Manuel Pellegrini, Louis van Gaal's legacies on display in derby
A battle for superiority in a city is at stake, perhaps even the ultimate destination of fourth place. Yet as Manuel Pellegrini and Louis van Gaal prepare to meet for the fourth and final time, personal objectives form a subplot of the Manchester derby. Manchester City and Manchester United are legacy projects for managers approaching retirement age: At a time of life when a man's thoughts are increasingly concentrated on the thoughts of the mark he has made, each must hope he leaves the right sort of legacy in Manchester.
Pellegrini is definitely departing, Van Gaal perhaps not. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that, to the irritation of many in the United fanbase, the Dutchman will limp on into a third season, whether by dint of securing silverware or Champions League qualification or because United's powerbrokers have a misguided faith in him. Yet the populist approach for Van Gaal's successor to take would be to rip up much of what he has done, dismissing him as a peculiarity who abandoned United's traditional style of play and presided over some of the more ignominious moments in their recent past. The danger for Pellegrini is that he is deprived of recognition, in part because of his low-key approach. He is an understated character who bridged the gap between the more charismatic pair of Roberto Mancini and Pep Guardiola.
Pellegrini can at least point to the trophy cabinet as tangible proof of achievement; only Joe Mercer has won more honours as City manager, but the danger is that Mancini, the man who ended a 35-year drought, and Guardiola, the serial winner who should accomplish more, leave Pellegrini in the dark again. Overseeing City's maiden voyage to the Champions League quarterfinals is a feat for the Chilean, but one which could be obscured in years to come. At least, however, Pellegrini has taken his club forward. The danger for Van Gaal is that United's recent inability to win anything is extended on his watch. He risks being bracketed with David Moyes, rather than Sir Alex Ferguson.
Van Gaal may be reliant on the United board and his replacement if he is to acquire the reputation of one who laid the foundations for others' achievements. Should Ryan Giggs be his successor, Van Gaal may be seen as guru, educator and enlightener. If it is Jose Mourinho or another outsider, the notion of the Dutchman's plans coming to fruition in future years will be harder to credit. Pellegrini can present himself as part of a seamless transition; City's thinking has been unchanged from 2013, when Guardiola was their first choice, to 2016. At least the Chilean was not discarded in favour of another.
Pellegrini has always argued that style of play was as important as the results. Guardiola, an aesthete, an intellectual and an ideologue, may share that belief. Pellegrini's commitment to attack will be maintained. Yet in other senses, Guardiola is not merely a deluxe upgrade; the Spaniard should engineer so many improvements that his City cannot be presented simply as an elevated version of Pellegrini's side. They should be fitter, faster and younger, tactically cleverer and more versatile, aided by a geometrical appreciation of the angles. The assumption is that any future United manager would affect greater change to Van Gaal's tactics, whether adopting Ferguson's commitment to entertain or Mourinho's pragmatic counter-attacking philosophy. The era of incessant sideways passing seems to be short-lived at Old Trafford.
If Ferguson and Van Gaal have fewer common denominators than United imagined when appointing the Dutchman, there are a couple of welcome similarities. The 64-year-old, like his illustrious predecessor, has shown a willingness to sign players who will peak after his retirement. Ferguson bequeathed an improving David De Gea. United's next manager will benefit from the vast promise of Anthony Martial. Yet it would be a leap to suggest that the new manager will inherit the basis of a champion team; while Van Gaal has spent £285 million, United may still require additions in the centre of defence and midfield, plus a forward and another creator. The squad may have to be reshaped to inject more pace, height, urgency, invention and goals. As Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera had been scouted extensively by Moyes, few of the recruits most associated with Van Gaal may prove to be cornerstones of anyone else's side.
The same can be said of Pellegrini. Many of City's key players remain those either signed by Mancini -- in the cases of David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Yaya Toure -- or who excelled for him, such as Vincent Kompany, Joe Hart and Pablo Zabaleta. Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne may figure prominently for Guardiola, but their arrivals owed more to City as a club than Pellegrini. Those whose causes he has championed, like Willy Caballero, Martin Demichelis, Jesus Navas and Wilfried Bony, may vanish from the picture. His predecessor's imprint may remain on the team rather longer than his.
Certainly Guardiola's team will look very different, with signings -- perhaps Leroy Sane, possibly Ilkay Gundogan -- complemented by academy prospects. Eleven players made their debuts under Pellegrini this season, a deceptively impressive statistic as only Kelechi Iheanacho has made more than one start, and the Nigerian's outings have been fewer than many have hoped. These are not Pellegrini's proteges.
So, with what is arguably an inferior group of young players, Van Gaal has shown a greater faith in youth. City have often named the Premier League's oldest team this season; United selected its youngest, against Watford. This, Van Gaal may hope, is his legacy, a policy that places him squarely alongside Ferguson and Sir Matt Busby. The suspicion that he knew comparatively little about Marcus Rashford before the 18-year-old scored four goals in his first two games, or the rather random way he has called up and then discarded other rookies shows a scattered approach. Some seemed over-promoted, others undistinguished -- but if they form the basis of a future United side, Van Gaal may be credited.
And unless he can steer United toward one of their goals this season, that may represent his best chance of being remembered fondly. Pellegrini has been a qualified success who may blur into the background, Van Gaal a disappointment who has contrived to redefine United in line with his rather warped philosophy. But, compared to his quiet City counterpart, he is one who will trumpet his achievements, real or imagined. If the consensus is that he is a liability, he is one looking to leave a legacy.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.