Man City dominance and 115 charges sees penny finally drop for Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp

Liverpool know exactly how Arsenal will feel as the 2023/24 Premier League season heads towards its final matchday.

Starting the week as league leaders, the Gunners’ hopes of an unlikely favour from bitter-rivals Tottenham Hotspur went unanswered when Spurs hosted reigning champions Man City on Tuesday. An Erling Haaland brace clinched a 2-0 victory to snatch top spot heading into Sunday’s finale.

City now sit two points clear at the top ahead of hosting West Ham United in their final outing. Arsenal are now left praying for a slip-up at the Etihad, as they welcome Everton to the Emirates. Neither Hammers or Blues have anything to play for.

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Top at the end of a gameweek for only the second time since November 2023, this is just what Pep Guardiola’s juggernauts do. Unbeaten in their last 22 Premier League matches, with their last defeat coming away at Aston Villa in early-December, they have even clawed back the Gunners’ previously seemingly unassailable superior goal-difference.

Well aware they would lose on head-to-head records if they finished level, they have left nothing to chance with City’s goal-difference now +60 to Arsenal’s +61 heading into that final day.

Liverpool have been here before of course, on two separate occasions, heading into the final day keeping everything crossed that results fall their way.

In May 2019, the Reds were top for 21 first-half minutes as Sadio Mane fired them ahead after 17 minutes against Wolves before Glen Murray opened the scoring for Brighton against Man City in the 27th minute. But then Sergio Aguero equalised 83 seconds later before Aymeric Laporte headed them in front in the 38th minute.

Second half goals from Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan clinched a 4-1 win on the south coast and the title. It did not matter that Liverpool had accumulated an incredible 97 points and lost just once over the entirety of the campaign, they had still fallen short.

They were left to rue that solitary defeat, coming at the Etihad in January 2019 as they fell to a 2-1 loss. Were it not for a remarkable goal-line clearance from a scrambling John Stones, that somehow nutmegged Mohamed Salah, the Reds would have been champions. Subsequent data showed that the ball had failed to cross by just 1.12cm as they ended up missing out on the title by a single point.

Fast forward to 2022 and the carrot was dangled in front of them again. Falling behind early on to Pedro Neto’s opener at home to Wolves, Mane equalised in the 24th minute before Aston Villa raced into a 2-0 lead at the Etihad with 21 minutes remaining.

Take the lead and the Premier League trophy would be in Liverpool hands. But by the time Salah had fired them ahead in the 83rd minute, with his celebrations that of a man who clearly thought he had scored a title-winning goal, three goals in five minutes from Gundogan and Rodri had already seen City do what they needed to do. Andy Robertson’s 89th-minute strike subsequently mattered not as the Reds missed out by a point yet again.

This time the chaser rather than looking over their shoulder at a catching City, draws with Guardiola’s men and Tottenham Hotspur had seen them ‘squander’ their opportunities to take control of the title-race. But unbeaten for the entirety of the second half of the season, dropping points just three times and only losing twice throughout the campaign as a whole, again their efforts were not enough. Again they missed out by just a point despite boasting an impressive haul of 92 in total.

Should Man City win the Premier League this year, their maximum points total is 91. Arsenal’s would be 89 points, if granted a slip-up that remained elusive when Liverpool were in pursuit. Both totals are less than the Reds’ records the two times they missed out in agonising fashion.

Meanwhile, in the Premier League’s entire 31-year history prior to the current campaign, only Man City’s 2017/18 (100 points) and 2018/19 champions (98 points), along with Liverpool’s own 2019/20 title-winning alumni (99 points) have been capable of preventing Klopp’s own 2018/19 side (97 points) from winning the league.

And Chelsea in 2004/05 (95 points) and 2016/17 (93 points) are the only other side who better their 2021/22 return of 92 points - aside from that year’s Champions, Man City and their 93. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side of 1993/94 can match such a total, but with a far inferior goal difference despite playing four matches more.

As Jurgen Klopp prepares to step down as Liverpool manager this weekend, his record of ‘only’ one Premier League title from nine years has been mocked by rivals. Yet in any other era, he would be departing with three winner’s medals around his neck.

In his reign where perfection has been needed to emerge victorious, he has been on the verge of delivering exactly that. The only problem is Guardiola and City have had that decisive tiny bit more.

This is not to take anything away from them. They have been worthy winners, with both Klopp and Guardiola insisting their own sides would not have reached such heights if they had not been fighting the other. It is because of both sides that we have reached an age where near-perfection is needed to be Premier League champions.

Just because Liverpool fell short more times than not, that does not mean Klopp’s legacy is one of failure. Yet it is one that will always be accompanied by thoughts of what if.

After all, as remarkable as Guardiola’s side are, City’s rise has been accompanied by an asterisk. Those 115 charges, mainly for alleged breaches of the league's financial rules between 2009/10 and 2017/18, but also 35 charges of failing to cooperate with Premier League investigations December 2018 - February 2023, still hang over their head.

Sky News’ sports correspondent, Rob Harris, has claimed that the Premier League have indicated that a hearing is coming in the next few months, with a plethora of potential punishments possible if City are found guilty.

They could be hit with huge fines, deducted points, kicked out of the Premier League altogether or stripped of historic titles, though it is expected that any punishment will have ramifications more on the future than the past. It will be up to successor Arne Slot to ensure Liverpool are in a position to take advantage if and when the time comes.

Admittedly, Klopp’s near title-misses don’t fall during this period, but what came before has contributed to transforming City, who do strongly deny any wrong-doing, into this invincible heavyweight in the first place. How different things could have looked had it been a near level playing field at the top.

Meanwhile, accusations of a lack of cooperation and the sheer complex nature of Man City's position has seen the whole case dragged on and on. Had it been answered sooner and potential punishments dished out earlier, that would have had knock-on effects in the seasons where Liverpool narrowly missed out. In an era where campaigns have decided by the finest of margins, this is both decisive and game-changing.

Klopp will depart the Reds this weekend knowing he gave everything he could to see Liverpool crowned champions in each and every year. He will also know that he has had to battle the best side English football has ever seen, and while he landed a few blows, he often lost the fight. He is not alone on that score, as Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal are now finding out.

Guardiola’s side are just inevitable. But it was never a fair fight in the first place, with the odds stacked against the Reds time and time again. Only once the investigation is resolved will the departing German finally have peace of mind and set the record straight, only then knowing, one way or the other, exactly what his Anfield achievements mean and what could have been.

Klopp’s legacy is not one of failure. As he rides off into the sunset, the soon-to-be former Liverpool boss can now only hope that when City’s case is finally heard, if found guilty, the Premier League don’t fail him.