It’s hardly been two weeks since the 2015-2016 season of the English Premier League wound down, arguably with a whimper rather than a bang. Fans of Newcastle United might beg to differ, but with the champions having already been crowned, the relegations spots already decided and the race for Champions League spots being hit by a bomb scare, it wasn't the most exciting final day of the league. It’s probably worth pointing out that had Manchester City and Manchester United kicked off at the same time on 15 May, the battle for fourth spot would certainly have been more exciting.
Nevertheless, this was a season that had it all — underdog champions, brilliant team performances, outstanding personal efforts, one-sided beatdowns, nail-biters and what have you. But one thing seemed almost conspicuous by its absence: Bitter rivalries played out through soap opera-like events.
The North London Derby (Arsenal versus Tottenham Hotspur) and the Tyne-Wear Derby (Newcastle United versus Sunderland) enjoyed some moments in the spotlight, but were largely muted, save for that banner.
Over the decades, a number of rivalries have fallen by the wayside. Manchester United versus Leeds United has gone the way of the dodo, as has the violent West Ham United versus Millwall rivalry. As seen in the season gone by, the Manchester United-Liverpool rivalry mattered more to Jürgen Klopp’s men than Louis van Gaal’s. Arsenal’s own rivalry with the team from Old Trafford has also gone tepid since the mid-2000s. The list is almost endless.
Enter José Mourinho.
Now here’s a man who could even irritate a docile pensioner sitting quietly in a public library reading something by Paolo Coelho.
Mourinho’s return to the English Premier League is likely to assure a few things: The return of silverware to Old Trafford, the return of a solid back four to Manchester United and the return of bitterness to rivalries. The first two are fairly self-explanatory. After all, the man knows how to win trophies and his teams have traditionally been set up with solid defensive lines.
Onto the third point, and detractors will undoubtedly bask in their wisdom as they point out that the actual quality of football is not likely to change and that the real change is in the dynamic of the league where such a stark outlier blitzed past the so-called ‘big teams’ and claimed the crown. That’s a good argument, no doubt, but it’s also one that belongs in a different article.
Any soap opera worth its salt is only as good as its villain. And in this case, the pantomime antics, the putdowns, the pokes to the eye and everything else Mourinho brings will greatly elevate the drama quotient of the Premier League. Here then, are some of the more dramatic subplots we can expect.
Manchester United versus Manchester City
For United, the Manchester derby has historically taken something of a backseat to the team’s rivalry with Leeds United and Liverpool, primarily because of the gulf in quality between the two sides. Since the oil money infusion of the early 2000s however, City found itself competing with United on a more regular basis — marked most notably by the thrill-a-minute final day of the 2011-2012 season.
A breakneck 90 minutes saw the blue half of Manchester erupt with joy after Joey Barton’s (then playing for QPR) moment of unfettered petulance. The final day of the 2015-2016 season was meant to see the two sides in a neck-and-neck contest for a Champions League slot, but that as well know, didn’t happen.
Nevertheless, while it has been argued that Mourinho is likely a better fit for Manchester City than United, while Pep Guardiola is better suited for the Red Devils than the Citizens, the resumption of the Guardiola-Mourinho rivalry is a mouthwatering prospect. This pair — that coached Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively in the recent past — have had a fractious past, to put it mildly.
The decision to replace the beleaguered van Gaal with Mourinho (who, even Eric Cantona agrees isn’t a good fit for the club) can be seen as a case of bringing in the Joker to counterbalance Batman — an idea to which Sid Lowe alludes in The Guardian. Or bringing in Batman to counterbalance the Joker. You can decide who’s who.
While the first half of the season (or perhaps even less) will likely see an exchange of polite platitudes, it’s in the second half that we expect these two to lay into each other, and in doing so, reignite the passion of the Manchester derby.
