The Manchester derby on Saturday is billed as the resumption of a very personal rivalry that reached boiling point on more than one occasion in Spain’s El Clásico.
The hype seems warranted: José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola facing each other for the first time on a Premier League stage so very different to the one they would have experienced when Real Madrid played Barcelona.
Such a confrontation between two managers who share such contrasting football philosophies is a rarity; in a manner of speaking, it is Mourinho, the uncompromising pragmatist, versus Guardiola, the football purist and disciple of tiki-taka.
Los Blancos appointed the Portuguese coach with the express mandate of putting an end to Barca’s dominance. Resorting to extreme measures to challenge tiki-taka was an indication of how seriously he took his brief.
He challenged the Blaugrana’s almost complete domination of ball possession by laying out a seven-point plan. Three of the points, taken from Diego Torres’ acclaimed biography of Mourinho, read:
Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake.
Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.
Whoever has the ball has fear.
In the 17 matches Mourinho played against the Catalans, including contests after Guardiola had left the Camp Nou, his side committed 346 fouls to Barca’s 220.
The beating heart of the rivalry between José and Pep became about one team trying to pass and play beautifully. The other fighting, disrupting and brawling – beauty against ugliness, football against anti-football.
However, Mourinho’s methods worked for one season at least – by winning the Primera Division in 2011/12 with 121 goals scored and 100 points tallied – he toppled Guardiola’s Barca at their zenith.
Yet, even in that campaign with Cristiano Ronaldo as his talisman – against Barca his teams were defensive, cautious and willing to sacrifice the ball for long periods. Mourinho had learnt a hard lesson by trying to open up to play against Barca and match them like-for-like – the 5-0 defeat Real suffered in 2010 was a watershed moment. He realised he couldn’t beat Guardiola at his own game and would have to resort to the darker arts of anti-football to defeat the Spaniard.
Mourinho discovered good reason why he had to fear Guardiola.
Saturday’s Manchester derby presents an intriguing narrative then – the United side that Mourinho has expensively assembled must attempt to beat Manchester City by playing a better brand of passing football.
His brief as United manager is to bring back the excitement of the Sir Alex Ferguson era and to lift the gloom of the pedestrian football played under Louis van Gaal. Yes, he has to win but he has to do it in the manner Red Devils fans grew accustomed to under Ferguson – a polished brand of football that was as effective as it was entertaining.
And, he has to be brave enough to do it against the master of a possession-based style of play like Guardiola – tiki-taka’s most obsessive chief architect.
FC Bayern München averaged 67% possession per game under the 45-year-old last season, and obvious signs are there that this won’t change with the Citizens. That he holds a winning record over Mourinho also gives him a psychological advantage – won five, drawn four and lost two.
In a sense then Mourinho has to break one of the seven sacred rules he once used against Barca in one of English football’s biggest derbies. He has to conquer his own belief against Guardiola that whoever has the ball has fear.
How Pep dominates possession against José…
Barca 5-0 Real (November 2010)
Barca 62.8% possession
Real 1-1 Barca (April 2011)
Barca 0 – 1 Real (April 2011)
Real 0-2 Barca (April 2011)
Barca 1-1 Real (May 2011)
Real 2-2 Barca (August 2011)
Barca 3-2 Real (August 2011)
Real 1-3 Barca (December 2011)
Real 1-2 Barca (January 2012)
Barca 2-2 Real (January 2012)
Barca 1-2 Real (April 2012)