The managerial rivalry between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho is one of the most fascinating dramas of modern-day football. Like in every good drama, the pair have, at least to observers, taken on contrasting traits and philosophies albeit in the pursuit of the same thing…..success! That both managers will each end their careers with literally dozens of trophies to their names means that they can ably defend their modus operandi to the point of tangible results!
Except that the contrast in methods has snowballed into an unending football debate that comes down to the fundamental and existential points of the game. Is football an art or a science? Entertainment or results? It is incorrect of course to assume that the managerial styles of the pair are in themselves and of themselves inventions of the said managers. Indeed, Pep Guardiola’s school of thought heralds from the teachings of the great Dutchman Johan Cruyff whilst Mourinho’s pragmatism has of course been a mainstay of the game for ages. What both men can claim to be theirs is a further development of the said philosophies to suit their modern-day ambitions.
Mourinho for instance cannot claim to be the father of defending in English football, and yet his arrival at Chelsea in the summer of 2004 saw an emphasis on clean sheets in a manner not seen before in the British game. Where Sir Alex didn’t mind losing three goals if Manchester United scored four, Jose was still insistent on that clean sheet from Petr Cech even if Glen Johnson, Joe Cole, et al were cruising 4-0 against Bolton. That mentality was always going to bear the premier league record of fewest goals (15) conceded over a season.
To the Cruyff model, Guardiola added an emphasis on full backs as pseudo wingers to join a plethora of midfielders in a high press that effectively hides the ball from the opposition and allows for quick recovery of lost possession. Despite its single-mindedness, it has worked for him throughout his career, earning him multiple titles in such a short space of time that it vindicates his approach.
So how do the pair fare against each other? The pair have faced off 19 times so far with the Spaniard edging the Portuguese 8-4. The other seven have ended in draws. Obviously, the numbers do not really reflect the memorable stories behind those clashes.
Jose’s most famous day against his rival this Saturday came in a Champions League semi-final in 2010 in which his Inter Milan side were pitted against Pep’s side who at the time still enjoyed the status of European Champions having beaten Manchester United in the final the season before. A 3-1 success in Milan meant that Jose could take his Serie A side to the Camp Nou with the clear game plan of defending their two goal advantage. In what remains one of the best defensive performances by a visiting side to the Camp Nou, Inter held out to win 2-3 on aggregate and advance to a final that they eventually won….needless to say in similar fashion.
Guardiola would get his opportunity to exact full revenge in November that year when Mourinho joined Real Madrid that summer. It was their first clash as managers of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF respectively and as such it had an element of uncertainty in approach around it. Whilst Jose could comfortably point to the fact that Inter were inferior to Barcelona and therefore had to defend for their lives in the away leg, Real Madrid had no such inferiority complex. Indeed, Madrid had started that season in such fine form, winning 10 of the first 12 games of the season and leading Pep’s Barcelona in the La Liga standings.
What followed will perhaps partly inform Manchester United’s approach in the derby on Sunday. Barcelona orchestrated one of the darkest days in Real Madrid’s El Classico history, in a 5-0 demolition job, marked by incredible midfield performances from Xavi Hernandez and Andreas Iniesta. That the pair were not afforded any extra or special attention from Real Madrid turned out to be a misjudgment on Mourinho’s part, on either Madrid’s strengths (or lack of in midfield) or the pairs’ individual abilities.
To his credit, Jose learns fast. Whilst beating a Pep team of any kind has remained touch and go since that humbling day, defeat has never been as comprehensive. Never again has he afforded Pep’s midfield magicians the freedom of the park to weave balls to forwards at will. Results between the pair since then dictate a conservatism around his tactics that has served to reinforce the contrast in styles and philosophies of both men.
Where Pep thrives on possession, Jose distrusts it. And as such, despite all the variables around Sunday and all the tactical predictions we can simulate, the Jose Mourinho tactical script will follow the long-held principles of his version of pragmatism that have served him so well over the past 16 years. And these are;
- The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors.
- Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition.
- Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes.
- Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake.
- Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake.
- Whoever has the ball has fear.
- Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.
If not word for word, it’s likely to be something along the above stated lines. What the Old Trafford crowd will expect is that Manchester United stand up to City, in their faces when the situation merits, much like they did to Spurs. Fans will take any result if they feel players left their all on the pitch. Even without Pogba, United have the tools to bully City, in a way that no other team in the league can……legally anyway.
What is for certain is that Jose will not go into Sunday’s game oblivious of the need to nullify Pep’s joysticks in the middle of the park. The manager has since evolved from that El Classico dismantling to become a master of the Dark Arts. When it works, he is at pains to show people that there is beauty in darkness. Perhaps the best artists are often misunderstood.