Manchester Rivalry Will Be Real in the Premier League This Year

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistAugust 11, 2017

Best of friends, or a case of keep your friends close and your enemies closer?
Best of friends, or a case of keep your friends close and your enemies closer?Dave Thompson/Associated Press

No sport engenders the need to talk about second chances like athletics. Justin Gatlin holding a finger to his lips after winning the 2017 IAAF World Championships in Athletics 100m final, against a backdrop of practically no hands clapping inside the London Stadium, was a clear verdict on the limits of redemption. On a purely practical level, the absence of forgiveness in athletics would likely result in stewards having to double up their roles in order to make up the numbers on the starting line.

Second chances tend to be scarcer in football, particularly at the top end. It was a point made with Donald Trump-esque diplomacy by Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola in the final week of last season.

The Sky Blues were still not assured of a top-four place going into the home straight after a campaign that had veered from the sublime to the ridiculous and all points in between, often in the same game. It was at that stage of the season the manager said, as reported by the Telegraph: "In my situation at a big club, I'm sacked. I'm out. If it is Barcelona and Bayern (Munich), you don't win and you are out. Here I have a second chance."

One can only hope he's not quizzed on Kim Jong-un's haircut anytime soon. "At a big club, we'd call him felt-tip-pen head." Get him and Danny Rose on TalkSport together and Alan Brazil would have a clammy hand hovering over the big red button.

For all the outside criticism, City's board and its supporters have always seemed united in a view that to tire of Guardiola after just a solitary season would be to take the Orient Express and complain about not getting to Venice quick enough. The journey can be just as fascinating as the endpoint, after all, even if football and patience don't usually make for compatible bedfellows. 

The 21 trophies Guardiola had collected in the previous seven seasons prior to coming to England and drawing a first-ever blank allows certain credence to the view it is perhaps City that need a long-term fix as opposed to the Catalan. He's not alone in the city at having an impervious record queried. 

It was only this week Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho was stressing how "Manchester United are one of the top three football clubs in the world, no doubt about it," per the Guardian, before adding "but the football club is one thing, and the team's credentials going into a competition are another thing entirely."

As a master of lowering expectations, he could win a gold medal at high jump for diving under the bar without knocking it off. "Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed," Mourinho the poet Alexander Pope once mused. 

Despite United dropping a place to finish sixth last season, Mourinho's debut campaign in Manchester was largely gauged a success. Winning the EFL trophy and Europa League, with the latter guaranteeing a return to the UEFA Champions League via the back door, represents progress after two years of perpetual ennui under his predecessor Louis van Gaal. Pillows are no longer offered to supporters at home games.

A team that has lacked any kind of identity since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement four seasons ago now has one. It's not always pretty, but it's a winning one. Few dispute picking up trophies is infectious, and for a group that has often seemed a little timid, silverware is the mother of all fillips.

Given United finished 24 points behind Chelsea last season, it's worth reiterating how progress is relative. It was Chelsea's remarkable 43-point positive swing on the previous campaign that saw the charismatic Antonio Conte set a yardstick his managerial counterparts were frequently beaten with.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. When Guardiola and Mourinho parachuted into Manchester last summer, it was to the type of fanfare usually only afforded to coronations. Neither finished the campaign wearing a crown, even if Mourinho will almost certainly regale his grandchildren with tall tales of the treble he won in his first season at Old Trafford. "Well kids, you'd have to ask Sir Alex which of ours was the most impressive…remember though he's old now and often forgets things."

In those first few months, Manchester became the epicentre of world football. It has always held its own, with United's global appeal long-since established, but this was perhaps the first time it resembled a circus. A city that likes its humour dry, often mordantly so, is likely to have arched a collective eyebrow at the idea of a Manchester "El Clasico." TV executives and hawkers were in cahoots, even if "El Crapico" perhaps better describes the goalless draw between the two clubs at the Etihad in April.

Neither Mourinho nor Guardiola seemed interested in reigniting old feuds, despite the best efforts of pretty much everyone else to stoke the furnace. Like divorced parents at the wedding of one of their children, they tactfully kept a respectable distance, smiled in all the right photographs and point-blank refused to be drawn on one another's new partners, despite being quizzed on it nonstop by all those not on the top table.

Journalists and gossipy aunts are essentially one and the same.

Mourinho's team lacked colour, Guardiola's structure. City couldn't defend; United couldn't attack. If the best bits of both sides could have been juxtaposed like a pantomime horse, a Manchester XI might just have kept pace with Chelsea.

