It may go right, it may go wrong. But this is the one – this is the one we’ve waited for. And not before time either. A year and a half into the most dizzily trailed clash of managerial personalities since the brown-suited white heat of Don Revie versus Brian Clough, Sunday’s Manchester derby may finally dish up a contest to justify the extended trails.
When Pep Guardiola arrived in Manchester two summers ago the level of expectation was understandable. In a league already obsessed with the José Mourinho toxic personality cult and hooked on the idea of the football manager as guru, sage and all-round rainmaker, the histrionic oppositions of Pep-José were always likely to dominate the background noise.
And so it came to pass. Each meeting of City and United since has been billed, to varying degrees of disappointed hysteria, as a sweeping personality clash: Edmund versus Edgar, roundhead versus cavalier, angry bald aesthete versus angry grey pragmatist.
The reality has been a little different. Both managers spent much of their first shared season crunching around in neutral, re-gearing their inherited teams and keeping half an eye on the cloud of dust half a mile up the highway with a Chelsea flag in the back window. The final meeting of last season, the 0-0 draw at Old Trafford in April, was a footballing whiteout, the last knockings of a low-key battle for fourth place.
And now we have this, two teams at exactly the right stage in their season, both entering a fascinating sweet spot of form, minor stumbles and well-matched strengths and weaknesses. It is of course always vital to issue a disclaimer when cranking up the volume on one of these big ticket Premier League occasions (caution: may contain migrainous tactical caginess).
This time things may turn out a little different, a Manchester derby between teams whose styles and trajectories are perfectly poised. The best thing about the Pep-José dynamic has always been its basis in a genuine tactical opposition, polarised visions of how football can work, rather than just the more familiar territory of a pair of middle-aged men who do not like each other.
Both managers set out their team to control the space on the pitch but in different ways. Mourinho looks to eradicate space in certain key areas, to control and minimise the variables, strangling an opponent’s possibilities first of all, before trying to win the match on his own team’s strongest details. Guardiola looks to do exactly what Mourinho is bent on trying to stop, to create space in unusual areas, to build overloads, find the seams in the defense and ease the stitching apart.
With this in mind it has been tempting to assume Sunday afternoon will bring an entrenched contrast of styles. Paul Pogba has been United’s forward conduit, the man to drive this team up the pitch. Without him United’s options look more limited, raising expectations of something along the lines of the famous 2010 meeting between Mourinho’s Inter and Guardiola’s Barcelona, an archetype of drilled attack versus drilled defense.
Inter played with 10 men for an hour after the dismissal of Thiago Motta at the Camp Nou. At times they simply kicked the ball away, willingly conceding possession in order to hare back into their defensive shape. Inter did not have a shot all game, lost 1-0 and knocked Barça out of the Champions League. The suspicion remains this is still the most cherished single occasion of Mourinho’s career.
And so on to Sunday. Dig in. Pack for winter. Get ready for a fight. You can bring your dinner – you’ll need it and all. Except, look a little closer and it may not work out exactly like that. There are further shades to these two teams, not least in the way both have come into this match. Much has been made of City’s slowing down in the last few league victories, their style clogged by ultra-defensive opponents, adjusting to the idea of having to pass and move their way through 90 minutes of glue and resistance.
In many ways, though, this has been perfect training for a classic Mourinho matchup, like sparring with a southpaw before an awkward-looking title bout. Mourinho’s defensive mastery works best against teams who come romping in unprepared. As such Guardiola will be ready, with patience and commitment to the gameplan ingrained in his players.
For this reason, along with a few others, United may just attack a little more than some have predicted. If a precedent for Mourinho’s approach is needed it is more likely to be along the lines of the first part of that 2010 Inter-Barça arm-wrestle, the home leg in Milan where Inter surprised their opponents with aggression and physicality high up the pitch.
Barcelona were jaded after a journey to Milan made by coach because of the Icelandic volcano eruptions. But that day Inter executed their two-stage plan perfectly, pressing high and forcing errors, then falling back and breaking with verve. Mourinho had his players man-mark Lionel Messi and swarm over Xavi in possession, as he may well try to do with Kevin De Bruyne and, should he play, David Silva.
There is a slight echo of this in United’s last two games, the away wins at Watford and Arsenal. In both games United did the same, pressing with aggression early on, to devastating effect. In both games they scored defining early goals from forced defensive errors. And for once, facing a Guardiola possession-machine, Mourinho will surely be just as interested by City’s weaknesses as by their strengths.
Without John Stones, City’s defense may be vulnerable to these tactics. Rather than focusing solely on how Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic will cope with Silva and De Bruyne it is probably just as important to consider how Nicolás Otamendi and his partner will cope with being harried and hurried in possession. Or how City’s midfield will cope with United’s speed on the break, where Anthony Martial has been sensational at times in recent weeks.
City’s style and form demand they remain favorites to win. They are a team capable of handing out a chasing to anyone, with an attack who will keep pushing on and pushing wide. But Mourinho is also likely to press his full-backs on to Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané, forcing them back but not too far back. How these two excellent but still callow inside-forwards cope in roles key to Guardiola’s style will be important.
As will, perhaps unexpectedly, the question of how City’s defense cope with United’s attack. All jinxing effect aside, and with full knowledge football loves nothing more than a party pooped and expectation subverted, this really does promise to be an intriguing moment in the Premier League season.