Manchester misfires: Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho are finding it tough
Remember back in September when Manchester City had been awarded the Premier League title and Pep Guardiola was short-listed for canonization in England just as he had been in Spain and Germany, where he had won a total of six league crowns?
Yeah, neither does Pep.
See, in those other countries, Guardiola's teams only had to fight off two challenges: one serious contender and boredom. Now there are as many as five legitimate outfits looking to staple him to his halo. Yet it was the club geographically closest to him -- OK, across town -- that the experts saw as the biggest threat to his ongoing beatification.
Yes, the battle for Premier League supremacy was destined to be staged in Manchester, the new epicenter of English football. As home to the country's two richest clubs, the two least self-effacing but most media-savvy managers and Marouane Fellaini, where else could possibly matter?
As we stampede into the Christmas crush of fixtures, this seems as good a time as any to ask: How's that two-horse title-deciding race in Manchester working out? Fortunately, this past weekend's games provided an illuminating glimpse into the respective trajectories of the city's two footballing behemoths.
By beating Spurs 1-0, United avoided the ignominy of not winning a match at Old Trafford in three months, a period that has seen Mourinho's men get off to the club's worst start of a season in 26 years and cause boundless joy on Merseyside. Even with the encouraging result against Tottenham, United find themselves 13 points behind league-leading Chelsea and 6 points adrift of the fourth and final Champions League qualifying berth, currently occupied by the blue side of Manchester.
City lost for the second consecutive week, getting thumped 4-2 by flirting-with-relegation Leicester City as Guardiola, the greatest tactical mind of his generation, was once again outwitted by ignoring a central tenet of his coaching ethos: always prepare your team to defend against a counter-attack.
On the bright side, at least Sergio Aguero didn't get sent off.
After their sizzling form at the start of the campaign (10 wins and one draw in their first 11 games), City have recorded just four more victories in their latest 12 efforts while nestling into Arsenal's favorite spot in the league table. Chelsea now stand seven points clear, hardly an insurmountable gap with 23 games remaining but also not the most auspicious position to be in with two of City's next four fixtures being against the Gunners and Liverpool.
Guardiola's obsession with his team playing the ball out of the back has become almost synonymous with them picking the ball out of the net. Fifteen league matches into the Catalan's reign, City have conceded 19 goals, two more than Bayern Munich gave up in the Bundesliga all of last season. Perhaps even more troubling is that City have recorded only two clean sheets in the league since Pep decided that Claudio Bravo's feet were more valuable than Joe Hart's hands.
Because of injuries (Vincent Kompany is one groin strain away from the scrap heap), suspensions (Fernandinho and Aguero will both be getting coal for Christmas) and fixture congestion (City have played 25 matches in all competitions compared to Chelsea's 18), Guardiola has been forced to overhaul his lineup -- and not in a good way. Like a master bank robber trying to brute-force the combination to the vault, Guardiola has spun the dial on his starting defense (and goalkeeper) an astonishing 24 times. He has yet to start the same back four (or three) in consecutive league matches, deploying a constantly rotating cast that hardly lends itself to a sense of stability.
But the cold hard truth is that even if everyone were in robust health, his defenders are simply neither as technically gifted, nor positionally intelligent, as the players he coached at Barca and Bayern. Guardiola can blather all he wants about how John Stones reminds him of a young Gerard Pique, but the difference is that the Barca center-back was surrounded by poised, ball-playing teammates, not a couple of Arsenal rejects like Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy.
Perhaps if Carles Puyol and not Sagna had been partnering Stones in the middle of City's defense against Leicester on Saturday, the former Everton man might not have rolled a back pass directly into the flight path of Jamie Vardy to complete his hat trick. Yet without Kompany, Guardiola has no authoritative presence in his defense to let Stones know that the sky won't fall if he occasionally lumped the ball clear instead of trying to soft-shoe his way out of trouble.
Guardiola once said that his idea of a perfect game is one in which his side has 100 percent of the ball. On Saturday, City enjoyed a paltry 78 percent and yet somehow found the time to ship four goals.
It's time for Pep to step up to Antonio Conte's espresso machine and pour himself a shot of pragmatism. After Chelsea was hammered twice early in the season while employing the Italian's beloved 4-4-2, he immediately switched formations and hasn't stopped winning. The chances of Pep admitting he got it wrong, however, are about the same as him wearing baggy jeans.
Still, things could be worse. Guardiola could be managing United.
Lest we forget, it was only 18 months ago when Mourinho bestrode the Premier League with Chelsea and allowed himself a hint of a smile. These days, his face is a perma-mask of thunder and he vents his frustrations on referees, Wayne Rooney and plastic water bottles. For a man who prided himself on his team's mental fortitude -- in Mourinho's glory years, the Blues were able to turn their dominance into just enough goals to see out the three points -- he has presided over a succession of eminently winnable draws featuring late equalizers by the opposition that has obscured the progress United has made in his six months.
No matter where you fall on the Mourinho Schadenfreude Index (a metric that I proudly invented), you have to admit that United is playing with more verve and confidence than it did under the robotic Louis van Gaal. Yet the Red Devils have won just two of their past eight games and for all Mourinho's filibustering that "nobody has been better than us," United will need a holiday miracle if they're to jam another bauble into their bloated trophy case.
Mourinho's problem has been the opposite of Guardiola's. While City has been leaking goals, United has struggled mightily to score them. It's not for lack of effort, mind you.
United have had a host of shots (224 , 81 on target) in the league this season, a number that compares favorably with highly fluid teams like Arsenal (228 shots, 80 on target), but only 20 have found the net, which pales next to the Gunners' 36. What makes this head-scratchingly vexing is that the Reds boast a high-octane attack with a pair of speed merchants (Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford), the howitzer-launching Paul Pogba and the dead-eye, if sometimes cumbersome, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Well, at least they're defensively sound having conceded only 10 times and David de Gea continues to burnish his credentials as the best player waiting to join Real Madrid. It makes you wonder what a juggernaut you could create if you combined Guardiola's free-flowing attack with Mourinho's stout defense. But short of that happening, I doubt anyone will be lining up at the cash windows in May to collect their winning bets on an open-top bus parade anywhere around either side of Manchester.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.