Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will descend upon Manchester this summer with the weight of their personal rivalry and the type of high expectations that come from being two of the world’s most influential and well-compensated managers. Sitting at two Champions League titles apiece, Guardiola and Mourinho are in a race to see who gets the third one first. They’re playing a zero sum game on an even higher, more challenging level sharing Manchester than it was when they shared the Clasicos for two seasons at Barcelona and Real Madrid. Atletico hadn’t yet made La Liga a three-club race whereas Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, West Ham, Southampton and defending champion Leicester City pose a different type of gauntlet.
Both clubs are being handed off to their new managers in various states of disrepair, transition and age. Manchester City was one of the least inspiring Champions League semifinalists in recent memory, while Manchester United finished fifth in the Premier League and the only trophy won since Alex Ferguson departed was last week’s FA Cup.
City paid a petrol fortune in transfer fees to win two Premier League titles and the roster has so quickly become skeletal. Beyond Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne, wandering through the City dressing room feels like you’re in Shelley’s “Ozymandias”.
Guardiola is targeting eight signings and figures to begin at center-back where City has nobody capable of making the type of diagonal passes over the defense to isolate a winger that became the trademark of Bayern. Aymeric Laporte and John Stones will cost a fortune if both are signed but they’re both clearly Guardiola players with how he plays from the back. Putting Ilkay Gundogan in the middle of the pitch as his new Sergio Busquets stabilizes that position after Yaya Toure quickly declined after the 2014 title. For as long as Guardiola was expected to ultimately join City’s project, the club is distressingly devoid of his type of players with so many recent transfers like Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi were made indiscriminately.
Guardiola inherited one of the best clubs of this century in 2013, a Jupp Heynckes-led Bayern Munich that had just won the treble. For all Guardiola accomplished with Bayern, it wasn’t so much about not winning a Champions League, let alone even reaching a final, as it was about him being a poacher. That team would soon start to age with Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben on the wings and Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield; Guardiola had the unshakable core of Thomas Muller, Philipp Lahm and Manuel Neuer to build around and experiment with. The two legs and done nature of the Champions League makes it easier to win with a mediocre side than a domestic title and harder to win with even a great side that rarely drops points in any competition. Bayern was eliminated in the semifinals of the Champions League by three different very good clubs from Spain in each of Guardiola's three shots at it.
Guardiola was indefatigably innovative and helped Bayern achieve a new worldwide relevance that overlapped with Germany winning the World Cup filled with their players just as the size of television contracts threatens to create a new imbalance of power. Following his sabbatical in New York, Guardiola’s three seasons at Bayern were a professorial peacetime in which he was only really competing against himself. With the exception of Bayern’s doctors, there were no battles of life and death against a foe beyond the bald bearded one Guardiola sees in the mirror. Guardiola won a rather remarkable five out of nine possible trophies. Anyone bored by that run of success is indirectly giving Guardiola’s dominance a ton of praise.
Mourinho has a penchant for fast starts and fast exits and fortunately for him he has more to work with immediately while Guardiola has considerable engineering of the City roster to play his style to his standards. No manager can withstand being powerless but Mourinho’s swift exit from Chelsea in December just months after winning the title demonstrates his perpetual fragility. Mourinho obstinately needs to be engaged in constant combat to survive, whether it’s the media, Arsene Wenger or the best players on his own team. If Mourinho doesn’t have real foes, then there’s nothing to justify his undying paranoia.
Mourinho’s ostensible reputation for playing an unholy, excessively defensive style of soccer is undeserved; his only apparent god is to win by any means necessary and that involves a pragmatic counterattack when the opponent is nearly as talented or more so than his own. Mourinho may be diabolical but I've never found him or his style boring.
Fortunately for the sake of his impatience, United is closer to being Mourinho’s type of team than City Guardiola’s. Mourinho will shift Wayne Rooney deeper into the midfield and he has several highly talented young forwards to build around in Anthony Martial, Memphis Depay, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard, plus one of the world’s best keepers in David De Gea. Signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic makes United immediately better without compromising the long-term prospects of his young attacking players, while he’ll also surely sign another central midfielder and a center back, which is their most critical need.
Louis van Gaal spent more than £250 million on transfers during his two seasons and even though it never produced a coherent and appropriately competitive XI, there’s enough here for Mourinho to form his trademark hallmarks of a 4-2-3-1 to finish in the top-4 in 2017 before becoming a legit title contender in Year 2 in 2018. Mourinho has won a domestic title in his second season in his most recent Chelsea stint and at Real Madrid.
The EPL now has the most expensive assemblage of managers we’ve ever seen. Managers too often get excessive credit/blame for results but Guardiola and Mourinho joining a group that already has Arsene Wenger, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino, Slaven Bilic, Ronald Koeman, and is also getting Antonio Conte and Walter Mazzarri this summer. There’s not enough winning to go around so some of those heads will roll just as Van Gaal and Manuel Pellegrini’s did.
As interesting as the tenures of Guardiola and Mourinho will be in Manchester, the natures of their exits will be fascinating because where could they possibly go from here?
This is the job Mourinho has always wanted, has always lobbied for and he presumably would prefer to stop United’s post-Ferguson revolving door and remain with the club until his retirement but he’s too smart to know how plausible that scenario is in reality. Mourinho probably even knows his personality too well and that he'll become too unhinged for the old United guard to desperately tolerate at some point and that will be that after he stops their current bleeding. Mourinho probably will go to Paris Saint-Germain next for another massive cash out and to win another country’s domestic title.
Guardiola’s next move would be more problematic with only a high stress return to Barcelona making much sense. Working with Txiki Begiristain, it feels like Guardiola may finally be in it for the long haul with City as he’s afforded a blank check from a blank club that has an owner and supporters more interested in relevance and respect than even results.