In the Edward St. Aubyn novel, Mother's Milk, one of its young characters, Robert, is described as being "so caught up in building sentences that he has almost forgotten the barbaric days when thinking was like a splash of colour landing on a page."

That also works as a neat encapsulation of how City looked at times last season. When it wasn't working, their players appeared as though they were too preoccupied trying to interpret Guardiola's instructions to ever play their natural game. Vexed looks to the sidelines, as though they were desperately trying to understand a Spanish film with Spanish subtitles, were met with a mirror image staring back at them.

In his end-of-season address, Manchester City chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak, perhaps pointedly, made clear he demands standards befitting of a big club (via the Guardian): "There's nothing that annoys me more than people either calling me or sending me a message congratulating me on third place.

"My answer was pretty standard to everyone: 'Don't congratulate me on getting third, there's nothing to congratulate, only congratulate me if we win the league.' So, this is not the ambition, not at all. There's nothing to celebrate."

There will be no such clemency this term. Both managers will be aware they need to engineer serious bids for the title after effectively having been given a free hit last season.

Talk of transitional years and long-term "projects" start to sound cheap on the back of a pair of summer spends among the most lavish in the game's history. Guardiola and Mourinho have two of the most expensive squads ever assembled at their disposal. You could make a side from their respective benches that would push for Europe.

Those who worship at the altar of Guardiola argue City underperformed last season due to a lack of "Guardiola-type" players, which is effectively a euphemism for ridiculously good and expensive. That's all been sorted now, though, so there are no worries of him not having the right kind of players to coach. If you're not enjoying this, by the way, it's because I have a surfeit of "Updike-type" sentences to work with. Blame my board.

A £199.8 million spend in the window to date, a Premier League record with more signings expected, takes Guardiola's total outlay to around £362.85 million in little over 12 months. Spending £128 million on three full-backs—Kyle Walker (£45 million), Benjamin Mendy (£52 million) and Danilo (£26.5 million)—has a decadent air to it that recalls the Bo Derek line: "Whoever said money can't buy happiness simply didn't know where to go shopping."

While it may scream luxuriousness bordering on frivolousness, in Guardiola's defence, what he has effectively done is instruct the club to carry out essential maintenance. He's done it with ruthless efficiency, too.

The disposed Pablo Zabaleta, Gael Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov are all the wrong side of 30. None are still regarded as elite performers. While it's obviously easier to spend someone else's money than your own, it takes a steely confidence in your methods as a manager to invest so much on an area that has clearly needed addressing for a while but been overlooked by his predecessors.

A Premier League manager having to spend serious cash on a full-back must feel like the average Joe having to fork out for a train pass or holiday insurance. A necessary expense but one done ruefully in the knowledge there are so many other things you would rather spend your money on.

In the process of adding thrust and adventure down the flanks, which City have badly lacked in recent years, Guardiola's additions have also helped drag down an average age that was previously the oldest in the Premier League, at over 28. For three seasons now, this has been a City side crying out for an injection of youth.

 "We decided last season we could change the team to make the team younger for the next four or five years—Danilo is 26, Mendy is 23, Bernardo is 22, Ederson is 23—so we bought players who are able to be stable for the next years," Guardiola confirmed over the summer, per the Manchester Evening News.

He's not mentioned it, but thus far Mourinho has only been bought three of the four players he asked for. Football's Veruca Salt may yet squeeze in another signing before the end of the window, traumatised as he probably is at his spending sitting at just shy of the £300 million mark since he took over.

Even if executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward comes up short, the Portuguese will be quietly happy with a window that has improved the spine of his side, certainly in midfield and attack. Central defender Victor Lindelof (£31 million) has struggled a little thus far, but then so did Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra when they first moved to Manchester.

Matic already looks as though he could be the cause of innumerate arguments back at Chelsea over who sanctioned his sale to a major rival. If he can unlock the potential in Paul Pogba to stop him looking like the world's most expensive lost footballer, his £40 million fee will be deemed a steal come May.

Romelu Lukaku has scored and missed enough already to indicate United have been sent the player they bought from Everton. Even at a record fee between British clubs at £75 million, that's fine. Barring injuries, he should adequately make up the 17-goal shortfall left by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, though recent reports suggest United are readying a new deal for the Swede. 

