English football has never seen the sharpest edge to the intense rivalry between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola up close. When the pair took over the clubs on either side of Manchester in the summer of 2016, the media was sent into a frenzy at the prospect of the bitterness, which defined their shared experience in La Liga at Real Madrid and Barcelona, reigniting in much closer quarters in the same city.
Given the financial backing both City and United were afforded, and the fact that no team was strong enough to deny Leicester City a fairytale title win the previous campaign, the stage was set for a blood and guts fight between Mourinho and Guardiola, with all the sniping and snarling that had become commonplace in Spain expected. It didn’t play out that way; both men struggled in a way they were not used to. Neither laid a glove in the title race, won by Chelsea and Antonio Conte, also in his first season at Stamford Bridge.
Even finishing in the top two the following season wasn’t enough to focus their minds on one another in the same way, mainly because Guardiola won the league at a canter and finished 19 points ahead of their neighbours while Mourinho was sacked the following season with United floundering. He turned up at Tottenham Hotspur just over a year ago, and after being criticised and written off from pretty much every direction, has been hard at work making himself relevant again. His resurrection was completed by victory over Guardiola’s City last weekend.
Mourinho has not enjoyed a good head-to-head against his old foe throughout his career and, while this wasn’t his first victory over Guardiola in England, it was the most convincing. Tottenham have been playing in his image successfully this season, which shows how impressive his work has been considering he replaced Mauricio Pochettino, whose approach is all about energy and intensity and the antithesis of Mourinho’s defensively strong, counter-attacking philosophy. That was what led to the victory on Saturday.
At Old Trafford, by his own admission, Mourinho was never able to build a team that he could call his own. He is already doing that at Spurs and they are in the very early stages of a possible title challenge.
The relationship between Guardiola and the football discourse in this country has been just as complex in his four-and-a-half years here. Finishing third in his first season led to suggestions that his philosophy, which is arguably a purer version of Pochettino’s, wasn’t suitable to the Premier League. There are plenty who seem desperate for him to fail, denouncing his record-breaking spell at Barcelona and reinventing of Bayern Munich because of the money he spent and players he inherited. Many others simply do not like what Guardiola appeared to prove; that football in England was set in its ways and could be improved upon. He may not go out of his way to be, but he is a teacher when it comes to tactical appreciation.
Once he got everything in place at City, in the summer of 2018, they reached a level never seen before in the Premier League. His side amassed 198 points over two seasons; after easing to the title in the first, they went on a stunning winning run while neck-and-neck with Liverpool, who went on to win the league themselves last season, in the second. It is difficult for anyone to consistently play in such a way, but the standards Guardiola has set for himself are so high that failure to reach them leads to even more criticism.
The dip in form which has hampered City from the start of 2019/20 is becoming more and more of a problem, especially now he has signed a new two-year deal. For Guardiola, it was particularly difficult to justify their exit from the Champions League to Lyon last season. They were favourites for the competition, the only one missing from their collection, and he abandoned his system that had previously worked only for everything to fall apart.
Guardiola must take some responsibility for City’s shortcomings, but some of the criticism seems a little too eager, not to mention hypocritical. After years of being labelled a ‘chequebook manager’ because of his propensity to spend money on the best players, he is now being accused of relying too heavily on those he inherited such as Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Agüero. He himself helped each of them reach a new level; De Bruyne was roundly mocked as a Chelsea reject when he returned to England from Wolfsburg for north of £50million in 2015, while Sterling was erratic and inconsistent at Liverpool and in his early days at City. It wouldn’t be going too far to suggest his development into a world class player is among the finer achievements of Guardiola’s career
It is patently clear that City need a new striker. Agüero is ageing, increasingly injury prone and his contract is running out. Gabriel Jesus, while a very good player in his own right, hasn’t shown enough when he has deputised to negate the need for a replacement. Losing Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Leroy Sane have also caused Guardiola problems; he may have the formula to fill two of those three holes in his team, having integrated Ruben Dias and Phil Foden this season.
Despite all the scrutiny thrown at Guardiola, he is never one to shy away. The fact he has agreed to remain at City for another two years, taking his total time there way beyond anything in his career to date, is evidence he knows he still has work to do. Some people have questioned whether he has failed in England, a ludicrous notion considering the manner in which he has guided City to league titles, but domination of the League Cup and an FA Cup victory, too.
In terms of football purist, there are few better. Guardiola’s ideas make him the perfect coach for a certain type of player. Perhaps he needs particular conditions to thrive, but the fact he is facing so much pressure from the outside right now is proof that him not winning is abnormal. The criticism he receives should be fair and balanced, and right now that is not the case. If anything else, the revival of Jose Mourinho demonstrates why it is far too early to write Guardiola off.