Manchester City, Liverpool & The Finest of Margins
In some respects, the scheduling made perfect sense. The icing on the cake that Sky Sports that had spent the previous couple of weeks tagging with the line “Christmas Is About Football.” The Little Baby Jesus would be so honoured. In others, though, it all felt a little bit faux. For a majority of the viewing public, the festive break ended on the second of January with the bump of returning to work. As such, every other fixture had the very particular feel of being a Bank Holiday match whereas this one felt like a midweek fixture instead. Home from work, rush around for an hour doing the things that couldn’t be done whilst out of the house, switch on the television at five to eight in something approaching panic that kick-off will be missed.
Scheduled for an eight o’clock kick-off on the second day back at work, small wonder this match had a feeling of otherness about it. It was apt, in its own way. Manchester City versus Liverpool is the rivalry that isn’t quite a rivalry. A month ago, there was a feeling that the ongoing waterboarding that Manchester United were undergoing at the hands of Jose Mourinho was suiting both of these clubs just fine. Times, however, have changed pretty quickly at Old Trafford, and the feeling that United’s years in the (relative) doldrums may finally be set to be coming to an end. Add in a potential Arsenal resurgence (which has spluttered a little recently, but remains a project that seems to be moving in the right direction), Spurs emerging into, retreating from, and then emerging into (within a week!) the title race again, and Chelsea flinging close to £60m at Borussia Dortmund for Christian Pulisic only to see him loaned back to Germany for the remainder of the season, and the top of the Premier League began 2019 in a state of flux.
This, it might be argued, all added an extra layer of spice to an already textured match. If United Are Back, is this year’s Premier League title race a one-off? The days of one club dominating in the way that they did between 1993 and 2013 are probably over, but the feeling is growing that Manchester United might be set to return to title challenging. Also thrown into the mix is the fact that Liverpool supporters have been starting to Believe. It’s been twenty-eight years since they were last the champions of England, and they’ve seen few genuine tilts at the title in those intervening years, but a seven point lead at the Premier League will do that to a fan base that has been starved of domestic league success for pushing three decades. This is starting to manifest itself in predictable and mildly entertaining ways, from those who are falling into conveniently cliched pigeonholes patterns of behaviour for some Liverpool supporters – “How am I doing, boss?” – to the (likely more representative) majority, who are starting to watch matches between the gaps in their fingers, even though their team has been cruising for most of this season, so far.
By the end of the evening, though, Liverpool supporters were likely reflecting on the thin margins that separate winning from losing in the modern game. In one case, that margin can be measured in time. We already know that VAR is landing in the Premier League next season. Had it done so a year earlier, Vincent Kompany might well have found himself sent off for the sort of reckless tackle – this time on Mohammed Salah – to which he is occasionally prone. In another, that margin was distance, when an astonishing goal-line clearance from John Stones hooked the ball between Salah’s legs when the ball was, according to goal line technology, 11.7mm from completely crossing the goal line to give Liverpool the lead. When everything else feels equal – and if there’s one thing to take from last night’s match, it’s that this felt like a head-to-head between the two best teams in the Premier League – those fine margins are always likely to make a decisive difference.
In the twenty-first century, though, there seem to be two versions of the world living in parallel universes to each other. On the one hand, there’s the rational world. in this world, this was an excellent match between two teams with little between them which was ultimately decided by a couple of bits of good fortune. Liverpool might have been beaten, but they retain a four point lead at the top of the table and have a handy break from league action in the form of an FA Cup trip to Wolves at the start of next week. Manchester City teetered following their defeat at Chelsea last month, but successive defeats against Crystal Palace and Leicester City were always unlikely to be the start of a greater decline. With half of the season played, a four point deficit is far from unrecoverable.
But then, of course, there’s also the irrational world, in which anything can be spun to a conspiracy, so long as it fits a pre-written narrative. In this world, that 11.7mm didn’t exist because something something Sky Sports, whilst Vincent Kompany wasn’t sent off because something something keeping the title race alive for the audience viewing figures. The banterbus has long since departed the terminal, and has been replaced by something darker and more conspiratorial, and whilst it might be desperately unfair on the majority of supporters of any club to saddle them with the reputation of their wilder extremes, the extent to which the yahoo-ish end of the spectrum comes to represent the views of all opposing supporters in the eyes of opponents is undeniable.
The morning after the night before, it feels as though last night’s result has left this season’s title race as open as it could be. Liverpool’s unbeaten run may be over, but there are plenty worse times during a season for this to happen and the FA Cup offers a small breather which ultimately may well come to benefit them. Manchester City, meanwhile, have closed that gap again and given themselves a fighting chance of closing a gap which would have started to look unassailable had Liverpool won. And all of this is reckoning without Tottenham Hotspur, whose time in the title race may only have lasted a couple of days before Wolves blew them away at Wembley last weekend, but who also picked themselves up, dusted themselves down, and commandingly won a potentially tricky match at Cardiff earlier this week.
Both Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have previously expressed their mystification at the lack of a winter break in England since being here. Last night’s match, the crowning glory of chaos upon a Christmas schedule that pushed at the edges of all being too much, felt like a demonstration of how this strangely engrossing habit of ours of making our very best footballers play as many matches as possible within just a few days should work. The Christmas and New Year rush feels like something that supporters definitely want to keep, and as such it should probably be considered something that the players and coaching staffs of the country’s football clubs should give back to us. We pay through the nose, whether in terms of television subscriptions or season tickets, and, as this weekend’s FA Cup schedule demonstrates, we are usually somewhere the bottom of the list of priorities when it comes to how the game here is run. And the thing about that Sky Sports slogan, that Christmas is about football, is that for a very, very large number of us, it’s a statement of fact. With another year over and a new one just begun, there remains all to play for at the top of the Premier League.