Either way, Mourinho will slap any lackadaisical traits out of Lukaku by the end of August. What might wash at Everton will be given short shrift at United. With Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial champing at the bit to play through the middle, Mourinho will have no reservations about sitting Lukaku next to him from time to time.

Of wider and greater concern to Mourinho will be how to bridge the gap that saw his side score 23 goals fewer than Arsenal, 24 fewer than Liverpool, 26 fewer than City, 31 fewer than Chelsea and 32 fewer than Tottenham. It's bold to lay the blame squarely at the door of profligacy.

United are expected to be significantly better this season, but it's not as though they were even knocking at the door of being the finished article in the last one. At home especially, they moved the ball so slowly it was possible to make a roast before most moves had been concluded. Precedent as much as any proof drives this innate sense of impending improvement at Old Trafford.

Much has been made of both Manchester clubs trying to mould sides in the image of their respective managers. There's no doubt United are now starting to look like a Mourinho side. Physically, they are capable of bullying teams; a spine of David De Gea, Eric Bailly, Matic/Pogba and Lukaku is all of Mourinho's design. Not to put too fine a point on it, they're a side of big buggers.

This is Mourinho's team. Don't let him kid you otherwise. A first-choice XI of De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Lindelof, Blind/Darmian/Shaw; Pogba, Matic, Herrera; Rashford, Mkhitaryan, Lukaku contains six players he bought.

Of the rest, De Gea is one of the best in the world in his position, Valencia is the type of player Mourinho would invent in his laboratory if he didn't already exist, Herrera is basically his manager in a pair of shorts and Rashford, well, who doesn't love Rashford? An assortment of left-backs you might find in a changing-room lost property box probably wouldn't be his first choice. However, if he goes with the back three he has experimented with over the summer, they might not be needed too often in any case.

The writer Jeanette Winterson once said of her home city: "Manchester is in the south of the north of England. Its spirit has a contrariness in it—a south and north bound up together—at once untamed and nonmetropolitan; at the same time, connected and worldly." It's an almost perfect description of the type of side Mourinho is trying to build at United.

As an arbiter of taste, Guardiola is up there with Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Expect the Premier League's current penance for playing three at the back to remain a key trend this season now he has adopted it. City sported it for much of a highly impressive pre-season, signing off an immaculate summer with a 4-1 thumping of Real Madrid and 3-0 defeats of Tottenham and West Ham United.

Though pre-season campaigns invariably throw up more red herrings than an episode of Columbo, watching City, it was as if something had clicked. Hunting in packs, they wore the rabid looks of hyenas coming off a meat-free diet. Guardiola's utopia of having a side that looks as impressive without the ball as it does with it no longer seems a far-off dream. Madrid's players looked so harassed it's a wonder they didn't strike.  

If they can get it right, playing three at the back should suit City to a T. Not only does it squeeze an extra man into midfield where they were on occasion overran last season, it also means Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus can play as a pair. They might just prove the best Brazilian-Argentinian partnership since Diego Maradona and Careca were making sweet music together at Napoli, circa 1987-1991.

Lionel Messi and Neymar are yesterday's news.

The only potential drawback of playing with a back three is the need to have as many excellent centre-halves. As it stands, John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and Vincent Kompany would all need to stay fit and in form for the whole of the season.

Good luck with that one, Pep.

Fourth choice Eliaquim Mangala may be the eighth most expensive defender in the world, but he's nothing like the eighth best. It's not impossible he's eyeing a Javier Mascherano-style conversion for any number of his players. Claudio Bravo, anyone?

Still, after demonstrating such clearheaded pragmatism over his full-backs, it makes Guardiola's lack of manoeuvring in his central defence all the more perplexing. Ever the contrarian, with an open chequebook, Guardiola has elected against adding to either the spine of his defence or midfield.

Last season City let in 10 more goals than Manchester United, 13 more than Tottenham. They also lagged behind both in terms of keeping clean sheets, procuring five fewer than the 17 managed by Mourinho and Mauricio Pochettino's far less open sides.

Those numbers tell only half the story, though. Now Guardiola has ditched his avant-garde concept of playing without a goalkeeper and replaced Bravo with Ederson for a world-record £35 million, there's a fair chance significant improvement will be immediate. The 23-year-old Brazilian only broke into Benfica's first team last March, but it's not taken him long to draw comparisons with Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer.

