Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, and the internet has ramped up public desire for it by archiving all the things you loved when you were younger. Soccer fans seem to be an especially nostalgic bunch. There are entire social media empires dedicated to appreciating the good old days of the sport — specifically the late ‘90s and early 2000s — before commercialization made the game soulless.
This is, of course, a crock of bullshit. The sport was highly commercialized and transfer fees were unfathomable to working people by the late 1980s. The game that Matt Le Tissier and Alan Shearer played was no more pure and wholesome than the one we watch today.
But what that era did have, and the real reason I think people look back on it so fondly, was a degree of consistency. The best teams had star players and managers who stuck around for a while and established identities for their clubs. Those teams’ lovable long-serving role-players fit that identity.
When you flipped on a Manchester United game, you knew you were going to see Alex Ferguson and Paul Scholes, that United would play attacking football, and that they’d gradually ramp up the pressure before finishing teams off late in games. You knew Wenger’s Arsenal would play possession football with Thierry Henry changing the pace. You knew Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool would be well-organized, with Steven Gerrard adding a spark of creativity.
The top of the Premier League has seen a ton of chopping and changing of managers and star players over the last decade. Chelsea has a new boss every season, Manchester United still hasn’t recovered from Ferguson’s exit, and Arsenal is still trying to develop its identity post-Wenger. Star players’ agents have also gotten smarter and are always looking to get their clients the most money and playing time possible.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to see what appears to be a consistent rivalry blooming at the top of the Premier League between Manchester City and Liverpool. Their squads haven’t changed much over the summer, and this coming season feels like a natural continuation of the last.
City manager Pep Guardiola and Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp are the narrative-drivers and tone-setters for their respective teams. Pep’s City play an artistic, flowing game. Klopp’s Liverpool play fast and aggressive. They have, over time, adopted significant aspects of each other’s styles — City press more aggressively and play faster than Pep’s previous teams, while Liverpool are a lot better at slowing down the game and keeping possession than Klopp’s Dortmund. Their rivalry has evolved into one of mutual respect between two coaches who now have more similarities than differences between them.
And, importantly for the development of this matchup as historically interesting in English football, Guardiola and Klopp believe in their current squads. Following a season in which Liverpool and City were the two best club teams on the planet, both have been quiet on the transfer market. City filled one big hole, buying defensive midfielder Rodri out of necessity, because Fernandinho is 34 years old. Otherwise, Guardiola has repeatedly told reporters that he doesn’t think he needs to make any more moves. Liverpool signed two teenagers and a backup goalkeeper, but no players who will see significant playing time.
That brings us back to the feeling of familiarity. It takes time to learn which players we love, which ones we hate, who we can expect to deliver in the big games, and who we expect to choke. It takes a series of several matches between two managers for interesting tactical trends to develop. We need to see two teams with the same coaches and same players face off a half-dozen times to establish feelings for a rivalry beyond clichés.
Liverpool and City faced off in the Community Shield on Sunday. As usual, players with minor injuries that they likely would have toughed out during a Premier League match were rested. But the lineups still looked like Liverpool vs. Manchester City, because both teams are filled with familiar faces that have grown with their teams over several years. The game — usually nothing more than a friendly — was played with surprising intensity. I can’t recall seeing two teams ever take the match more seriously.
The game even featured a bit of rivalry-building #banter. City’s Gabriel Jesus is, at least statistically, the first player to dribble past Liverpool star Virgil van Dijk in 62 games. Unsurprisingly, Liverpool supporters are indignantly suggesting that this play does not constitute “dribbling past” van Dijk, and that the streak is still intact. Expect this to be a point of contention all season long.
agora sim o vvd sendo driblado passando na tl de vocês pic.twitter.com/MLazDLflAk— suh agüero (@sccpsuh) August 4, 2019
I hope neither team is active in the transfer market before it closes, because I want to see more of exactly this. I want to see van Dijk put in a dominant performance where he doesn’t let Jesus, not some new expensive striker, touch the ball. I want to see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain come back to fitness and score a winner against City, not a replacement for him. I want these clubs to be patient and let the flavors marry before deciding if they need any new ingredients.
Liverpool and City are, for my neutral fan purposes, fantastic the way they are.