Liverpool and Man City are enjoying the pressure of the title race and make keeping on each other’s tails “look easy”, says Sky Sky Sports’ Gary Neville.
Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp’s sides look destined to remain almost neck-and-neck until the very end of the Premier League season for the second time in four years with both sides victorious on Saturday, to leave City a point ahead in the standings with four games remaining.
Both sides rested players due to their Champions League semi-final commitments but after a Mo Salah-less Liverpool edged to a 1-0 win at Newcastle in the lunchtime kick-off, Manchester City saw off a Leeds side unbeaten in five games with a 4-0 victory at Elland Road to leapfrog them back to the top of the table, despite making five changes from their match with Real Madrid in midweek.
Neville told the Gary Neville Podcast the two teams had transformed the title race from the “fights” of his time as a player at Manchester United into a spectacle both appear to enjoy, with the increasing pressure of keeping up with their title rival never showing – and the prospect of a faultless end to the season a real possibility.
He said: “The thing that actually City have done tonight, which is massively impressive, but they make it look easy, is that when we were up against the team going for a title and they played before us, we always wanted to play first.
“When Liverpool have gone and done what they did at lunchtime today at Newcastle, after Villarreal in midweek and all the games they’ve had recently, you’re thinking that switches the pressure to City, but you never really get the impression that these two teams feel that pressure.
“That’s because of their dominance, because of their class, because of their composure, because of their rhythm. Everything that they have. They just seem to be in control, they seem to be enjoying it.
“When we were going through these tussles with Arsenal, or Chelsea or Blackburn in the mid-90s, it always felt like a fight. But this doesn’t feel like that, even when they played against each other in that brilliant 2-2 draw. Liverpool did very well to come back in and then there were hugs at the end and it’s a very pleasant, respectful run-in.
“But you cannot deny the excellence of both of these clubs and both of these teams at this moment in time because it is a standard that we’ve not seen before in terms of consistency at the end of the season.
“You could say that in other seasons, teams have gone on these types of runs towards the end, but these teams are in the Champions League, they’re in the FA Cups. they’re in the Carabao Cups, they are playing tonnes of matches and still doing it.”
‘Klopp & Pep empowered their squads by rotating’
Neville felt both Klopp and Guardiola took a chance by making changes for Saturday’s Premier League matches – but says to have come through unscathed will be of huge benefit to both teams in the remaining games this season, with fringe players feeling more confident and ready to make an impact off the bench in pivotal moments.
“What Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola are doing today is, they’re basically empowering the squad,” said Neville. “You hear managers say ‘I’ve got a great squad’, but have you got the guts and the courage to really use that squad in big matches where you need to win?
“Where you know if you don’t win there is a large consequence, or you’re probably going to lose a league title, or you’re going to get knocked out of a European Cup competition. So to do it and then come out of it and win – you’ve empowered everybody.
“You’ve made everybody feel part of it, and the strength in that squad and the commitment of everybody means that you start to blend into the feeling of every three days, you know everyone’s had a game, no one feels like there’s a first eleven.
“It’s a real mistake to name your first eleven, then always play that first eleven in modern football, if you’re going to go for three and four trophies because you’re going to need those five and six and seven on the bench. And so to keep them included to make them feel part of it, get them on the pitch if you can, even it’s for 10 or 15 minutes at the end.
“It’s really critical that you make everybody feel proud of being part of the squad because there is absolute certainty there is going to come a game that will catch you out, and you’re going to need two or three subs to come on and save you. That could be a defensive sub, it could be an attacking sub as well more often than not.
“We had it in the Champions League final, where we had two subs come off the bench and win it for us. Liverpool have that in them, Manchester City have that in them, but you need to keep those players in form, confident, fit, part of it, energised. Making them feel like they’re contributing to the success, and it’s not just a token gesture where you’re being played in the sort of weak games.”
Was it a risk to rest Salah & De Bruyne?
“It’s the first time Jurgen Klopp’s left Mo Salah out in what feels like an absolute age, but he must have felt that was a game that he could leave him out in. Why he thought that, we don’t know. But when I saw that, I thought, ‘Right, what message does that send to the rest of the Liverpool players?’.
“I just thought because he’s played Salah in every game, the game that he leaves Salah out in, I thought would be a risk because it tells the rest of the players something. I just thought there was a risk there when I saw the team news come through. I thought that’s a test for the other players because they know this guy is going to come straight back in against Villarreal. They know he’s number one. So can we get through without him?
“So those Liverpool players come off today getting through without him, and City have got through without De Bruyne, and I think that’s the two best players – I think Van Dijk competes with Salah in terms of importance – but those are the two star players. To come through those games without their two star players, the rest of the squad will feel a million dollars, and you’ve rested your two best players.”