Did Jose Mourinho have a bigger rebuilding job on his hands than Pep Guardiola? Does that partly explain the 15 point gap at the top of the Premier League? No, says Howard Hockin. It’s classic deflection.
What coping mechanisms do you employ when a bald fraud’s oil-funded bunch of merry mercenaries are running away with the league title? What do you do when this team is your nearest rival (whilst pretending they’re not your “biggest” rival), when you have both spent bucket-loads of cash but only they are excelling, and when even your Emptyhad jibes seem as laboured and tired as Wayne Rooney after emerging at dawn from a packed Saga coach? Well you change the narrative once more of course and you claim that Jose Mourinho, who took over United in the same summer as Pep Guardiola, after both teams had finished the previous season on the same number of points, inherited a weaker side and has had the bigger building job, a claim that seems to have been widely accepted by all and sundry.
But is it really true?
Finishing level on points does not tell the whole story, naturally. Teams over-achieve, teams under-achieve, they suffer bad luck, good luck, bad injuries, bad decisions. It’s a guide, but it does not offer a definitive conclusion on the strength of the relative squads. It should however, not be dismissed. Both Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho had plenty of work to do on squads with many problems, and both had a nice warm-up period to plan before taking up the reins, though Jose had bugger all else to do, unlike Pep, who had the small matter of managing Bayern Munich. Pep’s appointment was announced many months before Jose’s, but have little doubt that the Portuguese eye-gouger knew he was going to United for some time.
City stumbled over the finishing line the previous season with a dire 1-1 draw at Swansea City. Only five of City’s starters that day are still at the club, and one of that five is the oft-maligned Mangala. City lined up with Hart, Navas, Sagna, Mangala, Clichy, Fernando and Iheanacho. On the bench were Kolarov, Nasri, Bony, Caballero, Demichelis, and the already-fading Yaya Toure. The line-up tells you everything you need to know – City had a huge rebuilding job to do, with a keeper Pep thought was not fit for purpose (which was, sadly, correct, and it took him two bites of the cherry to sort that), a rapidly-ageing full-back rota that would be replaced wholesale, a club captain who could not stay fit for two weeks at a time, and now can’t again, and a host of problems elsewhere, especially up front, with a raft of excluded players almost unsellable because of their hefty wages. There was work to be done, not least because those that stayed plus all new arrivals had to accept and incorporate the Pep way into their playing style, a system they will never have encountered before, a complicated system that leaves little room for error.
And that is precisely what the City players have now done.
Across the city, the narrative would have you believe that the United team that finished the 2015/16 season level on points with City were a bunch of average, uninspiring plucky part-timers with barely a top-class player amongst them. The Moyes and Van Gaal years had left something of a mess, there’s little doubt about that, but to claim there was a lack of talent is laughable.
Oh but you had a world-class spine exclaim United fans! We had Silva, De Bruyne, Aguero and sometimes we had Kompany too. Hardly the basis for City “terrifying Europe” and the excellent Fernandinho, who struggles to get a regular gig for Brazil hints at great coaching and utilisation rather than being bought in to guarantee instant success (how many a Spurs fan laughed as they brought in Paulinho around the same time).
United? Of course they have the world’s best keeper and in front of him the future of the England defence for a decade, or so I was told. They’d spent £30m on Luke Shaw, the most expensive teenager ever, until they broke their own record on Martial. They had the bright young thing of English football, Rashford; they had the player of the year Mata recruited at just shy of £40m; they had Schneiderlin. They had players that had been there and done it, won leagues and cups. Young, Valencia were top class, that was the narrative then. Many of the old guard are still at the club and still playing. If they were not fit for purpose, what does this tell us about the job Mourinho and Woodward have done if they remain at the club and get ample playing time? Is this not what the narrative should be?
Whatever the truth, United immediately brought in an old youth player for £90m to help that “spine”. Bailly added to that spine, Ibrahimovic too, with the Bundesliga top assister Mkhitaryan thrown in for good measure. Both of Mourinho’s seasons have started with many in the football media world tipping them to win the title.
But of course this is not just about who built the squad better right now – this gap, this chasm, is about more and that was really rankles with many across the divide. It’s about improvement of players at your disposal, and one of the two managers is streets ahead. Because on current form, by judging how players are performing right now and in previous months, after Jose got six big-money targets he had instructed Woodward to acquire, how many United players would currently get into City’s team? Two, if we’re full of Christmas spirit. City’s form might be a blip, an outlier, maybe that view will change, but does it feel like it will to you? Meanwhile United fans are saddled with a manager most of them despise but must pretend to have some affection for, playing in a way that goes against what’s in their DNA, whatever that means. Trapped. Won two trophies though!
The narrative works by re-writing history, by re-evaluating how good players are. Walker’s a waste of money, but now City are successful because we splurged money on full-backs. Sterling’s only asset is pace, but now of course he’s brilliant, but you’d expect that after what City paid for him.
It’s classic deflection. United’s squad was probably slightly worse than City’s in the summer of 2016, it lacked a sparkle, though both underwhelmed to a great degree. Look at that squad for the Swansea squad once more and marvel at how far we have come. But, if United were missing a top-class spine and more, they have had three transfer windows since then, and endless cash, to rectify previous errors. To use it as an excuse for failure eighteen months down the line is rather desperate. They could have bought a Salah or a Kevin De Bruyne, though naturally Mourinho would soon sell them on anyway.
Schneiderlin was supposed to be that rock at the base of the midfield, the engine-room like Gareth Barry was for us. They’ve got Matic now anyway, who Chelsea were fools for letting go, so everyone proclaimed. Juan Mata was signed for big money as reigning Football Player of the Year. Martial was the next big thing in French football, Duncan Castles told me so. All these players are not rubbish, they cannot be dismissed as poor players that left United at a disadvantage; they were players that could have succeeded at United (as two of them still might) if coached properly. But now history can view a raft of expensively-imported players at Old Trafford as average at best, simply because they were not a success. Schweinsteiger, Depay, Di Maria, Januzaj – all were going to bring back the glory years to Old Trafford. But alas, no. Their FIFA rating downgraded, the general consensus now reached that Mourinho needs another season to get this rabble in shape. A narrative conveniently changes when things don’t go so well.
Don’t fall for it, this coping mechanism. I understand why it happens and it happens in the modern glare of social media. Thank god I didn’t have to frequent Twitter in the 1990s. The number of appalling decisions made by my football club would drive anyone to drink. But in those days you could forget about football for most of the week, away from the water-cooler or playground. Not anymore, if you enjoy perusing the internet. Any failure is magnified again and again and again, every signing, every kick of the ball scrutinised to death. And you need a comfort blanket when you’re not the best anymore, when you can’t buy all the best players and lord it over all and sundry. You seek reassuring views, views that make you believe that better times may be around the corner. And that’s what is happening right now. Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola both had to turn underwhelming squads into world-beaters, with ample resources at their disposal. They both had the same remit. Guardiola had a tough first season, Mourinho too but won a couple of lesser trophies, so came out ahead.
But now it is a one-horse race, for now. Historical records are being broken, one team is a juggernaut. One of the two managers is doing a far better job, one club has a plan, a structure throughout the club that is designed for continual success – hey one club even has a women’s team too. One club is just run better. The other has a manager poisoning the atmosphere as he always does, only this time a season ahead of schedule, before arranging his release to PSG. And this has not all come about because one manager had a bigger building job; it’s come about because of the way they went about that building job, and where it has left them now. That’s just the way it is. Accept it, because as always with football, it will change – but don’t re-write history in the process.
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