- Jose Mourinho is likely to take a defensive approach to Sunday's Manchester Derby, and its impact may have far-reaching implications that go beyond the Premier League table.
When Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola took the managerial jobs at Manchester United and Manchester City, we dreamed of a title decider, an apocalyptic clash of two different conceptions of football between two men who once worked together but now, after their grim battle in Spain, can barely disguise their distaste for each other. We just didn’t think it would come at the beginning of December.
Of course, nothing will actually be decided at Old Trafford on Sunday, but if Man United falls, it will trail City by 11 points. Bigger margins have been overhauled later in the season, but not against a squad as accomplished and deep as City’s. This, it turns out, is the problem with having a Big Six. If one is better than the rest, the other five take points off each other and the leader surges away.
The consequences are greater for United than for City. Even if City is beaten, it will still be five points clear at the top, although coming after its first defeat of the season, away at Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League on Wednesday, it may come as a significant blow to confidence. City, having already qualified for the last 16, fielded a much-changed side in that game, so it would be relatively easy to discount had it not come after its least convincing spell of the season, a run of four single-goal victories, each secured with a goal in the final 10 minutes of the game.
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But for United, defeat might have consequences that stretch far beyond missing out on the title this season. Mourinho, it’s safe to assume, will have his side sit deep and look to absorb pressure, allowing City to dominate possession. That, as Diego Torres set out in his controversial biography of Mourinho, is how he approaches any big game, particularly away from home. Torres lists a seven-point program he claims (and his book is clearly informed by excellent sources within the Real Madrid dressing room) Mourinho applies to any tough match. They essentially can be boiled down to just one, number six: “He who has the ball has fear.”
And here it makes perfect sense, even if City isn’t exactly a side that looks terrified in possession. Each of those recent one-goal victories in which City struggled for the fluidity that had defined the club early in the season was against sides that sat deep and denied City space. Guardiola has been sufficiently troubled by the trend to attack West Ham for its style of play and to accost Southampton’s Nathan Redmond as he left the pitch, seemingly to tell him he was too good to play so defensively.
The absence of the suspended Paul Pogba means Mourinho's side is unlikely to be fluent through the midfield. Without him, it is essentially forced to sit seven men behind the ball, play direct to Romelu Lukaku and look to Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial’s pace bursting from deep to cause problems. Happily for United, that’s an area in which City is vulnerable. Fernandinho, as the lone holding midfielder, can be overmanned, while central defender Nicolas Otamendi, for all his improvement this season, can still be exposed by players running at him.
So the strategy of sitting off makes perfect sense. Mourinho was criticized for it away at Liverpool–largely because, given the defensive vulnerabilities of Klopp’s side, particularly in the weeks immediately before that game, it seemed an opportunity spurned–but it worked at home to Tottenham, which did, obligingly, make the mistake that cost a goal just when United needed it.
But there is a wider question here, and it’s one that came to undermine Mourinho at Real Madrid. Certain clubs have expectations. Madrid and United are the two wealthiest sides in the world. Mourinho’s underdog shtick makes little sense at the Bernabeu or Old Trafford. Their fans have certain ideas about style and codes of behavior. Both clubs appointed Mourinho with an apparent sense of reluctance only when he had been left as the only viable option and with a specific brief to take down Guardiola. All of which means that if results go awry, criticism will follow sooner than it would in other circumstances.
"If you're just going to keep losing," AS's editor Alfredo Relaño asked early in 2012, after Mourinho’s Madrid had lost in the Copa del Rey to Guardiola’s Barcelona, "what's the need to lose your decorum too?"
And that gets to the crux of it. Fans, pundits and directors will accept safety-first football as long as it’s successful; as soon as it isn’t, there’s nothing left to support. As it turned out, Mourinho went on to win the league in 2011-12, but the background sense of dissatisfaction turned toxic and led to his departure at the end of the following season, his third.
Mourinho, notoriously, always wins the league in his second season at a club and then things unravel in his third. Perhaps not winning the league in his second season would defer the decline, but at every club at which he’s begun a third season, there has been an acrimonious end, with players left emotionally exhausted.
Paradigms aren’t necessarily forever, but should United lose to City, even having dropped points in only four league games this season, even with all his vociferous backers on social media, it could mark the beginning of a significant shift in Mourinho’s relationship with United.
Sunday’s game could effectively decide this season’s Premier League title, but it might also be about far more than that.