If the 2016/17 Premier League season had been billed like a boxing bout, Pep Guardiola versus Jose Mourinho would have been the main event. The undercards are compelling in their own right, but this season was all about the resumption of European football’s predominant personal duel. So when will it really resume?
We were promised a captivation contest between two clubs, Manchester City and Manchester United, fighting it out for English football supremacy. The narrative was set as soon as Mourinho was appointed manager at Old Trafford, with Guardiola named the new man in charge at the Etihad Stadium in February.
So what happened?
Both Guardiola and Mourinho are enduring their own struggles at present, with City and United a long way short of where they were expected to be by now. The former’s team have now gone five games without a win, while the latter’s suffered a humiliating 4-0 defeat to Chelsea on Sunday, leaving the Red Devils slumped in seventh place.
In the case of both managers, the scale of the task at hand has become apparent in recent weeks. While English football has revelled in Guardiola’s struggled early on this season, Sunday illustrated how he must still convince his own of his methods and ideologies. With every backwards or sidewards pass made by City during the 1-1 home draw with Southampton boos could be heard. Guardiola succeeds only when his players and supporters buy into the same philosophy. That has yet to happen at the Etihad Stadium.
The Special One
Then there’s The Special One who appears to have lost whatever it was that once made him so special. The shimmer and shine has disappeared from Mourinho, with Sunday’s humiliating defeat against Chelsea the culmination of a sharp, but steady, demise since he lifted the Premier League trophy just under 18 months ago.
In fact, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that Man Utd have regressed under Mourinho. At this stage of the campaign last year Louis Van Gaal had collected 19 points from his opening nine league games. Mourinho, in contrast, has garnered just 14. If progress is being made it’s difficult to see it.
Of course, it’s still too early to offer conclusive judgment on both Guardiola and Mourinho in their new jobs. City and United are still work-in-progresses, but both men already have critics to prove wrong and doubters to denounce. English football isn’t yet bowing to either of them, as was predicted.
This is about more than just results and silverware for both coaches. Guardiola and Mourinho both require success at their respective clubs, albeit for differing reasons. In the former’s case, it has long been claimed that at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich he was handed a ready-made title-winning team which needed little in the way of guidance from the touchline. In Germany in particular, Guardiola was said to have it easy, given Bayern’s dominance of the Bundesliga.
Man City are a team of a very different classification, playing in a division with a very different depth. This is the greatest test of Guardiola’s managerial capabilities, and so far he is flunking, or at least performing below his usual standard. Having won it all before the Premier League won’t make Guardiola, but it could break him.
Mourinho, however, sees his new job as a personal redemption project after such abject failure with Chelsea last season. For the first time his reputation as European football’s go-to-guy for instant success is under question. He must prove that he is still the big man for the big job at Man Utd, arguably the biggest club of them all. Another failure could have a devastating impact on his legend and legacy as one of the greatest of his times.
It might come to pass that this season is ultimately defined by the rivalry between the two Manchester clubs, as well as Guardiola and Mourinho, but right now the Premier League is a more open contest. Questions are being asked of the two managers like never before. Now they must come up with answers, with Wednesday’s EFL Cup clash the first opportunity for Guardiola and Mourinho to do so.SHOW MORE