So here we are again.
Another chapter between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho is set to unfold, yet it’s surreal that even a four-year break couldn’t rid the highly anticipated tension between the two managers.
This is the first time the two managers will be in opposing dugouts in a competitive match since Real Madrid clinched La Liga in 2012, yet it feels as if nothing has changed. That final match at the Camp Nou represents the sole time Guardiola hasn’t claimed a domestic title, but more importantly it signified a key moment in their managerial careers.
Initially it appeared Guardiola had lost the war – Mourinho was league champion, whereas the constant battle with the then-Madrid manager pushed the Spaniard into a year sabbatical to get away from his true passion. Yet, Mourinho failed to capitalize on Guardiola’s departure, and was subsequently dethroned by 15 points to Tito Vilanova’s Barcelona, thus resulting in Mourinho being fired for the first time in his career.
Since then, neither manager has been able to return to a Champions League final, and have equally been considered underachievers for their work at Bayern Munich and Chelsea. At Bayern, Pep was unable to guide the German champions to another European crown, whereas despite guiding Chelsea to the summit in England, Mourinho’s main goal was to build a dynasty – the Blues endured the worst title defence in Premier League history, finishing tenth, and the Portuguese manager was sacked in December.
More so, Manchester was supposed to serve as a therapeutic reinvigorating challenge for Guardiola. An opportunity to prove the cynics wrong – to build a team requiring evolution in nearly every position and transform them into an elite European side that produces breathtaking football. It was a challenge that threatened the other Premier League giants, specifically Manchester United who were spiralling downwards under Louis van Gaal.
Similar to Real Madrid at the turn of the decade, United required a solution to not only challenge Guardiola, but in the process regain their annual title challenger status. Ultimately, they turned to Mourinho: a man who craved the job since Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement, and who already crippled Guardiola’s mindset in their previous battles in Spain.
Their El Clasico battles sparked attention worldwide – it helped that the two best players of our generation combatted against each other in their prime – but to Guardiola’s dislike, these encounters are vividly remembered for the off-the-field/media hype opposed to the football itself – in truth, the quality of the games were generally poor.
There’s a growing feat that similar football displays may occur in Manchester, and for both managers, that’s not an ideal prospect. The Manchester Derby may not generate media attention equivalent to El Clasico, but the rivalry and hatred amongst both clubs and supporters is parallel.
Still, the upcoming chapter in the Guardiola and Mourinho tale supersedes anything ever witnessed in the history of the derby. It’s bigger than Wayne Rooney’s acrobatic winner at Old Trafford, Michael Owen’s stoppage time winner in the 2009 seven goal-thriller and the Vincent Kompany goal that guided City to their first Premier League title in the modern era.
This is football idealism vs. the ultimate pragmatist, proactive battling reactive, attractive possession oriented football aiming to solve a well-drilled organized defence. The contrasting styles of football, and off-the field managerial antics and preferences doesn’t alter the fact that both men crave success.
And while it’s normal for attention to be placed on two of the sought out managers in the sport, their first showdown in over four years lacks significance from a footballing perspective. Guardiola remains keen on having his players drilled into his football philosophy and lifestyle, whereas Mourinho’s pragmatism doesn’t conflict with his care for his players and vice-versa, and though both have evident flaws, they’re aim to win is perceived via dissimilar methods.
Past wars in Spain didn’t benefit either manager, and frankly another attempt by Mourinho to replicate an archaic method of draining his counterpart through the media would likely backfire. With Jurgen Klopp, Antonio Conte, Arsene Wenger and Mauricio Pochettino around, Mourinho doesn’t have the time to reignite an individual war with Guardiola. It won’t work.
The decision to bring Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the Premier League, however, insists that psychological battle with Guardiola may continue. Guardiola’s relationship with Ibrahimovic deteriorated quickly when they were both at Barcelona in 2010-2011, and the possibility of the Swede finally gaining revenge on his former manager hints that Mourinho’s hostile approach may continue at Old Trafford.
