In an interview to CNN last year, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was asked to talk about his past managers. Carlo Ancelotti’s name came up and the right noises were made. But then came the question of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. The answers were categorical enough. Not that we were surprised by them but they bear retelling here, in light of his move to Manchester United.
Guardiola? "Whatever happened, as a coach he was fantastic. As a person, I have no comments about that." It took little prodding for Ibrahimovic to say, “He is not a man.” Now only the Swede can say what he meant by that, but it is clear that he was not honouring the current Manchester City manager by saying that.
Mourinho, despite his troubles at Chelsea then, was given a free pass. The term ‘mastermind’ made an appearance. It may come down to Ibrahimovic to give his favourite an advantage on Saturday when the sides meet at Old Trafford. The potential implications for the title race aside, the historical rancour between the clubs and the managers means that the contest feels a little early in the season. Neither of the sides would want to concede ground four games into the league campaign.
But how far is Ibrahimovic’s undying belief in Mourinho justified? His current boss has defeated Guardiola’s teams only thrice in 16 encounters. However, one of the seven times that saw Mourinho finish on the losing side, was also the occasion of his greatest triumph over his arch-nemesis. A 1-0 win for Barcelona in the 2009-10 Champions League semifinal second leg against Inter Milan was not enough to overturn the deficit.
While the encounter featured back-to-the-walls defending, Samuel Eto’o playing the role of a full back, and sprinklers unleashed in a failing attempt to dampen Inter’s celebration at Camp Nou, it also had a moment that brought the three protagonists together in a memorable exchange. As Guardiola began speaking to Ibrahimovic on the touchline, Mourinho snuck up on them and patted the Barcelona manager on his head.
It was a moment of remarkable audacity; it also gave the impression that Mourinho had infantilised Guardiola. While the Barça manager clearly did not take it well, he contained his exasperation. It was the kind of shrewdness one had come to associate with Mourinho, but it is arguably lost now. He had made his name as a manager who often had the upper hand in psychological exchanges. But it has been tough to escape the perception that the Portuguese manager’s mask has slipped.
Particularly after the disastrous end to his time at Chelsea, Mourinho has sounded like a man playing catch-up and failing. He has had the occasional jibe at Guardiola but it does not seem to lack its characteristic sting. He is returning to trusted ways which do not seem to serve him well.
The challenge for Mourinho has acquired a different complexion too as he prepares for his latest meeting with Guardiola. The takeaway from the first three games of the season has been that United is closer to playing at its best than its city rival. Guardiola is still looking to mould his side as a flowing, attacking side; the defence continues to remain suspect, despite the addition of John Stones who can be an occasional wanderer.
Mourinho has tended to adopt a defensive attitude when facing teams managed by Pep. This has also been the case when his side plays a title rival early in the season. Chelsea’s reliance on defence in the 0-0 draw at Old Trafford in the second game of the 2013-14 season was Mourinho’s way of showing respect to Manchester United’s title aspirations; of course, his tactics did not seem the shrewdest in light of the Red Devils’ stuttering campaign under David Moyes.
But, over the years, Mourinho has only allowed the perception to flourish that his actions are affected by Guardiola. Perhaps, the origins of his dislike for the current City manager lie in Barcelona’s preference for one of their own in 2008. But now that he leads a side with immense quality in its ranks, does he return to his old dictum – “Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake; whoever has the ball has fear?”
Despite never forgiving Barcelona for rejecting him, Mourinho was happy to take the reins at United despite his failure to attract the job in 2013. Diego Torres’ biography of the Portuguese manager highlights his disappointment at missing out on the opportunity to replace Sir Alex Ferguson but the Portuguese has never begrudged United in the same way.
Now that Mourinho is at Old Trafford, he gets another chance to put one over Guardiola. It is strange that the rivalry between the two is driven by a Mourinho-centric narrative. Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano, also one of the men responsible for Barcelona’s selection of Guardiola in 2008, once said that the current United manager needs an atmosphere of tension to thrive. The waters are relatively calm right now but a defeat for United may bring the needle back.
Perhaps it will not get as pointless as last season when Guardiola’s success at Bayern Munich was dismissed by Mourinho on the ground of lack of competition in Bundesliga. “Maybe in the future I have to be smarter and choose another club in another country where everybody is champion. Maybe I will go to a country where a kitman can be coach and win the title.”
His statement was remarkably petulant. Mourinho was in charge of Chelsea then and in no direct opposition to Guardiola’s side. Yet the former Barcelona colleague seems to be at the centre of his universe. Guardiola has rarely sought to fuel the tension; Mourinho, to be fair, has tried to dampen it recently as well.
In the lead-up to Saturday’s derby, Guardiola spoke about his opposite number. “I have said many times I have a lot of respect for him. I always try to learn from all my colleagues and I learn from him as well, it's as simple as that. The rivalry between us is more for the media, but we can't control that."
It may be the case that the media is guilty of overemphasising the tension between the managers but there is more to it than Guardiola claims. Perhaps, they are natural rivals as coaches seeking to establish their legacies for decades to come. But their time in Spain exacerbated the issue. Mourinho, certainly, has never allowed Guardiola to be separated from his career and his achievements.
As the two gear up to compete again in a derby with a long-running history, the cooling-down of temperatures brings a sense of unease. Perhaps, we have grown accustomed to their rancorous rivalry. Perhaps, the bitterness will resurface in the second half of the season. Mourinho arguably knows the answer to that. Guardiola would not be aloof either.