, you're especially exposed to those risks. That's not enough to explain the size of the drop-off Liverpool have experienced this season, but when you add in significant injury lay-offs for nearly all of your 23-to-26-year-old players -- Luis Diaz, Diogo Jota, Darwin Nunez and Ibrahima Konate -- and sprinkle in some bad luck, you can pretty much get there.
As Liverpool face a rebuild to return to title contention, City face 100-plus charges of financial malfeasance from the Premier League, with all kinds of future penalties seemingly on the table. A large reason they've been able to turn over the roster so frequently is simply that they can afford to acquire so many good players. When you have a glut of talent, you get great players who want to leave so they can get more playing time, and you can let them leave without taking too much of a hit.
Perhaps their six-year run of dominance will prove to be unsustainable for opaque, still-to-be-determined financial reasons. Yet despite all of that uncertainty and everything that has happened this season, the betting markets still see Manchester City winning the most points and Liverpool winning the second-most points from now through the end of the season. Nearly every publicly available team-strength model still considers Liverpool as a team top six or seven in the world and City somewhere in the top two.
So maybe City will escape relatively unscathed from the Premier League's investigation and Liverpool will make the right moves this summer, fare better with injuries next season and see some internal development from their younger players. If that happens, they could both be back, battling it out at the top of the table.
Whether or not it does, though, won't change the reality of the current moment. The past four years are over. A new cycle has begun.
courtesy of ESPN
by Ryan O'Hanlon
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