• Liverpool and Manchester City have dominated, with Chelsea the only other club to head the table, twice in August and for a week in September.
So here comes the moment of truth. We are about to discover whether there is the remotest chink of vulnerability about either of the two gladiators who have traded punches in the title race.
Top spot has changed hands 27 times, more than in any top flight campaign since the Second World War. Liverpool and Manchester City have dominated, with Chelsea the only other club to head the table, twice in August and for a week in September.
Liverpool are on course for a haul of 97 points — a tally which would have won them the Premier League title in every season but the last one — and to lose only one top-flight game for the first time in their 127-year history. But if they are to end their 29-year quest to become champions again, the time has come for one of Manchester City’s remaining opponents to deny them a victory.
This component, sometimes overstated, is indisputably significant. The pressure in the final stretch nearly always tells for one team, often both. Manchester United lost at Wigan, while City drew with Sunderland and Stoke during the finale in the 2012 season which, in recent times, is the only campaign to match this one.
But these two sides do not have what Sir Alex Ferguson famously described as a ‘Devon Loch’ moment in them. They have lost one game apiece since the turn of the year and City’s relentless capacity to win has, in some ways, helped Liverpool to blank out pressure. On level terms at home to Tottenham with 20 minutes to play, 23 days ago, they left two men at the back, played eight up and found a winner.
The psychological element is more significant at Liverpool, whose bid to reclaim the title creates what Klopp has described as ‘the history on our backs.’ Five years ago, Brendan Rodgers read out messages about the players, canvassed from their mothers, during the run-in. Steven Gerrard, steeped in the club’s glorious past, issued his on-pitch ‘We go again,’ oratory.
Klopp is so averse to raising expectations that talk of a title has become tantamount to slander in his press conferences.
The riches of the Premier League — football’s global league — has delivered the world’s best managers. They are Hollywood bosses, you might say, who bring a touch-line and press conference choreography which adds a rich and attractive dimension to this fight.
Ferguson and Arsene Wenger provided fascination which resided in their personal rivalry and capacity to spit blood at times. But Pep Guardiola and Klopp bring erudition, sophistication, the cosmopolitan and that inclination to live every game on the touchline, where their movements and reactions are as much a part of the theatre.
Guardiola’s press conference manoeuvres are subtler. The insignia on his sweatshirt last Friday — #LIFE — spoke to a desire to do away with the morbidity of Champions League defeat, two days earlier.
Klopp, with his three mighty punches to the Kop after the home win over Chelsea a few days earlier, brings emotion in the raw. When Liverpool were serial winners, Bob Paisley took a seat in the main stand and spoke in a generally undecipherable Wearside accent. Different days.
With managers such quality come a tactical intelligence which is more dynamic and fluid than ever before. Though both Guardiola and Klopp swear by their creative, possession-rich systems, both have modified them to optimise the chances of success.
After defeat to Leicester two seasons ago, Guardiola revealed that he did not ‘train tackles’ — the inference being that his side are creators, less interested in the blue collar arts of defending.
Yet City have been less expressive this season, content to kill games early, dig in and be done with it. There is less complexity on the ball in front of their defence and simpler passing. They concede possession there far less and goalkeeper Ederson will deliver long. It is not always heaven-sent football.
The same applies to Liverpool, whose essential and well-chronicled addition of Virgil van Dijk is only part of the story of the defensive rebuild a side whose high gegenpressing style in the first few Klopp seasons made them distinctly vulnerable to the direct counter-attack.
The team’s energy levels remain extraordinarily high but there is a far greater willingness to adapt the style to the opposition, while last season some fringe players privately felt that Klopp’s ‘We are Liverpool’ mantra left the team defensively vulnerable.
The very specific game-plan to throttle the influence Jorginho and Eden Hazard against Chelsea underlined the same game management which made Paisley such a winner.
Less competitive depth in the Premier League
It is a negative but the gulf in class between the top and the rest has certainly grown. Arsenal have not gone backwards.
They have 12 more points from their first 34 games than they did last season. But the weak have been blown away.
The current bottom three —Cardiff, Fulham and Huddersfield — have not registered a single point from the current top six this season: a top-flight record of a less welcome kind.
Injuries are the unknown component for every title challenger but with the exception of Kevin De Bruyne’s travails at City, these two sides have had none. Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, missing from Liverpool, have been recovering from injuries sustained last season.
In part, this is a consequence of sports science which has reached new levels, allowing coaches to know precisely when a player is vulnerable to muscular strain, rather than waiting for the injury to arrive and then deal with it.
Subsequently, City have been able to draw deeply on Sergio Aguero, who has already started five more league games this season than he did last. The quality of the pitches helps, too. The former Stoke City defender Danny Higginbotham describes how manager Tony Pulis would instruct groundsmen to rough up the surface when Jose Mourinho’s cultivated Chelsea were playing.
Everything is far more standardised and high quality now. The worst Cardiff City could do when Liverpool arrived last weekend was not water the pitch.
The records of Ederson and Alisson Becker speak for themselves, with 42 league goals conceded between them all season. But they take the ‘sweeper-keeper’ definition to a new dimension, effectively providing a 12th outfield player for their teams throughout this season. No other club has this component.
Sophisticated player acquisition models
City and Liverpool have developed sophisticated player acquisition models which have allowed them to make their biggest investments pay well. There was a time when the £145million Liverpool received for Philippe Coutinho might have been reinvested in a raft of modest players. The Luis Suarez windfall in 2014 delivered them Mario Balotelli, Lazar Markovic, Emre Can, Dejan Lovren, Lallana, Alberto Moreno, Divock Origi and Rickie Lambert.
Other clubs have slipped behind. Arsenal are in the early stages of building an acquisition model of their own. Chelsea’s signings have been too often dictated by the managers who come and go. Manchester United are not even off the starting block. It is one thing to reap a share of the £5.1bn Premier League TV deal. It is another to make it pay.