Heart Of Football

The truth about City, United and the rest

When Manchester United and Liverpool pit their multimillion-dollar teams in away games at West Bromwich and Bournemouth later today, they are playing for second best in the English Premier League.

You will not, of course, get that kind of true and honest admission from Jose Mourinho. However, Jurgen Klopp does admit that even with his Fab Four attack, Liverpool and all the rest are inferior now to Manchester City.

So, forget the diversionary antics, the "Milkgate" nonsense in the tunnel following United's capitulation to City at Old Trafford last weekend. Mourinho's claim that City players routinely foul to win their games is as spurious as it is hypocritical.

Pep Guardiola is guilty of playing to win, as well as playing the beautiful game. And, as the City manager says, how can anyone point the finger at a team based, like his former Barcelona team, his Bayern Munich and now his City, on creativity and movement and ball possession, be accused of kicking the opposition?

We should consign Mourinho's sour grapes to the dustbin of debate.

Better to listen to Klopp. When the heat of touchline emotions are spent, and when he is not speaking in the immediate aftermath of his Liverpool side losing points he expected to win, he admits ahead of this weekend's fixtures:

"This season, nobody is really fighting any more for the title. I don't think United are. We will all try to come as close as possible, but if City don't have any drop then they will probably win it."

Probably? Come, come, Jurgen.

"OK," the German of Liverpool concedes. "Does that mean all the others have to stop?

"To be the best of the rest could be a fantastic target. So it is to try to have the best position in the table, which for us is third or second."

Let's run through the Liverpool attacking line-up again. Philippe Coutinho, if he does not move to Barcelona in January, is on his day one of the most creative and beguiling Brazilians of the current era.

Roberto Firmino, his countryman, works and runs for others, and scores to boot.

Then there is Sadio Mane, the best and the fastest striker out of Africa at present.

And, outscoring them all is Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian has returned to English football a turbo-boosted version of the player Mourinho discarded while he managed Chelsea.

If ever you wished to see the embodiment of the adage that confidence makes a player, particularly a goal-scorer, Mo Salah is proof.

Of course, everyone knows that Klopp's Liverpool are all or nothing. His defence is, to put it politely, light. His midfield is workmanlike, and English.

His attack might today welcome back Adam Lallana, who suffered a thigh injury before the season started. He was missed by England, let alone the Reds.

But he gives Klopp just one more attacking option. Two others, both English (and I'm not making this up, both ex-Chelsea) are Daniel Sturridge and Dominic Solanke.

Liverpool's Dominic Solanke, just 20, can play striker or winger but, like many of England's promising youth, his opportunities in the EPL are minimal, crowded out by the big clubs' excessive wealth that attracts mature world-class strikers from abroad. 

Sturridge could one day make an exhibit for medical science, such has been his susceptibility to injuries. But, on song and in fitness and health, he would still make the England line-up at the World Cup.

Solanke is just 20, the rising star trying to usurp the foreign talents amassed at Anfield. He was awarded the Golden Ball as the best player of the World Under-20 tournament in South Korea where he scored the only goal against Mexico in the quarter-finals, twice against Italy in the semis, and played a leading role in the final against Venezuela.

He can play striker or winger but, like many of England's promising youth, his opportunities in the EPL are minimal, crowded out by the big clubs' excessive wealth that attracts mature world-class strikers from abroad.

The manager rates him highly, wants to give him opportunity, yet the bare facts of Solanke's season since that Fifa tournament in June amounts to just 249 minutes on the pitch as a Liverpool player - two starts and then substituted in the EPL, and nine times being summoned off the bench by Klopp.

Sooner or later, Liverpool will make a judgment call on his career. They could loan him out, as Chelsea did to Vitesse in the Dutch league. Or they could give him a real run in the first team, which would mean dropping or "resting" one of the foreign Fab Four.

It is the conundrum of English football. Every team at the top wrestle with it, and there is another, perhaps even better than Solanke, called Phil Foden at City.

Guardiola rates him highly, promises him the opportunity to develop at the Etihad, and has put him into the line-up twice in the Champions League.

Foden is only 17. Time, as they say, is on his side and what better environment could there be to develop than under the training that Guardiola learnt from Johan Cruyff and practises with such intensity now in Manchester.

Maybe, just maybe, if City have the league sewn up by early spring, the coach will give the most promising youngster growing up in Manchester experience in the biggest league on earth.

Until then, Guardiola has to rotate between Sergio Aguero, the Argentinian, Gabriel Jesus of Brazil, Leroy Sane from Germany and a player City paid almost £50 million (S$90 million) to sign from Liverpool - Raheem Sterling.

When Guardiola got him, Sterling was an incredibly fast and gifted winger, but a wasteful finisher. The Spaniard said he considered Sterling (as English as the name sounds though he was actually born in Kingston, Jamaica) to be a far better goal-scorer than anyone believed.

Sterling's return this season has been nine goals in 15 games in the EPL, and four in five matches in the Champions League.

So if Liverpool, and all the rest, have already given up the ghost of chasing down City, is now the time to give home-bred players the chance?

Alas, there is second, third and fourth to play for. Each of those qualifies for the Champions League and, with marketing, that is worth upwards of £60 million per season. More income buys more imported talent - the only way that Klopp, Mourinho and all the rest will challenge Guardiola's City next season.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 17, 2017, with the headline 'The truth about City, United and the rest'. Print Edition | Subscribe