Ahead of the teams’ critical Premier League clash on April 10 (a 2-2 draw) and their FA Cup semifinal a week later (3-2 to Liverpool), former Liverpool defender-turned-pundit Jamie Carragher made headlines for saying that Liverpool vs. Manchester City is the “greatest, most intense and highest quality rivalry in English football history.”
“There is a uniqueness to it. This is the first time the two best teams in England are the two best teams in the world, led by the two greatest coaches of their generation,” Carragher wrote in the Daily Telegraph, also citing their accomplishments and progress in the Champions League as the extra element putting the duo above the likes of Manchester United vs. Arsenal, or Liverpool vs. Everton.
“Many will claim that the fixtures overseen by Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger at their peak were of similar quality and packed just as much of an emotional punch. To me, the parallels run out of steam when applied to European competition.”
This season, Liverpool and City have yet again been head and shoulders above the rest of English football. Liverpool have already won the Carabao Cup and have reached the FA Cup final. It’s also possible that the two could meet in the Champions League final on May 28 — Man City face Real Madrid and Liverpool take on Villarreal in the semifinals — and with the Premier League title race neatly poised, with City above Liverpool by one point with six games to play, how much of a rivalry is this? Is Carragher right?
ESPN’s Gab Marcotti, Julien Laurens, Rob Dawson and James Olley debate whether this head-to-head is a great rivalry, or just two great teams in the midst of a remarkable era.
Is Man City vs. Liverpool there yet in terms of rivalry? What’s it lacking?
Marcotti: OK, to me it’s pretty open and shut. This is only a great rivalry in the sense that these are two very good teams who are competing for the same titles at the same time. This makes it fun and competitive, but not a rivalry. In fact, other than competing at the highest level at the same time, I’m not sure these two have any of the other rivalry ingredients.
Laurens: First of all, let’s start with the official definition of rivalry to see if these two qualify for it. The dictionary says that a rivalry is “a competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.” I understand that history matters — it always does in football — and that tension, or “beef,” are important. (After all, it always gives us something more to write!) We can mention European pedigree and trophies of course. We can highlight tension (and sometimes hatred) between fans or even players. We can talk about Manchester United vs. Arsenal, at the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s, to name a previous rivalry. But whether you like it or not, City vs. Liverpool is a rivalry and it is great.
How can it not be a rivalry when they are potentially the two greatest teams the Premier League era has ever seen? How can it not be a rivalry when they dominate English football (and have done so for five years) and European football with a Champions League between them on the horizon?
Marcotti: Do they inhabit the same geographic space? Not really: They’re from different cities, and crucially, they have different, long-established local rivals in Manchester United and Everton, respectively.
Do they have a long-running historical rivalry? Not unless your time horizon is limited to three or fours, no.
Do the fans have major distinguishing — and opposing — characteristics? Sure, many Liverpool fans like to proudly point out that they’re not English; they’re Scouse. But more generally, you’re talking about two fanbases rooted in traditional working-class (and immigrant) roots. For a long time, you would have pointed to City as the more long-suffering fanbase, but in some ways, any Liverpool fan between 1991 and Istanbul in 2005 might have felt similar. Now, that applies to the traditional fanbase. In terms of global fanbase, is there a difference? Not that I can tell.
Do the owners have major distinguishing — and opposing — characteristics? One group is from Boston; the other from Abu Dhabi. One made their money; the other largely inherited it. But the differences kinda end there. They’re all billionaires, and neither is particularly present at their team’s games, so no.
Is there a religious, socioeconomic or political layer to this, like, say, Bobby Fischer vs. Boris Spassky in chess, India vs. Pakistan in cricket or Celtic vs. Rangers in Scotland? Not that I can see.
Are there major stylistic differences in the way the two teams play? Nope again. They’re certainly not identical, but we’re still talking high workrate, high pressing, high possession and a lot of quality.
Olley: Rivalries are steeped in history, and the frank truth about Liverpool vs. Manchester City is that the two were almost always competing in different spheres prior to the Abu Dhabi takeover of City in 2008.
Liverpool may have been in the midst of a 30-year wait for the Premier League title, but even in the barren years, they always stood as a leviathan of English football, a status City were looking to fast-track through heavy investment. Prior to 2008, City had won one top-flight English title and one European Cup Winners’ Cup. Liverpool had won 18 titles and five European Cups among a host of other prizes.
This is not to disparage City or the remarkable team they have become; it’s just a reflection of the fact money cannot instantly manufacture feeling.
Dawson: Juls is right. Manchester City and Liverpool have developed a rivalry, but they’ve got a way to go before it can be considered one of the great ones. Ultimately, it’s hard to tell what this is at the moment because we’re still in the middle of it.
It’s possible they could share the Premier League and Champions League trophy for the next decade, which would take their competition to an entirely different level. When Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi met in the 2009 Champions League final in Rome, you couldn’t know then what was to come, and the same may be true of City and Liverpool.
The FC crew debate Man City’s title chances after regaining the Premier League lead with a 3-0 win over Brighton.
What makes a great rivalry?
Olley: More recent rivalries have been engendered through ill-feeling, notably between Liverpool and Chelsea since the Blues bought their own ticket to the big time under owner Roman Abramovich. Chelsea and Manchester United created their own hostility because of the close proximity in which they fought for major honours over several years, chiefly when contesting the 2008 Champions League final at a time when they were palpably the best two teams in Europe.
