Not even Mourinho and Man United can stop Pep’s Premier League charge
It doesn't look as if Jose Mourinho's Manchester United side have any hope of catching Manchester City this season
When they arrived in Manchester at the start of last season, Pep Guardiola at City and Jose Mourinho at United were expected to usher in an age of northern dominance in the Premier League.
As things turned out, neither lived up to their leadership expectations, as they were both usurped to the English football throne by Antonio Conte and Chelsea.
The Italian managerial maestro led the London side consistently quality performances throughout their 2016-17 title charge, whilst their nearest rivals fell by the wayside.
By contrast and after a frustrating summer of transfer movement at Stamford Bridge, a poor start to the 2017-18 campaign saw Chelsea struggle to recapture the same kind of form. Meanwhile, in Manchester, the chequebooks were fluttering with activity as Pep and Jose put the finishing touches to already impressive squads, with both getting off to flying starts.
As fans at home and abroad were filled with the expectation of a genuine clash of managerial titans, with Manchester United and Manchester City trading powerful blows in a two-horse race for the title, frenzied betting activity and the viewing figures have soared internationally, with all eyes fixated on these two bitter former La Liga coaching rivals duking it out in the Premier League.
Billed as potentially the most exciting top-flight rivalry and title race for decades, the early signs from both teams did seem to indicate this battle that would live up to all the hype.
Blow for blow, both City and United were mercilessly demolishing every opponent in their path, firing in goals with relentless determination, destroying even the most robust of defences trying to resist their potency of attacking power.
However, there were early bumps in the road for both these Manchester powerhouses. For United, it came with a 2-2 draw against stubborn Stoke, whilst for City, Everton stunned the Etihad crowd by not only taking the lead, but also erecting their very own version of the Great Wall of China in the second half, surviving the inevitable onslaught to leave with a point.
Nevertheless, those temporary setbacks were soon forgotten, as the goals and the victories started to stack up once more.
Contrasting fortunes against Liverpool
On the very same day in October that Stoke had frustrated United at the Potters’ venue, City hosted what was expected to be a hugely difficult encounter with Jurgen Klopp’s increasingly impressive Liverpool.
The outcome couldn’t have been any better for the home side, as Pep’s team produced an absolute masterclass performance against the Merseyside outfit, dominating the encounter in every statistical respect and most importantly, smashed in five goals without reply.
If ever that was a signal of intent, with City having utterly destroyed a team considered to be a serious top-four contender this season, then it was perhaps a warning Mourinho didn’t seem to have taken onboard.
The performance of his United side at Anfield in mid-October was dire, to say the least. Depending on which way you look at the 0-0 result, either two points were dropped, or one point was gained. The celebratory nature of the Portuguese coach after the game suggested he viewed the outcome as the latter.
While the City charge continued to fire on all cylinders in the subsequent weeks, United appeared to stutter and stall, particularly when they suffered a shock defeat away at Huddersfield Town, then lost further ground at the top with a disappointing 1-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge; misfiring against a Chelsea side in unforgiving mood and closing the gap on their Manchester rivals.
Consistency is king
Throughout the times when United have missed key players here and there, particularly when Paul Pogba was out of action for a prolonged period, doubts have surfaced as to whether Mourinho has enough strength and depth at his disposal, or enough variety in his side to make enough of a difference in key moments of crucial games. The Red Devils have dropped vital points against teams they should, on paper at least, be comfortably beating.
Meanwhile, Pep’s possession powered City side have continued to collect Premier League points in their threes, maintaining a comfortable advantage at the summit of the table, and the distance has steadily increased with each passing month. Not one single opponent has tasted victory against the Sky Blues in the Premier League, with 15 wins and just the one draw in 16 impressive encounters.
Essential to the City cause has undoubtedly been the exceptional form of every player Pep picks, rotating his protagonists with consummate confidence it seems, each individual performing to the continually high expectations he sets; all dovetailing perfectly into his preferred style of play and tactical preferences.
Particularly noticeable is that whoever he chooses in attack, they all produce goals. Sergio Agüero has nine in just eleven appearances, as does Raheem Sterling in 14 outings; with Gabriel Jesus adding a further eight. Leroy Sane, David Silva, and Kevin De Bruyne, have also made healthy scoring contributions too.
On the surface, Mourinho would seem to have a squad of players that most managers would envy, but if there’s a chip in one of the cogs, it’s like the gearbox of the team struggles to shift as fluidly through the gears. Romelu Lukaku was blazing an enviable trail of goals at the start of the season, with seven goals in seven games by the end of September.
However, since then the goals have dried up, with the powerful Belgian only hitting the back of the net once in his subsequent nine appearances. Only Anthony Martial comes anywhere close with six goals, followed by Marcus Rashford on four.
It’s that cutting-edge consistency in attack that appears to be making all the difference, with City successfully creating and taking more chances than United. When it comes to defensive solidity, which was always going to be a bone of contention for Pep’s side more than Jose’s, both teams are evenly matched and have conceded just eleven goals in sixteen Premier League matches.
Arguably the most important Premier League encounter thus far was the Old Trafford derby on December 10, with so much at stake for both teams and not least psychologically. Quite simply, it was a game that Man United couldn’t afford to lose, and as the titanic tussle looked finely poised at 0-0 as the clock ticked towards the final moments of the first half.
City drew first blood when David Silva fired in the 43rd-minute opener, much to the jubilation of the visiting fans from across town. Nevertheless, the equaliser in first-half stoppage time by Marcus Rashford, was perhaps justice as the two sides headed down the tunnel at halftime. Nevertheless, it was Pep’s side who edged back in the lead thanks to Nicolás Otamendi, scoring inside ten minutes of the restart.
United huffed and puffed, looking for a way back into the game and the absence of suspended Pogba was particularly notable, but City remained in total control, guiding the outcome carefully and precisely where they wanted it to head, as their fans greeted the final whistle with the derby day bragging rights for the first time this season.
There was a sporting enough embrace at the end between the two managers, captured by the cameras, but reports of scuffles and sour words outside the changing rooms from Mourinho, frustrated by the jubilant celebrations within by the City players.
Certainly, as the United manager will be all too aware with equal frustration, with his side now sitting eleven points behind their noisy neighbours, as Sir Alex Ferguson often referred to City, many pundits are already drawing their conclusions as to which team will be lifting the Premier League trophy in 2018.
Although Pep’s side still have much to do and just over half a season’s worth of fixtures to go, the derby win was a crucial statement of their intent, and a fourth consecutive 2-1 league victory. Evidence enough that even with all the flair and panache of their play, grinding out results is just as important.
What next for United?
The packed fixture list over the Christmas and New Year period will be the genuine acid test, not only for United, but also for City. Unless the latter enter into a negative run of results, it seems highly unlikely that the Premier League title will head to Old Trafford at the end of the campaign.
Of course, Mourinho will be the very last person to concede defeat in the chase to reach the summit of the table, but behind closed doors, he may accept that the distance in points already, matched by the consistent form on show in the blue side of town, is unrealistically insurmountable.
In order to close the gap, it seems evident that United may have to dip into the January transfer market, if they’re to plug any deficiencies in the side, or to match the enviable strength and depth that Pep currently has at his disposal. Other than continuing to build for next season and perhaps a more even Premier League battle, perhaps Mourinho is already focusing his thoughts and attention on the other major prize up for grabs and still within reach, harbouring ambitions of a Champions League triumph instead.