HBO’s Game of Thrones is set to conclude in 2019, and fittingly, there is a similarly thrilling contest that will reach its climax at around the same time. The Premier League, whose budget dwarfs even that of the epic television series, has its very own Song of Ice and Fire, an intriguing duel between the cool blue of Manchester City and the crimson passion of Liverpool. And the two meet on Thursday in the biggest match of the season.
While George R.R. Martin pitched the White Walkers against the dragons of Daenerys Targaryen, this season sees Pep Guardiola’s relentless and possession-based hordes taking on the awe-inspiring marauders of Jurgen Klopp. (If we are being true to this analogy, the Premier League, like Game of Thrones, also features a third force, perhaps less robust but no less cunning, waiting in the wings should either of these protagonists slip up. In that sense, Spurs’ Mauricio Pochettino is English football’s answer to Cersei Lannister.)
Perhaps the most striking element of this battle is the sheer range of resources that Klopp and Guardiola can call upon. Manchester City is home to arguably four of the best playmakers in the world: David Silva, Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva and Kevin de Bruyne. Meanwhile, Liverpool are so good that their most decisive player changes from half to half, let alone from week to week: against Manchester United it was Xherdan Shaqiri, against Arsenal it was Roberto Firmino. Klopp’s team are a true ensemble cast, in which each attacker steps forward in turn to play a devastating role.
Of course, Game of Thrones is famous for how apparently unbeatable rulers can falter at any moment, and in that sense, City are faithful to the script. Last season, following their dominance of the Premier League, they looked a good bet to win comfortably this year. Yet recent defeats to Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Leicester City — who have now, remarkably, beaten Guardiola in each of his three seasons in England — have reminded everyone of their vulnerability.
To Klopp’s credit, it was he who first exposed City’s weakness, in the quarterfinals of last season’s UEFA Champions League. Faced by a side that destroyed opponents every week with their attacking intensity, Klopp took a daring approach: to overwhelm them in turn. The crucial part of this tie came in the first half-hour of the first leg at Anfield, when Liverpool scored three times in the space of 19 minutes. In terms of how disrespectfully these hosts treated their distinguished guests, it was the footballing equivalent of the Red Wedding.
Yet while the Red Wedding was rooted in a grotesque act of betrayal, Liverpool’s rebellion has taken place in plain sight. Spending with an extravagance that was once beyond them, they have gone out and recruited some of the most formidable warriors plying their trade anywhere in world football.
Fighting like fire and ice
Naby Keita has arrived from RB Leipzig, and such is Liverpool’s strength in depth that he occupies a spot on the bench. Alisson Becker, signed from Roma this summer, offers the same dashing mix of handsomeness and flamboyance as that other outstanding bodyguard, Daario Naharis. With his intimidating blend of size, speed and technique, Virgil van Dijk is the closest thing this league has seen to Game of Thrones’ most terrifying presence, that man simply nicknamed “The Mountain.”
But Liverpool are no mere mercenaries. Like all leading teams, their true strength lies in their collective effort, and they seem to attack and defend with equal relish. They’re conceding less than one goal every two games, and for a team that scores almost two-and-a-half goals per game, they’ve played with a remarkable restraint. Even Mohamed Salah, having a reasonable season by his recent explosive standards, has quietly accumulated as many goals as anyone in the division.
The legendary boxer Mike Tyson, never short of a quick quip, once said that “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Well, Liverpool’s form has been such that they have just punched City in the mouth and the disoriented champions are casting about for a response.
Game of Thrones is a series in which its characters often find themselves on the brink of both success and failure, often brought down by naivety or hubris. During his coaching career, Guardiola has continually taken a tactical approach that could be viewed as almost reckless in its bravery: he frequently fields teams that lack defensive brawn and encourages them to play possession football in the most dangerous of situations, sometimes even a few feet from their own goal. In that respect, Guardiola is far closer to Jon Snow, the rash, passionate and brilliant swordsman, than the grimly efficient Night King. Like Stark, though, Guardiola always seems to find the resolve and energy for another exhilarating raid.
There is little doubt that he and City will answer Liverpool’s challenge with a charge of their own — the mind games have commenced in full, too, with both managers claiming the other team is the best in the world. And it looks as if the Premier League, which has mostly been at its best when defined by great rivalries, has another magnificent struggle on its hands.
The League of Ice and Fire is in full effect.