Arsenal versus Manchester United
Heart-stopping football? Check
Angry managers? Check
Angry players? Check
Red cards a-plenty? Check
Projectile pizza? Check
This rivalry has seen it all, particularly through the late 1990s and early 2000s. The talismanic United captain Roy Keane (of 'stick it up your b*llocks' fame) has often alluded to how much he hated Arsenal, while the reaction of the Gunners to United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy's missed penalty in 'The Battle of Old Trafford' (21 September, 2003) indicated that the feeling was more than mutual.
But somewhere down the line — as a result of mercurial players retiring, Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson burying the hatchet and Arsenal’s annual sale of important players (resulting in the team no longer challenging for the top spot) — this rivalry grew tepid. Players and managers alike would talk up the fixture, but somehow it nearly always became a routine fixture.
The clash that used to be a marquee fixture quickly became just another fixture on a crowded calendar, van Gaal’s stuntman-esque attempts to reinfuse some drama into proceedings notwithstanding.
Helming Manchester United will give Mourinho another chance to get one over on his bête noire Wenger. The sexagenarian manager has been called a 'voyeur', a 'specialist at failure' and almost everything else under the Sun by Mourinho and tensions have usually flared whenever the duo have found themselves on the same ground. Whether or not verbal barbs are thrown around and/or reciprocated this time around, the reinjection of life into the Wenger-Mourinho (ergo Arsenal-United) rivalry will make for must-watch TV.
Manchester United versus Chelsea
The once 'Special One' and later 'Happy One' (it's anyone's guess what he calls himself these days; 'Two-One' maybe to represent two terms as Chelsea manager and one as United manager?) has always been the recipient of a lot of love from the folks in Stamford Bridge, with the possible exception of the players at the end of last year. Nevertheless, time heals all and we're sure to see Mourinho exchanging hugs, backslaps and warm smiles with John Terry and his crew when this fixture takes place.
Deep within the Portuguese manager's heart however, will sit a desire to show up his former employers and perhaps even his former charges — whose lack of support for him is believed to have led to Chelsea's woeful run of form at the start of the recently-concluded season, culminating in his sacking.
At the same time, the Blues' incoming manager Antonio Conte is known not to suffer fools or the burdens of emotion. A case in point is the current Italian national coach's latest salvo declaring that Italians who move to the American MLS must 'pay the consequences'. Under the watchful eye of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, Conte will give no quarter and Mourinho will expect none. However, Two-One (we're using that one) risks losing the love of Stamford Bridge if United scores and he pulls one of these:
And if both teams find themselves tussling for top spot in the league, you can bet there'll be some very interesting soundbites and antics emanating from both camps.
Liverpool versus Manchester United
Klopp and Mourinho share a fairly pleasant relationship at the time of writing.
It must be borne in mind, however, that both managers have only managed in the same league for a little over two months — Klopp was appointed Liverpool gaffer on 8 October last year, while Mourinho got the ol' heave ho from Chelsea on 15 December. The only Chelsea-Liverpool fixture these two men presided over was the match at Stamford Bridge on 31 October was eventful for different reasons: It was Mourinho's sixth defeat of the season (the previous season saw Chelsea lose only three in total), while it was Klopp's first victory as Liverpool manager.
The former Borussia Dortmund manager is an affable sort and often lets his emotions get the better of him — albeit in a positive sense. Could an emotional Klopp and a regular Mourinho rub each other the wrong way? It's possible. One of the oldest rivalries in English football could very well be revived if they do.
The 2016-2017 season — that may well be known for years to come as 'The one in which drama returned to the Premier League' — begins on 13 August and it's already been given an almighty kick up the rear ('a shot in the arm' somehow feels woefully inadequate in this context).
Mourinho has more than enough time to get under the skin of his opposite numbers before the action kicks off. You're not going to want to miss it.
Unfortunately, there's the tiresome matter of Euro 2016 to get through first.
Published Date: May 27, 2016 02:27 pm | Updated Date: May 27, 2016 03:42 pm