Back in Spain in 2011, when the rivalry between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola was at its height and the relationship between the two men at a low, there were a few senior Real Madrid players who were more than willing to come forward with their thoughts about the Portuguese’s approach.
They felt Mourinho had become so fixated on Barcelona and what they were doing that most of his management seemed to be geared towards finding a gameplan to just beating them, rather than something more holistic that would always allow this great Spanish club to play on their own terms.
Whether those arguments from the players were true or not, it is undeniably correct to say they have reflected and fired a wider debate about Mourinho’s methods, that have carried right through his career and to Old Trafford.
Manchester United vs Manchester City derby classics
It is a debate that has revolved around issues like whether big clubs should play braver football, and even touched on the “morality” of how you set up, as well as what represents best practice in the modern game. Underscoring a lot of it right now – as United lie eight points behind Manchester City going into Saturday’s derby – is also whether Mourinho has truly maximised the available resources of a club of that size in the way Guardiola has greatly suggested he is.
It is all the more pointed because the big question for this match at Old Trafford is whether United can minimise the effects of City’s play… but all of that has a specific consequence for this game. It means Mourinho would for once be completely justified in playing as defensive a game as possible, in digging in and looking to counter as much possible – even at home, and even with United really requiring a win. It is just logic. Anything else could actually be to invite defeat, and maybe the deflating end to the title race as early as December.
The bottom line is that the last few weeks have only emphasised that one of the ways to get closest to beating this City, on this form, is to sit deep, ride your luck, look to stop the flow and then start countering. It was something that Feyenoord, Huddersfield Town, Southampton and West Ham United all did in that time. Even if none of them actually stopped City’s winning run – let alone actually beat them – they did greatly stop the flow of goals, and bring them right to the brink.
Guardiola’s side went from a return of 3.33 goals a game in their first 12 league games of the season to just 2 in the last three.
Much of it reminds of what happened to the greatly Guardiola-influenced – and crucially Lionel Messi-less – Spain side between Euro 2000 and the 2010 World Cup. They were a side who used possession to pour right through space to overwhelm teams, only for most opposition managers to realise this and work out that they only way you had any of getting a result off them – since you couldn’t really get the ball – was to just look to block off all that space around your own goal and hope to then break into it.
Most opposition managers realised this, however, because there was one very pronounced success from a match that has come to represent an era as well as a rivalry and profound tactical duopoly. It was the 2009-10 Champions League semi-final between Guardiola’s Barca – and so much of that Spain team – and Mourinho’s Inter. The first leg saw the best of counter-attacking football from the Italians against what was then the best team in the world, and the second leg saw the best of defiant deep defending.
Mourinho has not yet made United as cohesive as that Inter, but nor has Guardiola yet made City as good as that Barca, and the fact remains that the Portuguese has applied that approach better than anybody. He may not have been the first to do it, but he was the first to add a forensically analytical nature to it, to figure out where to best target the Catalan’s teams to pounce from congestion to countering as quickly as possible.
It is not just that this is one of the few proven ways to play against City or that Mourinho knows the way better than anyone, then. It is also that this United do seem to be well built for the approach, and are of course so much better than all of Guardiola’s recent opponents.
Manchester United’s counter-attack has been geared towards this game (Man Utd via Getty Images)
If Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham could all take City to the brink, surely United – and a United empowered by a home crowd, so desperate to end their rivals’ run – can bring them over it?
There is also the fact that something does seem to have clicked in terms of countering. United were so impressively and brutally ruthless on the break against Watford and Arsenal, with six of their seven goals in those games supreme displays of counter-attacking football. The slickness of touches really stood out, especially because of how they allowed players like Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard to instantly go from standing positions to bearing down on goal.
This was much more like that Inter, and the sort of level City’s last few opponents couldn’t get near.
Combined XI: Manchester derby
That is what could be so dangerous for Guardiola here. If United can frustrate City, get beyond their initial press and stand strong against so many waves and angles of attack, the space will be there to punish them. Guardiola’s sides have repeatedly illustrated that, and this City side did in the last few games.
The big wonder is whether the capacity for those transitions will be diminished without the suspended Paul Pogba, but there is another point there. Exceptional as Pogba is, there is also an argument that the freedom he requires to create means a Mourinho side can’t lock up as tightly as they usually do.
It was notable in the 3-1 win at the Emirates that Pogba’s red card actually marked the point when the chaotic tide of Arsenal attacks was stemmed, when he saw the kind of defensive sturdiness that all of Mourinho’s best sides have possessed. The gaps just weren’t there.
Mourinho know must figure out how to maintain that solidity but keep the surges, but there is an argument that could naturally come from the flow of the game, because of how many men City commit forward. United also have a series of hulking physical players who can do damage on set-pieces to a defence without John Stones.
For once, just looking to stop City playing could be the way to actually beat them.
It might no longer be the best way to win a league, but might be the only way to stop City winning it now.