It’s success or failure for Mourinho, and though he’s finally at a club that provides patience, stability and long-term support, the Portuguese manager would be unable to cope finishing behind Guardiola. Similarly, Guardiola’s massive overhaul at the Etihad suggests Mourinho is in the ideal position to inflict the first blow, raise the pressure on the Spaniard, and win now.
Likewise, United’s joint best defensive record benefitted Mourinho prior to his arrival, but he’s yet to identify the proper balance in attacking positions. Mourinho has yet to alter his starting XI, and reliance on the individual brilliance of Ibrahimovic, and a late winner from Marcus Rashford indicates United are far from the finished product.
They’re not the powerful, never say die Chelsea that perplexed English sides with the introduction of the 4-3-3. The brilliance of Wesley Sneijder behind lethal strikers, whilst ahead of physically imposing midfielders and centre-backs doesn’t compare. And the relentlessly slick counter-attacking machine that steamrolled teams at the Santiago Bernabeu – and effectively halted Guardiola’s tenure at Barcelona – would be difficult to replicate without a Cristiano Ronaldo-esque threat upfront.
Mourinho’s United are capable of developing into a direct, transitional nightmare for opponents in the future – look no further than Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford’s cameo at Hull two weeks ago for evidence – but reliance and faith in Rooney and Ibrahimovic, the former in particular, stagnates an immediate stylistic alteration.
City, on the other hand, also have to hand debuts to several summer signings, whilst continually building towards perfecting Guardiola’s ideology. The false full-backs, instant counter-pressing, and insistence to quickly cycle through possession requires time, but clearly suggests City’s peak form awaits, despite impressive spells of dominance in previous league matches.
The ball-playing wizards consisting of Xavi, Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, or the sheer greatness of Lionel Messi aren’t at Guardiola’s disposal at the Etihad. Arjen Robben’s threat, combined with the tactical and positional universality of Philip Lahm, David Alaba and Thomas Muller can’t be relied on either.
Even though, Guardiola has successfully revolutionized the manner in which Barcelona and Bayern Munich effectively ply their trade, the Spaniard’s workload at City is undoubtedly his biggest challenge. A broken model built around individualism and possessing the most talented squad is the antithesis of a Guardiola side, and the pressure to build a cohesively flexible unit and claim silverware poses an arduous challenge.
Nevertheless, the most fitting aspect involving the two sides is that they’re generally at the same level of development. Though United are generally built to win the league this year, Guardiola’s talent base can suffice while they adapt to his well-detailed tactical scheme.
The football plot lines are also interesting. How will Guardiola replace the suspended Sergio Aguero? Will Mourinho finally drop Wayne Rooney for an additional midfielder to ensure United aren’t overrun in midfield? Is this the ideal match for debutants such as Ilkay Gundogan, Leroy Sane or Claudio Bravo to start?
Saturday’s derby should provide a brief example of what could be the most thrilling title race in the league’s history, but the most anticipated match of the season must display improved growth opposed to resuming fireworks. The tactical ideologues for both managers have been questioned following recent failures, and though the possibility of a cagey and cautious encounter is expected, the platform presented to make a statement is available.
Titles aren’t won, nor are philosophies fully integrated in September, but avoiding defeat will be imperative, here. Both managers have experienced memorable nights in Manchester, but now they aim to conquer a city that is big enough for one true winner. Failure is no longer an option and the pressure is on both managers to make an immediate impact, but where media rants and touch-line quarrels dominated headlines, this new chapter has to be about the football.
An identity crisis looms throughout Manchester, and though Saturday’s derby will provide more answers, the dawn of a new era emerging throughout the Premier League will slowly transition into a global spectacle. All eyes will be on Old Trafford, the ‘Theatre of Dreams’, where ironically, one can be prematurely crushed.
Something has to give.