Manchester City and Liverpool is not a rivalry that possesses much animus, aside from sporadic incidents including Raheem Sterling moving from one to the other, and objects being thrown at City’s bus prior to their Champions League quarterfinal at Anfield in 2018. They are not naturally opposing forces. Consequently, it feels clinical and perhaps cold.
Some of that is down to City’s ownership and their motivations for owning a football club in the first place. Some of it is down to the personalities of the managers driving their teams forward; Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp would sooner fawn over each other than fight. But where this might qualify as the best rivalry is in technical and tactical terms: Football has evolved considerably over the past 20 years, with Guardiola at the vanguard of that advance and Klopp in his slipstream.
City and Liverpool may become — if they aren’t already — the two best sides in Premier League history, and as such, it’s a privilege to watch them wrestle for the biggest prizes in England and Europe. Their points tallies over recent seasons support the argument that they’ve taken the game to new heights, remorseless in their consistency yet aesthetically beautiful in their methodology. They are in many ways Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer combined, the best in their field competing in the knowledge if one doesn’t win, the other will almost certainly triumph.
Jurgen Klopp feels Liverpool’s rivalry with Manchester City has helped them to develop.
Marcotti: Is there a history of bad blood? No, and in fact, when there have been incidents they’ve gone out of their way to minimize them. Sterling was previously at Liverpool, left amid a pretty nasty contract dispute and moved to City. But nobody really cares about it today.
Remember when Liverpool employees hacked into Manchester City’s scouting database? That could have been a very public flashpoint, right? Well, it wasn’t. Liverpool paid compensation, they signed a private settlement and nobody talks about it anymore.
Laurens: You want beef? I’ll give you some: the Sterling-Joe Gomez fight with England when they met up with the national team days after a Premier League clash.
You want more? The City bus “attacked” by Liverpool fans on their way to Anfield before their Champions League quarterfinal second leg back in April 2018.
Look guys, again: This is a rivalry. The players want to beat each other, they want to outsmart one another. They hate the other team doing so well and having to share successes and titles when one would be the absolute dominant force in the league without the other. But this is another reason why it’s a rivalry, and a great one at that: City and Liverpool make each other stronger and better.
This is what rivalries do. They force you to always be at your best!
What are the truly great English rivalries, and does City-Liverpool have the potential to get there, if it’s not already?
Olley: Manchester United vs. Arsenal either side of the millennium continues to stand as the greatest domestic rivalry in English football because it had everything: warring managers, squads harbouring genuine resentment towards each other, prior history (see the 1990 brawl that was so bad it ended in a points deduction for both) and two teams standing alone at the top of the Premier League. But neither possessed the same potency in Europe. United won the treble in 1999, but neither reached another Champions League final until Arsenal lost to Barcelona in 2005.
City and Liverpool are the very best in the game, perhaps the two best club sides in the world. Stay at that level for a few more years and they’ll create a history of their own, probably unsurpassed.
Marcotti: Do the players or managers dislike each other? There have been minimal jabs over the years, but that’s about it. Klopp may be a little more gregarious and media-friendly, but Guardiola isn’t far behind. And they normally say nice things about each other.
It’s generally true about the players too. Most are fairly low-key or likeable.
Laurens: City vs. Liverpool is not the Care Bears despite the mutual respect Klopp and Guardiola have for each other. It’s not a neutral game at all. There is always intensity and tension on the pitch every time they play each other. The other day at the Etihad, the away fans and the home ones next to them provoked each other.
To be fair, the City stadium had never been as raucous this season, which is more proof that this was a special game between two rivals. The heavy police presence outside the ground also showed that the risk for trouble was there, too.
Obviously in the past, we have had big rivalries too — Man United vs. Chelsea, Newcastle vs. Sunderland — and this one is more of a footballing one than a local one or a historical one. It’s not because the children of Kevin De Bruyne and Virgil van Dijk go to the same school that they are rivals. It is not because Brazil teammates Fabinho, Alisson and Roberto Firmino spend a lot of time at Fernandinho‘s house with Ederson and Gabriel Jesus that they are not rivals, either.
Dawson: For now, and as Gab says, these are simply two very good teams competing in the same era. It’s fantastic for the Premier League because it’s become one of the most eagerly anticipated games in world football, simply because of how good they are.
But the test of a truly great rivalry is whether neutrals would still tune in if the two teams were rubbish. Fans would still make a note in the diary to watch Barcelona and Real Madrid even if both were midtable LaLiga sides; the same is true of AC Milan and Inter, Manchester United and Liverpool, or Brazil and Argentina.
Right now, there isn’t that needle between Liverpool and Manchester City. Maybe it develops over time as they get sick of the sight of each other. Maybe it never arrives at all. Only time will tell.
When a 22-man brawl breaks out during a football match, the commentator will usually say something along the lines of “that’s not what fans want to see.” In fact, that’s exactly what many fans want to see. It’s why people are still watching highlights of United midfielder Roy Keane and Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira squaring up in the Highbury tunnel more than 15 years later.
City vs. Liverpool is good fun and the competition is fierce between two fantastic teams, but it could do with a bit more edge if it’s to truly reach that level.