Could the Premier League Title Race Become a Manchester Duopoly?

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistOctober 2, 2017

Having had a year to find their feet in Manchester, have Guardiola and Mourinho built sides good enough to win the title?
Having had a year to find their feet in Manchester, have Guardiola and Mourinho built sides good enough to win the title?Associated Press

Given Pep Guardiola usually relishes media duties as one might the promise of an afternoon's light waterboarding, it is a measure of his contentment with how Manchester City's season is panning out that the manager was in a mood bordering on playful post-match on Saturday evening. He didn't go as far as to sport a squirty flower on his lapel, but for the Catalan, it was as cheery as it gets. 

A 1-0 victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, far less slender than the scoreline suggests, was a perfect riposte to Manchester United racking up a four-goal haul for the sixth time in 10 matches just a few hours earlier against Crystal Palace. All campaign, the north-west neighbours have been more nip and tuck than an L.A. cosmetic surgery.

"It's still only September," Guardiola said, per The Observer's Daniel Taylor. "We still have United and the Harry Kane team (Spurs). That (United) is a Jose Mourinho team. With Jose, it will be so tough. But it's important to show we can play like that. We showed in the first minute that we were coming here to win the game and Kevin (De Bruyne) showed, once again, how good he is."

An international interlude is always a decent time to take stock. Manchester is buoyant, waxing lyrical over twin creations 12 months in the making. In architectural terms, Guardiola and Jose Mourinho have been responsible for erecting churches in their own image as disparate in style as an ornate Gaudi creation to one indebted to the school of brutalism.

As places of worship, the Etihad and Old Trafford have the two most contented flocks in the whole of the Premier League (though those who worship at the altar of Burnley manager Sean Dyche may disagree). Down the M62, on Merseyside, faith is waning.

It would be hard to better Jamie Carragher's recent assessment of his former club on Monday Night Football (via The Independent's Mark Critchley): "I think if Liverpool are on TV everyone wants to watch, but I think if there's one set of supporters who aren't being entertained by it, it's Liverpool supporters."

With Chelsea having dropped more points at home already this season than in the whole of last, Tottenham Hotspur as mediocre at Wembley as they are magnificent away from it, and Arsenal still Arsenal, it is not just the bookmakers struggling to see beyond a Manchester one-two at present. 

United being given an education by Real Madrid in the European Super Cup showed in their first fixture of the campaign how far they still had to travel. The next 10 matches have demonstrated how far they have come already. Nine victories and a solitary draw across Premier League, UEFA Champions League and EFL Cup games is as near-immaculate a record as it gets. It is one matched by City.

Domestically, just a single goal scored separates them. The 22 City have managed in just seven matches to United's 21 is eight superior to their closest other rivals, Tottenham. At the other end, the two goals they have each conceded makes their respective defences the stingiest in English football. City's goal difference is nine better than at the same stage last season, while United's is up by a mammoth 14. Maybe it was always a case of when, not if, Manchester would get its swagger back. 

It hardly takes a genius to work out the respective shortcomings for both clubs last season. In layman's terms: City couldn't really defend; United couldn't really attack. 

Seven matches in is no time to make sweeping statements, especially in United's case given the calibre of opposition they have faced, but nonetheless, it would appear having extraordinarily deep pockets is just the ticket to help resolve long-standing issues.

Ederson's performances, like Romelu Lukaku's, are starting to make his transfer fee, a British record for a goalkeeper, look as cheap now as it did expensive back in June when City moved early to bring him in from Benfica. The Brazilian, who at 24 is no age for a goalkeeper, is so commanding and vocal he's starting to make Nicolas Otamendi look like he's not a million miles away from becoming a proper defender. 

Ederson is the perfect goalkeeper in that he sates his manager's needs in being almost as capable with his distribution as an outfield player, while simultaneously sating the needs of the rest of us in occasionally making a save.

City's ridiculously high line means Ederson has no choice but to play as an 11th outfield player at times. It takes a brave man to continually rush out of his box, a foolish one to question the bravery of a man with a tattooed neck. 

A brief word, too, for John Stones: Imperious.

Stones has found a team-mate with 96.3 percent of his 676 passes this season. No wonder Guardiola loves him.

