After narrowly negotiating two potential title-ending games against Burnley and Leicester City goal-shy Brighton and Hove Albion was in many ways the ideal final-day opponents for Manchester City, albeit at the Sussex side’s Falmer headquarters, and so it proved.
All Liverpool’s fans, sympathizers, and those eager for a nerve-shredding end to a record breaking season looked at Manchester City’s remaining fixtures for potential banana-skins for Pep Guardiola’s side but as these came and went without the Abu Dhabi-owned Blue’s dropping even a point, conceivably opening the door to the red half of Merseyside, City’s double-bubble quality of winning with panache and grinding out victories without their trademark elan proved too much for even Juergen Klopp’s indefatigable Anfield machine.
Fourteen wins in a row is a remarkable statistic for the modern era, let alone for a side at one-point gunning for an unprecedented quadruple. Falling agonizingly short in the Champions League to eventual finalists Tottenham Hotspur was probably in the end a blessing, giving City vital rest during the midweeks when Liverpool were jousting against Barcelona. It is even the more stunning when one considers just one draw amongst the fourteen would have ceded the title to Liverpool, now without the distinction of being English champions for 29 years.
Where now for the two clubs head and shoulders above all their Premier League rivals? After such an exhausting, pressurized season will Guardiola have the appetite to once more lock horns with Klopp? Will the Champions’ League be the main priority for City’s monied owners, or is the pursuit of the quadruple now their default setting?
It is hard to see where Klopp can improve upon his squad, one I felt was arguably stronger than Guardiola’s. Simon Mignolet will probably seek first-team football elsewhere, with James Milner perhaps also wanting more regular game time. The much maligned Dejan Lovren was in effect relegated down the pecking order once the imperious Virgil van Dijk entered the building, with Klopp presumably seeking a more reliable replacement to vie with Joel Matip and Joe Gomez as van Dijk’s central partner. Andy Robertson, the best £8 million ever spent, has propelled himself into the world-class bracket but will require a competent understudy with Alberto Moreno’s Anfield departure all but confirmed. Questions will also be asked about the future of Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge, who would benefit from being more integral to a first team squad than the ‘optional extras’ tag both now in effect wear.
It is a crazy thing to suggest but I have at times this season felt that Manchester City have lacked someone who can unpick the opposition during high pressure, deadlock situations. Whilst City’s much vaunted midfield is the strongest in domestic world football, the likes of Leroy Sane and even at times David Silva can cut frustrated figures against resolute, lesser opposition. There is without doubt a lack of depth in City’s attacking options and whilst Raheem Sterling can be utilized ‘up top’ that is not at heart his game. A successor will have to be sourced to eventually replace all-time record goalscorer Sergio Aguero, with the pretender to his throne Gabriel Jesus unlikely to accept another season as a bit-part contributor. It is with some irony that Kelechi Iheanacho, the striker sold by City to Leicester almost, and undoubtedly should have, trashed his former employer’s title ambitions when through, with Ederson’s goal at his mercy. My assertion that Iheanacho should have been retained by City was somewhat undermined by the Nigerian’s frankly amateurish finish.
Both Liverpool and Manchester City have conjured up the most incredible season and have set the bar precipitously high for themselves and the chasing pack. Manchester United and perhaps Chelsea will get nearer to this season’s big two but will still lag some way behind this time next year. Winning the Champions’ League would undoubtedly give Tottenham a greater cachet for attracting the world’s best talent, but even the value of the victor’s cheque might be insufficient to match Mauricio Pochettino’s ambitions inevitably stymied by the need to service payments for their sparkling new stadium.
Next season is shaping up to be more of the same, business as usual; can though Pep Guardiola muster sufficient enthusiasm and energy to mount another energy sapping challenge for what would be three titles in a row – a record only previously achieved in the modern era by local rivals Manchester United. I cannot on the other hand see anything but a reignited desire in Juergen Klopp for what has proven for Liverpool to be an elusive top division title, amounting to unfinished business for the German before he considers options back home, perhaps with the national team.
The summer transfer market will see both clubs tinker rather than undertake root and branch surgery to their squads, assuming neither loses one of their big hitters to La Liga. Could Gareth Bale fit into either squad? I would suggest he could but is still more likely to venture to Stamford Bridge should, as expected, Eden Hazard leave for Real Madrid and Chelsea can somehow circumvent their recently upheld transfer ban. As though has been proven in the season only concluded yesterday the Premier League holds all the cards. Once it was the English weather that stalled deals to sign some of the world’s best, but now even the prospect of playing Stoke or Burnley on a wild December night can be mollified by Sky and BT TV’s largesse. Whatever happens during 2019/2020 it will have to set new precedents of its own to eclipse what has been an extraordinary season.