By Joshua Robinson
LIVERPOOL, England—Once he finished his victory lap around the Anfield pitch, and once he’d run down the tunnel pounding the crest over his heart, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp calmed down enough to deliver all the usual caveats.
Of course, the Premier League won’t hand out any silverware for another six months. But still. As anyone who has obsessed over the English soccer standings as much as Klopp has can tell you, this situation merited some chest-thumping. After an emphatic 3-1 victory over Manchester City on Sunday, Liverpool now has a nine-point gap over the two-time defending champions.
It’s only November, but already the prospect of a first Liverpool championship seems closer than it has in 30 years.
“That’s crazy. Nine points, you can’t imagine that happening,” Klopp said. “But it’s not important, because who wants to be first in November?”
The answer to his question is simple: anyone who wants even a faint chance of beating Man City.
There are still 26 games to play—and another meeting between these two sides in April—but in a struggle that was decided by a single point last season, this is a chasm. City isn’t even in second place at this point, slipping into fourth behind Leicester City and Chelsea, who are each eight points adrift of undefeated Liverpool.
The challenge for Klopp now is to figure how to keep his team on track with so much runway ahead of it. There is a December with up to nine games on the schedule, including a trip to the Club World Cup in Qatar. There is what Liverpool hopes to be a deep Champions League run to come next spring. And there is the unmistakable pressure of a city so starved for a league championship that an entire generation of players have folded under the pressure.
City manager Pep Guardiola stopped short of conceding the title—he’s eccentric, not crazy—but he did slip into the kind of self-flagellation that has tended to accompany his exits from the Champions League in previous seasons, calling Liverpool “the best team in the world” at the moment.
“We have three teams in front who have more chances to win the Premier League than us,” he added.
More stunning than the gap in the standings is the manner in which Liverpool stretched it here on Sunday. Klopp’s team made Guardiola’s City look bereft of ideas. And even when the scoring opportunities came, City’s strikers seemed oddly blunt. Perhaps fourth place—even for a team with City’s recent history—is no longer so far from the club’s true quality this season.
All of which is a problem when you run into Liverpool, in form and at home. In six minutes of high-grade frenzy at the start of the game, it played soccer at ice hockey speeds. Everything about its approach was designed to knock City’s intricate passing game off kilter. It paid off quicker than anyone expected when a ropy City defense failed to clear the ball, only for Liverpool midfielder Fabinho to lash the ball in from 25 yards.
“If you want to win against Manchester City, which is really really difficult for each team in the world, you cannot play the way they play,” Klopp said. “Because they’re definitely the best in the way play—it makes no sense. So we have to push through our way.”
And yet for all the hysteria of watching Liverpool play at Anfield—and watching Klopp vibrate on the sideline—what defines this team more than anything is the calm that runs through its players. Their pressing is deliberate and unrelenting. They clip cross field passes to each other like they’re holding pitching wedges.
Nothing made it clearer than Liverpool’s second goal in the opening 15 minutes. The fullbacks bisected the field with one soaring 50-yard pass, then another, before Mohamed Salah capped off the move with a header. Klopp was so absorbed by the buildup that when the final cross floated into the City penalty area, he couldn’t help but mime heading the ball himself.
“I don’t think I ever saw a goal like this,” he said.
For Guardiola, a fourth season in England is proving the most challenging of his glittering career. This is his lowest points total after the first 12 games at any of his stops in top-tier management. And never before—not at City, not at Bayern Munich, and not at Barcelona—has he ever been more than three points off the top at this stage of a season, according to Opta Sports
His only solace might be that he stared down a seven-point gap to Liverpool last winter and reeled them in. But in a rivalry settled by such fine margins, nine points, even with more time to spare, is starting to look like too many to spot the defending champion of Europe.
At no point in Liverpool’s recent history has it held a nine-point lead over its most serious challenger. The last time was the final day of the 1989-90 season—which is also the last time Liverpool won the title.
Write to Joshua Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org