Supporters visiting the Theatre of Daydreams in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson years have too often been anaesthetised by ennui that envelops the stadium on matchdays. Mourinho and his team of cloned BFGs have ensured there is no such tedium this term.

Prior to this season, Old Trafford had started to look like it was housing a controlled experiment on the effects of beta-blockers when administered to large numbers.

Now when Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial get on the ball and fans rise as one on tiptoes, grey Manchester skies are again lit up with the electrical current generated by youth off the leash. The Frenchman is arguably one of the most in-form players in Europe, despite having played just 140 minutes of Premier League football all season.

The pleasure United fans draw from watching their side at the minute must feel like the relief experienced when finding keys long-since resigned as lost. If the sight of Rashford tormenting a full-back doesn't bring a smile to the lips, maybe it's time to hang up your lips. One wishes Joel Ward well in his recovery from twisted blood. 

With Nemanja Matic acting as the one sensible bloke on a stag-do, entrusted with the kitty so everyone else can enjoy themselves with abandon, Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are playing at least 20 yards further forward and no longer come so deep Ed Woodward was considering charging them for season tickets. 

By the end of his Palace side's 4-0 drubbing on Saturday, Roy Hodgson had burrowed so low down on his seat it was as though he had taken frequent references to his need to galvanise a Great Escape. Sharp-eyed viewers will have noticed him secreting soil from his trouser leg when he made his way down the touchline at half-time. 

Facing United in their present mood must be akin to having a tooth extracted using string and the force of a slamming door, with only a piece of wood to chomp down on. To compound the fear, at present it is Marouane Fellaini charged with being the makeshift dentist in Paul Pogba's absence. There's something positively unrelenting, brutish, even, about the tallest side in Europe. 

What United are doing isn't always pretty, but it's always pretty effective.

The scoring of late goals, such a major hallmark of Ferguson teams, has been resurrected this season, too. Remarkably, 10 of United's 21 league goals have arrived in the final 10 minutes of matches. Lukaku, in particular, finishes sides off when they are on their last legs so often it would be a surprise were his pre-match meal not road kill. It's now 15 goals in 12 appearances for club and country this season for the Belgian. 

The real statement of the weekend, though, came in west London. City's performance could not have been any more in keeping with the values Guardiola espouses had he played at the base of his side's midfield himself.

As a player, he'd have been tailor-made for this City team, setting the tempo from deep. Such was their superiority on Saturday, and his own trimness, it's hardly fallacious to suggest he could have managed the sitting role entrusted to late substitute Ilkay Gundogan without missing a beat, even if a full 90 might be beyond him these days. 

Sure, it was intense and played with the frenetic pace one expects from a Premier League summit meeting, but it was studied and calculated, too, full of nuance and subtlety. A bit like if you muted the sound on The Fast and the Furious and replaced it with the subtitles of a foreign art-house film. A Hollywood blockbuster with hidden depths. Think Vin Diesel meditating on his existence while fitting a spoiler the size of the moon onto the back of his car.

At times during his time in England when Guardiola has been caught watching the ball being lobbed from one box to the other with the stupefied look of a dog craning its neck at a tennis match, it's led to serious doubts over whether he would ever be able to impose a cerebral philosophy on a footballing culture that has always favoured the visceral over the intellectual. On Saturday, it was the doubters, of whom I've been a paid-up member in the past, left to look like Tom being giving the runaround by Jerry.

From the first minute, City dominated a Chelsea side that went into the game buoyed by a win at Atletico Madrid in midweek, which momentarily stopped the rest of Europe from laughing at England for the first time since the Brexit result was announced.

Chelsea boss Antonio Conte could have pointed to heavy legs and an early injury to the increasingly integral Alvaro Morata as the reason for his side being second best. Instead, the Italian, regarded as the best coach in the world by Guardiola, was as measured as he was magnanimous in accepting at times the only thing to do is congratulate your opponent.

It's worth noting how directionless Chelsea looked when Morata went off, while the absence of Sergio Aguero just amplified how Gabriel Jesus—via an understated but ceaseless shift—is mature beyond his years and ready to lead the line on his own. Even missing starters Aguero, Vincent Kompany and Benjamin Mendy, City's options are frightening.

