One match is not a reliable sample size for a decisive take on managerial abilities, nevertheless, Saturday’s Manchester derby at Old Trafford showed City manager Pep Guardiola has a good measure of Jose Mourinho, his rival and counterpart at United.
Guardiola may still go on to flounder this season, or Mourinho may go on to redeem the loss, but as it stands, there is only one winner in this tactical battle: the man with the glistening bald head.
Prior to the match, speaking to Sky Sports, Mourinho explained his decision to start with Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. “They are more direct. I want to see if he (Guardiola) pushes the fullbacks in.” In the first meeting between the two great tacticians on English soil, the Portuguese was going after the ploy that gave Guardiola a flawless start at City.
The fullbacks drifting in to play more centrally and centre-backs playing wider, allowing the defensive midfielder to fill the void left, is a radical new approach for Premier League viewers. It is an approach even Barcelona have never attempted while under Guardiola. This was Guardiola’s new German trick, one the versatile Philipp Lahm and David Alaba helped him learn at Bayern Munich. No tiki-taka this, this is dynamic transition on steroids, Guardiola’s new flagship. And Mourinho wanted to tackle that head on.
As it happened, Guardiola had anticipated the move. The past meetings between the two in Spain and elsewhere have clearly made Guardiola prudent. On Saturday, Guardiola made his full backs, Aleksandar Kolarov on the left and Bacary Sagna on the right, to stay wide and stretch the field.
This negated any advantage the directness of Mkhitaryan and Lingard could have provided, and also gave City’s attacking midfielders, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva, plenty of space where it mattered. The result was the near complete dominance City had in the first half.
To be fair to Mourinho, it wasn’t just the tactical jugglery of Guardiola that outdid him, the indiscipline of his players, particularly Paul Pogba and Mkhitaryan, and naivety of centre-back, Daley Blind, were as much a factor. With United’s defence stretched by City fullbacks, and Guardiola gambling on teenage Kelechi Iheanacho to keep the opposition centre-backs busy, the job to contain Silva and de Bruyne was on one the defensive midfielders.
With Marouane Fellaini staying closer to his counterpart Fernandinho, there should have been no doubt to Pogba which grids of the pitch he should have occupied. The most expensive player in the game, however, was everywhere except those. A talented and smart player like de Bruyne doesn’t need a better invitation.
In the second-half, Guardiola switched his ploy, bringing on Fernando for Iheanacho. As much as this is a firewall to secure the one-goal lead, the tactic allowed Fernandinho to break forward when needed. Coupled with the introduction of pacy Leroy Sane, it read as a warning, ‘if you commit forward too much in search of the equaliser, we will hit on the counter.’
As it happened, the changes were enough for City to hold on to the 2-1 lead and win the derby, even as Guardiola’s other big bet, Claudio Bravo was suffering from a logical breakdown.