Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Mourinho, Guardiola cannot afford a loss in Man United vs. Man City Part II

There is no such thing as a low key Manchester derby, not even when it's "only" the League Cup, but after the events of last weekend, Wednesday's clash will be even more intense than usual. Two of the richest teams in the world are controlled by two of the finest managers in the world and neither side can afford to lose for fear of inviting levels of public criticism that will surely start to affect the dressing room. Given that these two clubs were tipped by many fans and pundits to leave everyone else behind and battle for the title this season, this will be a strangely edgy encounter. Of the two managers, Pep Guardiola's form book is in the worse shape -- he's without a win in five games for the first time since March 2009. Jose Mourinho only has to go back five days for his last victory, a comprehensive thrashing of Fenerbahce in the Europa League, but he finds himself in the most trouble after Sunday's 4-0 humiliation at former club Chelsea. And yet for all the drama, there's a case to be made that Manchester's two biggest clubs are performing at a level you might expect, given how little time either manager has had to work with their squad. And neither of them are really in any trouble at all. The first quarter of this league season has been so tight that only a single point and a +2 goal difference separate Manchester City in first place and Tottenham in fifth. Even United are only six points back. It's a little early to start panicking. This was the case that Mourinho was keen to push on Sunday as he spoke of a difficult week that included two trips to two title rivals. He listed "Swansea, Sunderland and Middlesbrough," as teams that United would now face, implying they would fare rather better in those encounters. It was a bold hand to play, not least because United don't play Sunderland and Middlesbrough until after Christmas, but you could see his point. Drawing grave conclusions from six days of football is unwise. And yet this has been a very disappointing start for Mourinho. A skilled linguist and gifted communicator, he is not usually a manager who needs much time to get warmed up even in the most multinational of dressing rooms where others might find ideas hard to impose. At Porto, he lost only one of his first 19 games. At Chelsea, he lost only one of his first 24 games. At Inter, it was one in 18, at Real Madrid it was one in 26. Mourinho has only had 14 games as Manchester United manager and he's already lost four of them. But as beguiling as it is to hypothesise that he is a spent force, it's too early for that as well. Yes, he's spent the not-inconsiderable-sum of £156 million, with two thirds of that going on Paul Pogba, whose greatest achievement at the club thus far has been making Wayne Rooney look like a more effective option in central midfield. And no, the performance at Chelsea was not a one-off. United were underwhelming in their late 1-0 win away at Hull on Aug. 27, desperately poor in last month's 2-1 defeat to City in the league and utterly wretched in a 3-1 loss away at Watford eight days later on Sept. 18. But after three years of underachieving, over-cautious football, it's going to take more than 14 games to reconfigure this football club. This is not to say the Mourinho-is-spent theory is without merit. The difference between the relationship he had with his first title winning Chelsea side and his last title winning Chelsea side is vast. Men like John Terry, Frank Lampard, Petr Cech and Didier Drogba, men who had come up the hard way, suffering indignities along the way , they were men who responded to Mourinho. The younger generation, the players who had been spotted, groomed, cherished and idolised from a young age, seemed less inclined to bond. Or in some cases, given the performances, even listen. This is not unusual. Even Sir Alex Ferguson had to adapt when the hairdryer technique that had worked so well for decades left players from his latter teams in floods of tears. Society changes. Motivations change. To last for more than a decade at the top, and remember that Mourinho has already been at major clubs (his brief spell at Benfica not included) since 2002, you have to be prepared to change as well. Guardiola has never had any issues with change. Indeed, he can change several times during the same game, manoeuvring his players around the pitch seeking gains and overloads, leaping from a back four to a back three from match to match, inverting his full-backs at will. The question is how long it will take his players to settle to all this excitement. Manuel Pellegrini was a hands-off manager; Guardiola couldn't be more different. And while that's exciting and entertaining, there is a reason why most managers prefer to make their changes gradually, picking winnable battles and slowly building authority. If you axe your new club's long-serving, popular goalkeeper and his cavalier replacement makes high profile mistakes, you attract flak. If you sanction the signing of gifted, but careless centre-backs and they play suicidal backpasses, people start to question your judgement. Guardiola has his reasons, of course, and everything he has achieved thus far means they are worthy. He wants to play the ball out from the back with the goalkeeper almost as an outfield player, and he didn't feel confident doing that with Joe Hart. And he's probably right. He knows that ball playing centre-backs offer an extra dimension to a team, especially one with such complex movement and he sees huge potential in John Stones. And he's right there too. But these playing styles cannot be flicked on and off like a light switch. Players adjust gradually and mistakes along the way can prove costly. And so Mourinho and Guardiola, two so very different managers, find themselves in very similar positions. Both men need time. Both men need patience. And both men must fear they will get neither from outside the club, especially if they follow up what happened this weekend with a derby defeat. In an early round of a secondary domestic cup, there's nothing much to win on Wednesday night. But there's everything to lose.

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