Whether or not Sunday proves to be the day that the Premier League title was lifted above Man United’s reach, manager Jose Mourinho should be suitably terrified by what he witnessed at Old Trafford.
By Monday morning attention had shifted to the flying milk in the tunnel fracas after the game, and while Jose will probably welcome the respite that said incident will offer him, nothing should distract from the overall sense that, in what was supposed to be a tight contest between the supposed best two sides in the country, this was anything but a contest.
After an unexpectedly attacking an open performance in the win against Arsenal at the Emirates eight days previously, many had wondered had wondered if Mourinho had finally seen the light regarding what his team was capable of – and in a must-win game at his home ground, could he even afford to revert to his usual conservative game plan?
Worryingly, that’s what he tried to do. Much like Everton had planned against Liverpool at Anfeld earlier that day, Man United were set up to stifle Man City, to contain them, to hope for an opening somewhere in between the constant blue wall of possession in front of them.
It rarely came. But for a defensive lapse in concentration to allow Marcus Rashford to equalise just before half time and superb reaction save from Ederson to deny Romelu Lukaku and Juan Mata, Man City were comfortable. Perhaps that should be the main thing that worries Mourinho about this performance – as Pep Guardiola put it in response to Jose’s predictable attempt to pass off Man City’s win as fortunate, “we won because we were better.”
Alex Ferguson was in attendance, as he often is at Old Trafford, and while he saw his true successor in an Old Trafford dugout, it wasn’t the home one. As much as there is or can be a ‘Man United way,’ that their rival manager is now the true master of that philosophy should stick in Ferguson’s craw.
In the middle of what what was transpiring, Sky Sports gave prominent advertising space to a new documentary featuring the Class of 92 – one of Ferguson’s greatest achievements, but also one of his biggest risks. The blooding of those youngsters all at the same time could have backfired spectacularly, willfully dismantling a successful team and replacing them with academy players was a remarkably bold move. He could take players that make them play above themselves, players who have never been able to play to that standard either before or after working with him.
And it worked. Ferguson was an innovator, a risk-taker, and was successful doing it. It’s why he is remembered as one of the greatest managers in the history of the game.
Guardiola is another disciple of this philosophy, blending experienced heads like Vincent Kompany and David Silva with promising talents like Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus and turning them into a devastating force. Taking players like Raheem Sterling and John Stones, who under any other manager would probably have been moved on by now, and turning them into vital parts of the system. This Man City team is the rightful heir to Ferguson’s Man United sides.
Mourinho, for all of his talk about winning at all costs, is pointedly terrified of taking risks even when he knows he has to. Man City were hardly there for the taking on Sunday, but Man United were not even set up in a way that attempted to explore that possibility. City weren’t lucky on Sunday, and deep down Mourinho must know that.
Jose is only interested in the result, always has been. Jose would never attempt to instigate something like the Class of 92 because the glory wouldn’t be immediate enough for him. Guradiola already has form for doing it, having booted out the old guard at Barcelona upon his appointment in 2008. Mourinho v Guardiola is essentially, the meticulous control-freak versus the unpredictable maverick, the General against the Sorcerer.
The nature of the defeat should raise some existential questions now for Mourinho. A man set in his ways for so long, he must see now how far his side are behind Guardiola’s, despite being at their respective clubs for the same amount of time and spent near enough the same amount of money.
To call this a ‘rivalry’ would be an affront to Man City right now, such is their superiority right now to every other team in the division. For Mourinho and Man United to shrug their shoulders and blame the referee for the defeat isn’t an option – they were swatted away with ease by their biggest rivals at their own ground.
That deserves some follow-up questions, mainly regarding what now constitutes success at Old Trafford this season. With Jose seemingly prepared to concede the title in December, is returning to the top four the pinnacle of achievement this season? There’s no point in asking Mourinho himself what would be a successful season because however it finishes he’ll still say it was one – second, third, sixth, it’s all about the narrative and spin with the former Real Madrid boss, always has been.
For all of the pre-match bravado from the Man United camp about the ‘fear factor’ now being back at the club under Mourinho, the only one who was scared at Old Trafford on Sunday was Mourinho himself.