When Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola took over Manchester United and Manchester City, respectively, in the summer of 2016, theirs was touted the rivalry that was to define the landscape of English football over the next few years.
After dominating Spain and Germany, with Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively – even though he couldn’t win the Champions League with the latter – it was Guardiola’s turn to do the same in England with City.
Meanwhile, Mourinho who had already had successes in Portugal, England, Italy, Spain and England again – with Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid – it was perhaps a time to embrace a more long-term position and finally land the Old Trafford gig that many felt he would’ve, and should’ve, got when Sir Alex Ferguson called it a day in 2013.
During their first year, it was Antonio Conte’s Chelsea that undid the two Manchester clubs and everyone else, as they won the league. Guardiola’s City went trophyless, punctuated with a Round of 16 exit in the Champions League and a third-place finish in the league.
While Mourinho’s United finished sixth in the league, he claimed ‘three’ trophies in the season having won the Community Shield, the EFL Cup and the Europa League – none of these being top-drawer silverware of course.
Even so, the 2016-17 season gave Guardiola the time to settle in and induct his philosophy at City, while Mourinho brought United back into the Champions League – via the Europa League – and looked to have his mark on the club as well. So 2017-18 should be all about United and City, Mourinho and Guardiola, was the idea.
The two clubs did finish top two in the league, but the gap between them was visibly prodigious. This was owing to a combination of Guardiola’s City rewriting a plethora of Premier League records, and United’s best just not being good enough to challenge them – even if it was enough to top the other 18 teams in the league.
Furthermore, the fact that United went trophyless in the season, losing the FA Cup final to Chelsea and being knocked out in the Round of 16 by Sevilla, meant that the highest points tally and league finish since Sir Alex Ferguson’s time was a bittersweet accomplishment for United fans.
This was especially true given that it was actually Liverpool that looked the likeliest to challenge City – having beaten Guardiola’s side in the league and Europe, en route to the Champions League final.
Most critically, however, both Guardiola’s City and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool played exciting brands of football that neither Mourinho orchestrated, nor offered at United.
Two seasons in, given that the style of football was visibly being compromised, was Mourinho taking United forward?
There were arguments both for and against it, but there was general consensus that his third season – usually where things traditionally go pear-shaped for the Portuguese – would define his stint at United.
Two defeats in the first three league games – 3-2 away to Brighton and 3-0 at home against Tottenham Hotspurs – is how United started the ongoing season.
While wins away to Burnley and Watford followed, United drew at home against Wolverhampton Wanderers and lost away to West Ham, between which they were knocked out of the EFL Cup at Old Trafford by Championship club Derby County.
Another home draw against Valencia followed in the Champions League, putting United’s qualification bid for the knockout stages under jeopardy.
In what was billed as the game that could see Mourinho being sacked, United were 2-0 down at home against Newcastle United before turning it around to win 3-2. They almost followed that up with an away win at Stamford Bridge, with Chelsea salvaging a late 2-2 draw. Back to back wins against Everton and Bournemouth followed, with United’s away win in Turin last week putting their Champions League campaign back on track as well.
Meanwhile, City have only dropped four points in the league all season – two of those being away to Liverpool, which again look like being their closest challengers, only two points behind Guardiola’s side. Similarly, despite losing the first Champions League group match at home against Lyon, City have won the next three on the bounce to make things smooth for them in Europe.
It is under this backdrop and in complete contrasting starts to the season – and indeed distinct past couple of years – that City hosted United last Sunday. City’s 3-1 win actually flattered United, who could’ve lost by so much more.
The defeat leaves United at eighth 12 points behind City, 10 behind Liverpool, eight behind Chelsea and seven behind fourth-placed Spurs. While a home win against Young Boys should be enough to see United through to the Round of 16, it is hard to gauge what the club’s – and indeed their manager’s – ambitions are for the remainder of the season.
Even a top-four finish, with slightly deeper run in the Champions League – which as things stand is pretty idealistic for Mourinho and his side – wouldn’t really signal any progress for Manchester United, at a time when City look like beating their own records from last season and Liverpool and Chelsea aim to give them a run for their money.
It is quite evident that United have fallen further behind their long peddled ‘noisy neighbours’ City, and in the meanwhile appear to have been overtaken by Liverpool and even Chelsea in the pecking order.
A deep run in the Champions League or an FA Cup trophy might be the only source for redemption in a season that is all but certain to result in Mourinho and United parting ways, with neither party gaining much from their three-season union.