The type of modern sweeper-keeper Guardiola feels integral to how his sides play, Ederson won a second league and cup double last term and kept 22 clean sheets in the process. Watch out for his capacity to kick the ball ludicrously long if any sides are foolish enough to play a high line against City this season. He once scored from a goal-kick when a youngster. Apparently, Guardiola is a closet fan of Charles Hughes.

For all the criticism of City's defence, Ederson might not have that much to do. Last season City conceded an average of 7.9 shots on their goal per game, the fewest in the whole of the Premier League. The problem was Bravo saved only 55.2 percent of them. A scarecrow would probably get lucky 60 percent of the time.

City also seem a little light in midfield, at least in terms of those who don't get motion sickness running backwards. The classy but perpetually crocked Ilkay Gundogan is not far from fitness, but then that's the phrase odds-on to be etched on to his gravestone.

That leaves Yaya Toure and Fernandinho. Both still have enough to cruise against the lesser lights, but at 34 and 32 respectively, neither bosses big games like they used to. Though academy graduate Phil Foden has caught the imagination over the summer, he is more a creator than a holder. What City could do with is Guardiola the player to tick things over.

All of which may be immaterial if he can find the right combination of attacking players in his armoury. It's probably safer to light a match inside a Lynx deodorant factory than at a training ground that houses Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, Bernardo Silva, David Silva, Jesus and Aguero. If he adds Alexis Sanchez to that list, he'll be able to field a box-fresh front line every game. As it stands, there's a fair chance Bernardo Silva, Sane and Sterling will all have to settle for a place on the bench in Saturday's opener at Brighton. 

A season of De Bruyne, who recorded an unmatched 18 Premier League assists last term, threading passes through to Jesus could be nothing less than celestial.

City were third top goalscorers in the Premier League last season; if Guardiola can't top the pile with that lot, he should be made to hand in his coaching badges like a bent cop. The temptation would be to play the lot of them and win every game 9-3, but then he tried that against Monaco, and it probably played out better in his head than it did on the pitch. 

The bookmakers have by and large installed City as favourites and United second favourites for the title, per Oddschecker. Given United finished 24 points behind Chelsea last season, and 15 and 17 points behind the two previous league winners before them, presumably Mourinho's record of having won the domestic title in his second season at each of his previous clubs, FC Porto, Chelsea (twice), Real Madrid and Inter Milan, has influenced the early betting. 

It is generally accepted for United to move from sixth to first place over the course of a single season will require a leap Neil Armstrong might balk at. Likewise, it is going to take more than gentle titivation for City to live up to their billing as favourites. Some 15-, 15- and eight-point gaps have separated them from the eventual title winners since they last won it themselves in 2013/14 under Manuel Pellegrini.

What works in both City and United's favour is so many of their rivals are seemingly in a state of relative flux. 

Chelsea boss Conte increasingly wears the look of a man who married a showgirl in a shotgun Vegas wedding and a year on is starting to realise they might not have that much in common. Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher is not alone in thinking the Italian's love affair with Chelsea could prove fleeting.

Whether it was his or the club's decision to dispense with Matic and Diego Costa, despite the pair playing 124 out of 152 matches in Chelsea's two most recent title-winning campaigns, it represents a monumental gamble. He wants four more players, according to the Telegraph, but so far no one at the club seems to be breaking their back to get them. 

Liverpool had been going along nicely in pre-season prior to Barcelona making goo-goo eyes at Philippe Coutinho. Reds manager Jurgen Klopp may be right when he says the Brazilian is priceless, with a failed £66 million bid for Naby Keita giving a cliched claim genuine substance, but nonetheless, if Barcelona can't keep Neymar, there is even less chance of Liverpool doing the same with Coutinho.

If Liverpool are to have any chance of winning the title, Klopp would need to orchestrate a perfect campaign. Before a ball has been kicked, they are facing up to their worst fears.

Tottenham are in danger of becoming the guy who says he has lots of girl friends but can't find a girlfriend. Sometimes you can be too nice, too straight. Rose's inexplicably candid interview with The Sun will draw scorn from all and sundry, but in reality, he has probably only said what a majority of his team-mates are thinking. Footballers are no different to the rest of us; they all want to be paid market value.

Arsenal are Arsenal.

A first Manchester title in four seasons could be there for the taking. Don't be fooled by the polite smiles or the one-handed hugs. It would kill either of Guardiola or Mourinho to watch the other one do it.

Whisper it quietly, but Manchester might be back in the game.

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