was May 2015 and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea had just won the Premier
League title when he appeared to aim a dig at Pep Guardiola, who was by
then safely ensconced at Bayern Munich and the proud recipient of two
consecutive Bundesliga shields.
“For me, I’m not the smartest guy to choose countries and clubs,”
Mourinho said. “I could choose another club in another country where to
be champion is easier. Maybe I will go to a country where a kit man can
be coach and win the title.”
Mourinho – even in the first flush of victory – could not resist
talking up his own achievements in winning what he perceived to be a
good league while talking down those of Guardiola, who could only
triumph in Germany, where Bayern perennially dominate the landscape.
While the two were apart, it was relatively easy for Mourinho to prod
Guardiola like that. The Premier League – the hardest league in
Mourinho’s eyes – was worth winning and the Bundesliga was not. The
Premier League was much more difficult and Mourinho’s title victories –
he’s got three of them – more valuable.
It’s true that Mourinho perfected the formula for winning the league
title at Chelsea – across two spells – but Guardiola is showing him up
on his own turf. Never before have the top two teams in the Premier
League been so far apart – eight points – after 11 games apiece.
Sunday was an instructive day in the title race and indicative of the broad distance now between the two coaches.
Last season, City suffered poor results not because they couldn’t
dominate games and tame opponents but because their finishing was not up
to scratch. So, Guardiola went away, worked on it and decided that
ultra-aggressive, all-out attack was the best way to fight this war.
The game against Arsenal followed that familiar pattern;
lightning-quick breaks by Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling coupled with
total control of the attack by David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne.
It says something for the rate of City’s improvement that a 3-1 win
against a high-quality side like Arsenal feels something like a missed
opportunity. Had Sergio Aguero finished an early counter-attack or
Sterling got his leg to a low first-half Sane cross, then we could have
been talking about five or six.
Over at Stamford Bridge, meanwhile, Jose Mourinho was turning what
should have been a must-win game in the context of a title race into
another must-not lose. He failed in that regard.
United had eight defensive players on the pitch from the beginning
against Chelsea. There was no hope for Romelu Lukaku, who has been
gorging himself on goals for club and country this season with the right
He only had one shot in the entire game against Chelsea and,
damningly, not one touch in the opposition box. He only made 16 passes
in the entire game, further emphasising his loneliness.
By contrast, the Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson hit 25 with two
of those connecting with team mates in the opposition half. He is more
involved in City’s play than Lukaku is for United. And that is a good
indicator of where both teams are right now.
Mourinho’s teams have now scored in only one of the last 10 away
matches against the rest of the top six. He, himself, is winless away
from home against the rest of the top six clubs since a 2-1 win at
Anfield coming up on three years ago.
An away match against Tottenham during that title-winning season
appears to be one of the most decisive in shaping Mourinho’s dour
outlook. Chelsea conceded five that day with Harry Kane running the show
and never again would Mourinho allow any team of his to be outgunned
like that. It seemed that he preferred losing 1-0 and demonstrating zero
ambition than attempting to win the game and getting hammered.
There is conviction in what Guardiola does with City; they fear no
one. But Mourinho fears every one of his rival teams and aims for
nothing more than suffocation when he meets them on their patch.
Mourinho hopes his teams don’t lose big games but Guardiola makes
sure his team wins them. That is the key difference between them and,
perhaps, the key reason why City are so far ahead at this early stage.
There has always been the suggestion that Pep had it easy with Barca
and Bayern. How could you fail with Messi, Iniesta and Xavi? Or Robben
and Lewandowski? It was a question that Mourinho nodded towards in that
dig in 2015.
Well, managing City is an entirely different prospect and Pep’s work
is all the more impressive considering that he scarcely had a
world-class player on his books when he started.
The rate of City’s collective and individual improvement this season
has been nothing short of astonishing; nothing short of record-breaking.
Four of five English teams head their Champions League groups – City
being one of those of course – but none of the rest can lay a glove on
City on the domestic scene.
There is simply no fear in the team; Guardiola wouldn’t permit it.
There was a tentativeness to City last season that was borne out in
their results against the rest of the top six. There were only two wins
in 10 games. One was against United at Old Trafford, the other,
predictably, was here against Arsenal at home.
Already this season they have trounced both Liverpool and Chelsea –
who were outplayed and beaten 1-0 at Stamford Bridge – as well as
Arsenal. Bear in mind Mourinho’s negativity has now cost United two
points at Anfield and three more at the Bridge.
“We were able to win just twice against the title contenders last
season,” Guardiola said. “This season, in November, we have already won
three times. We spoke about this. If you want to win the title, you have
to beat Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and the other teams at the top.”
They are far, far too good even at this stage of the season. Short of
a mass outbreak of injury or illness there is simply no way they are
not going to win the Premier League.
Furthermore, this is Guardiola’s best-ever start to a season. Never
before has Guardiola won 31 points from 33 with a goal difference of
+31. Not with Barcelona and Messi, not with Bayern and Lewandowski.
This is the best-ever start that any team has made to a Premier
League season. The Invincibles weren’t this good. None of Sir Alex
Ferguson’s teams were either. City’s goal record of 52 scored after 17
games in all competitions is an English record.
Guardiola is demonstrating total mastery in this field; a field once ruled by the swaggering Mourinho.
His response to adversity was attack, attack, attack. Mourinho’s
could not be more different and looks positively cowardly next to it.