So far, there’s been a lot of diplomacy. Pep Guardiola has said that Jose Mourinho has made him a better coach. Mourinho has said that this season is about Manchester United against Manchester City, not about their personal rivalry. It’s all been very low key, a situation maintained when bad weather forced the cancelation of a friendly between City and United in Beijing last month. But nobody really believes the detente will hold long into the season. Sept. 10, the date of the first derby, has already been earmarked as a potentially apocalyptic day for Mancunian football.
The two modern managing icons have 20 years of history, from the time Bobby Robson arrived at Barcelona, where Guardiola was a player, with Mourinho as his translator. It didn’t take long for Mourinho to start working as an assistant coach, a role he maintained after Robson had stepped aside for Louis van Gaal.
But the edge was introduced to their rivalry in 2008 when Barcelona decided to replace Frank Rijkaard as coach. As Barcelona’s then-CEO Ferran Soriano, who is now at City, explained in his book The Ball Doesn’t Go in by Chance, it came down to a choice between Guardiola and Mourinho.
Guardiola’s experience at the time amounted to one season in charge of Barcelona’s reserve side, while Mourinho had won league titles in England and Portugal as well as the Champions League with Porto. Yet Barcelona went for Guardiola, reasoning he was better at bringing though young players, at maintaining the philosophy of the club and that he wouldn’t drag the club through regular media scandals.
The decision was vindicated as Guardiola won three successive league titles and two Champions Leagues. Mourinho went to Inter Milan and won back-to-back Serie A titles. More significantly, in 2010, he won the Champions League, beating Guardiola’s Barcelona in the semifinal.
The second leg, at Camp Nou, produced an extraordinary defensive performance as Inter, with 10 men for over an hour, held out for a 1-0 defeat that took it through 3-2 on aggregate, despite having just 19% possession.
That game, arguably, was the most significant in European football this century. It showed that Barcelona could be beaten, offering other sides a template of how to frustrate Guardiola’s team. It drew up the battle lines between the radical possession of Guardiola and the radical anti-possession of Mourinho, almost as though Mourinho had decided to define himself in opposition to Barcelona: the club had rejected him and he in turn rejected its philosophy. And it persuaded Real Madrid chairman Florentino Perez that Mourinho was the man to end Guardiola’s reign. Mourinho was appointed Madrid manager that summer.
At first, the campaign didn’t go well. Madrid was humiliated 5-0 in the first Clasico of the season and lost to Barca in the Champions League semifinal as Guardiola added his second European title. But Madrid did beat Barcelona to win the Copa del Rey. The mood by then was sulphurous, Mourinho doing everything he could to unsettle Barcelona. The two legs of the Champions League semifinal produced cynical, unpleasant football packed with fouls, diving, feigning injury and attempts to influence the referee.
There was a sense of genuine animosity, not helped by the fact the sides played each other four times in 17 days. The bad blood spilled over in the following season’s Super Cup, when Mourinho jabbed Tito Vilanova, Guardiola’s assistant, in the eye. But Mourinho’s methods worked. Guardiola in 2011-12 seemed weary, as though his energy had been sapped by the previous season’s battles. Madrid won the league and Guardiola left for a year’s sabbatical.
That is the background, but there have been plenty of barbs exchanged since, most notably Mourinho’s comment after winning the Premier League in 2015 that he had chosen a difficult environment in which to work rather than going to a country in which the kitman could win the league–a clear jibe at Guardiola’s move to Bayern Munich.
City wanted Guardiola when he took the Bayern job. By appointing Soriano and bringing in Txiki Begiristain as sporting director City has sought to model itself on Barcelona. The club has effectively been designed for Guardiola. Finally landing him after a pursuit of around five years was a major coup.
As United struggled and it became increasingly apparent that Van Gaal would leave at the end of the season, it was left with one clear option. Since Alex Ferguson left, it has seemed increasingly modeled on Madrid, its culture now one of big signings based as much on commercial as footballing logic: Mourinho was the obvious extension of that, a big name to battle a big name, the man who has already devised a counter-philosophy to undo Guardiola once.
And so the bitterness of El Clasico comes to Manchester and imbues a historical rivalry, a contest of two great and wealthy clubs, with a personal antagonism. It’s unlikely to be pleasant, but it should be fascinating.