recaps the final weekend of the Premier League season.
Manchester City deserve every plaudit coming their way.
It is an astonishing body of work. Since the beginning of last season, Manchester City have earned 198 league points and scored 201 league goals. If they provided us with some final-day drama, any sense of jeopardy was shortlived. Since losing to Newcastle United in January, City have been behind for a total of 83 seconds in the league. Glenn Murray’s goal sparked scenes of wild joy at Anfield, but it also sparked Manchester City into life.
Pep Guardiola was hired for two reasons. The first was to establish a domestic dynasty that meant City becoming the first team in a decade to retain the title.
The second was to win the Champions League. Having achieved the first of those two goals, Guardiola knows that only completing the job will satisfy those who wish to denigrate him.
But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Manchester City can get stronger still, and complete his mission.
Not only have they achieved 98 points in the league this season, but they have done so while suffering enforced absences to Sergio Aguero, Kevin de Bruyne, Benjamin Mendy, David Silva, John Stones and Fernandinho. Still they steamrollered on.
Guardiola is also closer to implementing the Total Football of Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels that has always been his aim.
If he gets that right — and evidence suggests we are only in the first year of a two-year cycle — City may be irrepressible. They’re comfortable odds on to make it three-in-a-row. Next time it might be Europe too.
Liverpool will be remembered, but not as losers.
Losers are supposed to hang their heads in shame and crumple to the turf. Losers are supposed to sniff and sob and fall in on themselves, consoled by their opponents.
Losers are supposed to curse misfortune and missteps. You know the accusations only too well, like taglines from a Rocky remake: Losers are bottlers. Losers are chokers. Second is the first loser.
But if any of those assertions are true, Liverpool are not losers. This magnificent team pushed Manchester City all the way, and ended the season with nine straight victories.
There were questions asked of their bottle and their stomach for the fight, and they were answered not through flamboyant attacking play but by grinding out results.
Our season is far from over. 💪🔴— Liverpool FC (@LFC) May 12, 2019
01.06.19 ➡️ Estadio Metropolitano. 🙌 pic.twitter.com/JZaASgnkvj
This praise comes not just because of who Liverpool are; that needs stressing. This is an emotionally-charged club whose grand old history can make rival supporters believe in hardwired bias whenever something Liverpool is showered with compliments.
Nor is this an attempt to denigrate trophies. Sport loses part of its soul if we conclude that only two competitions count and silverware comes second to anything else.
There is a mistake made in pitching this discussion as a trophies versus progress battle. They are not mutually exclusive. A little nuance is allowed.
There’s an obvious — if a little combustible — comparison that jumps out here. In the last three years, Manchester United have won the EFL Cup and Europa League, two of the three finals that Liverpool have lost. In the last three years, both have finished second to Manchester City in the Premier League.
But you would find more Manchester United supporters prepared to swap their last three years for Liverpool’s than vice versa. The example speaks the truth: trophies warrant praise but so do progress and style.
That’s partly because of the current state of play — Liverpool have bought better, sold better, managed better and coached better as well as making better progress in the Premier League and Champions League.
It also reflects the mood that Klopp has harnessed at Anfield and the strength of their opposition.
Liverpool will likely register the fourth highest points total in English football. That achievement is not without merit, whatever their finishing position.
But more than that, it speaks of the future. There’s far more reason to believe that Liverpool will compete for the domestic and European title again next season than fall away.
They will have the opportunity to improve their squad depth this summer. Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal are all beset by problems of mismanagement or budgets and all may lose key players this summer. As Jurgen Klopp said yesterday: “This club is in a great moment and that will not end because another team finished with a point more.”
And he’s right. Liverpool aren’t going anywhere. There’s every chance that next season brings with it another title race between two clubs at the top of their game.
Manchester United get a final harsh lesson.
If any Liverpool supporter did need their spirits lifting after final-day disappointment, there’s a mantra that’s spreading around the red half of Merseyside: At least we’re not United.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer used his pre-match programme notes to insist Manchester United would come back fitter and stronger, but he has already conceded that it will take a miracle for them to compete in the title race next season. Part expectation management, part honest assessment of the truth.
United’s last game of 2018/19 might just have been their worst, plumbing lower depths even that they experienced against Huddersfield. Before last weekend, the top six had taken 102 of a possible 102 against the bottom three sides in the Premier League. And then United played Huddersfield and Cardiff. It took five years, but Solskjaer has finally made Cardiff play well.
There were already doubts about Solskjaer’s aptitude for the job and already no doubt about the task that faced him, but both only became more apparent during a miserable afternoon at Old Trafford. Cardiff fans jeered their former manager while there were boos at half-time and full-time.
Choosing to appoint Solskjaer permanently before the end of the season might prove to be a disastrous decision to rival signing Alexis Sanchez.