The only slight barb Conte aimed in the direction of Manchester, disguised as effusive praise for match-winner Kevin De Bruyne, in any case, was meant for Mourinho and his role in the Belgian's departure from Chelsea back in 2014. It's fair to say Conte would not have been so careless had the Premier League's outstanding player of the season so far been in his care.  

City's 5-0 victory over Liverpool at the Etihad at the back end of September was more emphatic, but this was Guardiola's signature performance of the season. Even his sceptics must have marvelled at how it looked as though City had three more players on the pitch than Chelsea when in possession.

An eighth consecutive win in all competitions was as beautifully fluid as it gets. It had Guardiola's DNA all over it. Seamlessly switching between a back three, four and five, with full-backs playing infield as Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling kept the width perfectly, it was a stunning piece of tactical work on the part of Guardiola and perfectly carried off by his players. How Fabian Delph must wish a manager of Guardiola's foresight had converted him into a left-back earlier in his career. 

No one ever doubted Guardiola's smartness, or his team's qualities, but rather whether the two would mesh. Saturday was an answer very much in the affirmative.

Guardiola gushed over how his team played in two defeats against Chelsea last season. Here, they were better in every department, restricting Chelsea to just four attempts on their goal all afternoon. It was a masterclass in keeping an opponent at arm's length while raining in blows of their own. Floyd Mayweather Jr. could not have done it any better.

Some have decried Chelsea's lack of ambition on the day as being criminal. Conte setting his side up as though playing away from home hardly smacked of cowardice given his back line had a makeshift look to it, and City were going into the match having scored 24 in their previous six games. Talk of it not being in the spirit of champions to park the bus sounds like something rugby fans might say. By God, who wants that?

Conte's major error was thinking a composite centre-forward made up of Eden Hazard and Willian would be better than a real one in the shape of Michy Batshuayi when Morata went off injured. Still, had De Bruyne not taken charge, and Chelsea held out, it would probably have been the champions' defensive fortitude being hailed. No margins are finer than at the top. If the title doesn't end up in Manchester, the smart money is still on Chelsea.

The rhetoric coming from both Manchester managers cements their statuses as poster boys for dogmatism and pragmatism, respectively. Guardiola seemed more bullish than ever after the Chelsea win, insisting he will always chase the game regardless of the opposition. Mourinho has reverted to type in being more circumspect, reiterating how defending is just as noble an art as its opposite.

"We try to play positive; we try to play good, but we try to win," he said, per the London Evening Standard's Vaishali Bhardwaj. "If one day to win we have to play defensive football, we have to do it."

Bar the odd subtle dig, both have stayed true to an unspoken pact to keep out of one another's way. Manchester is a city small enough to make things uncomfortable for two of its most famous faces should they fall out. Given how much disdain they held for one another in Spain, it's quite the turnaround.

While the pious praise newfound maturity, the rest of us could live with a little needle. It's not without reason why a new tennis biopic that came out last week is called Borg/McEnroe in every territory it has been released, expect in the UK, where it is titled Borg vs. McEnroe.

Mourinho is too long in the tooth to get carried away. Though the 19 points United have accrued already represents the joint-most they have ever taken from the first seven games of a Premier League season—matching 1999 and—the highest-placed side they have faced to date is Southampton in 12th. They may have been flat-track bullies so far, but that in itself is a sign of real progress.

Last term United drew 15 league matches, 10 of which were at Old Trafford. Points were dropped at home to Stoke City, Burnley, West Ham United, Hull City, Bournemouth, West Bromwich Albion, Everton and Swansea City. Had they won those eminently winnable games, United would have finished third, just a point behind Tottenham in second. That's why accusing Lukaku of being a flack-track bully, from United's perspective, is like lamenting having a cat when you've spotted a mouse in the kitchen.

In fairness, it wasn't just against the also-rans where United fell short. Last season they won just two of their 10 matches against the top five. After the international break, they play Liverpool (a), Huddersfield Town (a), Tottenham (h) and Chelsea (a). If United come through that lot unscathed, expect to hear a lot more from Mourinho.

Though, given his early-season bashfulness, maybe he has heeded the advice of the late Brian Clough: "I regret telling the entire world and his dog how good a manager I was. I knew I was the best, but I should have said nowt and kept the pressure off 'cos they'd have worked it out for themselves." 

Guardiola has always subscribed to that view, in any case.

        

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