Pep Guardiola studies an exhausting amount of football to prepare for his team’s matches but, over the past few weeks, he’s been studying even more – and going even further back – to prepare for something different. Maybe something unique.
He’s been researching the run-ins of all of the teams that won or went closest to trebles and quadruples in the past, noting where and how they slipped up, or the luck required to win them. It’s got to the stage where he can recite key moments. It may yet make a difference.
A number of Liverpool’s players have been doing something similar with the club’s own title victories. Andy Robertson is one of those keen to make himself aware of what exactly winning the league again would mean for this club, immersing himself in past glories.
And yet, as far back as they go, as deep as they look, they will not come across a run-in quite like this. They will not come across stakes like this.
It is a sense of history that has actually been overlooked because of how involving the current race is. Really, the fact both Manchester City and Liverpool are together recording such historically high points totals and are still so enticingly close in the table appropriately reflects the extremities of what is on the line.
On one side, there is the quadruple – a feat that has never been achieved by an English team before.
On the other side, there would be Liverpool ending a long wait to win a title, to do something – and feel something – that hasn’t been done for 29 years. No major European club with as many league trophies has ever gone so long without victory.
One feat is so emotionally unparalleled because it would be unprecedented for any club. One feat is so emotionally unparalleled because of the club’s precedents. It is winning everything against winning the single thing you want more than anything. It is the uniqueness of perfection against the perfect feeling of that unique trophy; the weight of all the silverware against the wait for that one piece of silverware.
There have never been two title challengers whose potential conquests have so much consequence and meaning, and in such different ways.
And that’s before you get to the prospect of Liverpool themselves claiming a double. Lifting both the Champions League and league in the same season is a feat that has historically lifted clubs to another level of greatness, but that has been just as overlooked as the combined stakes because winning one of those trophies means so much to Liverpool.
That says enough, and previous records don’t say anything like this. Those that come anywhere close, and went to the wire, are:
- 2008-09: The race for that record 19th title, as Manchester United go for three in a row, and Liverpool hope to end an 18-year wait
- 1964-65: United going for their first since the Munich air disaster, against Leeds United going for their first ever
- 1980-81: Aston Villa hoping to end a 71-year wait for a seventh title as Ipswich hoped to win first in 19 years
- 1994-95: Blackburn Rovers hoping to end an 81-year wait for their third title, as United hope for just the fourth three-in-a-row in history
- 2011-12: Manchester City hoping to end a 44-year wait, as Manchester United go for a record 20th
- 1988-89: Arsenal hoping to end an 18-year wait, as Liverpool go for the double, after Hillsborough
- 2007-08: The race for the double, as United and Chelsea face off for the league and Champions League
- 1967-68: City hoping to end a 31-year wait, as United go for a European Cup and league double
- 1998-99: Manchester United going for the treble, as Arsenal looked to retain it and go for double
- 1983-84: Liverpool going for a treble as Southampton looked to win their first
- 1985-86: Both Liverpool and Everton going for the double
Going through those, there are none where the two clubs are going for so much at the same time so late into the season as City and Liverpool are. None really compare. It’s on a different level.
It’s going to put every match on a different level from here on in, too.
It also brings a different level of difficulty and potential pitfalls. Liverpool could buckle under, well, the weight of the wait; City under the weight of the fixtures.
For all the inevitable focus on the intense emotion around Liverpool, City are now going to feel the same sense of history – if not for different reasons.
That is something that has started to shift and really picked up in the past month. Every one of both teams’ matches is going to mean so much more.
That is the effect of that sense of history on the present. It is going to electrically charge every match.
That City play in the FA Cup this weekend as Liverpool play in the league only brings this more brutally into focus.
The champions’ match against Brighton is no longer just a forgiving semi-final they should fairly easily win. It is another step to something previously seen as impossible, where one slip could see it all fall down. A similar outlook applies to Liverpool’s match against Southampton and all of their remaining run-in games.
Hence Klopp has been wondering about how best to psychologically manage his team. Hence Guardiola has been researching past trebles, including his own at Barcelona.
Because even the most detached modern player does start to feel it.
Frank Lampard spoke of how, as Chelsea honed in on their first title in 50 years in 2004-05, he “felt the same pent-up frustration as the fans about waiting any longer.”
He added: “It seemed everywhere I went I ran into Chelsea fans, all of whom were eager to let me know what the title meant to them.”
Now imagine that in a city as self-contained as Liverpool. Their rivals United went through it in 1991-92 and 1992-93, and Paul Parker explains how the great quest began to play on the team.
“We wanted to be the players to get that first league title in 26 years, the players never to be forgotten.”
City don’t need to imagine it because they went through it in 2011-12, for one of the victories that set them on the path to this season’s grander quest. It is again their great rivals that could tell them all about this.
When United were going for the 1998-99 treble, coach Jim Ryan would come into the dressing room and just bark “12 to go, boys!” Twelve games from greatness, with that countdown firing up the players but also helping them to focus on the job at hand. To take it game by game. Sir Alex Ferguson referenced this now-notorious line in his first autobiography.
“It is better to be cliched than crazy. Letting the mind skip over immediate assignments and on to future possibilities is a good way to wreck concentration.
“When I did think two or three games ahead, it was not to conjure up dreams of triumph but with the practical purpose of working out the team changes that might keep us fresh for recurring challenges produced by pressing forward on several fronts.”
This is what Guardiola has been taking on board, and it is notable he went into fairly nuanced detail on United’s treble season the other day given that he was a player at Barcelona with his own concerns at the time.
As a manager at Barcelona in 2008-09, though, his message by the end represented a subtle switch. It was to seize every match.
The usual mindset for players fighting on many fronts is: “rest, recuperation, go again; rest, recuperation, go again.” The slight danger with that general approach is that it players’ extra edge can be eroded and they can become a bit too mechanical, at a time when some matches will actually require greater awareness to bring greater intensity.
It is all the more important with a City squad who now know they are good enough to win a quadruple but can occasionally have things too easy. Over the next few weeks they are likely to hear something similar to this.
“These are the games that define us,” Guardiola told his Barcelona players before that decisive 6-2 win at Real Madrid in May 2009. “We won’t speculate or leave it to fate. We will not relinquish all that we have been this year… I want it to have been all about us.”
Klopp has been taking a similar attitude. Those that know him say that, while he understands the culture of Liverpool, he has not felt saddled by history. Hence he’s actually been ramping up the players.
This is just another break with history with this campaign. These two teams aren’t quite taking every game as they come but looking to take the initiative. It is partly what has brought them to these heights.
The hope is that this brings the title to the wire. It is what this race deserves, even if one of these teams ultimately won’t get what they deserve. It deserves to be something everyone looks back on for decades.