This Manchester Derby is special. Not because it’s THE derby but because it promises to be the setting for some real classics that will be played out over the years. At the forefront of this ‘newfound’ rivalry is the addition of characters and the Kane and Abel like setting for Jose Mourinho and his very own nemesis Pep Guardiola.
I say nemesis because the records push the narrative to that particular shore. Mourinho doesn’t lose often. But every stat has an exception and Guardiola is the asterisk stuck on Mourinho’s resume. If that particular stat wasn’t enough, try this one for size – the first El Clasico between the two managers ended in a 5-0 drubbing for Mourimho.
Why that particular stat holds so much importance on Derby day is because of the mentality of both managers. Mourinho plays to win, Pep plays for the love of the game.
That fateful day in November, after one of the worst defeats of his career, Mourinho confessed to feeling ‘impotent’.
On the 10 September, 2016 Jose Mourinho will be governed by that feeling and he will take steps to make sure that Manchester United do not capitulate in the same way that the Los Blancos did under his watch.
Pep on the other hand has already started tinkering with his team. Most notably, his fullbacks now don’t roam up the field but instead cut deep into midfield and thus give the blue half of Manchester far too much manpower in the middle of the park.
It’s a classic Guardiola move and it’s meant to keep the ball at all costs. But Mourinho will have his own dark tricks to use – height being one of them. United are a team of giants and there is a clear indication from the Portuguese manager that using that advantage will be his go-to move.
Upfront is where both City and United will be facing some dilemmas. The absence of Aguero for elbowing West Ham United defender Winston Reid means Guardiola will have to tinker with his formation. It would be a particularly hard blow to not have the Argentine in the starting line-up because of his spectacular derby record of 8 goals in 9 games. On the lighter side, one can’t help but wonder how Sergio Aguero managed to get himself banned for elbowing someone while Marouane Fellaini - a player who one could argue, uses his elbow in a game more than he touches the ball - is one of Mourinho’s first picks on the team sheet!
Regardless, Guardiola’s formation changes will be interesting. Will he go for young striker Kelechi Ileanacho or will he play a false nine and look to the Premier League player of the month Raheem Sterling and new signing Nolito to provide with the firepower up top?
Mourinho in his press conference before the derby, was quick to note that not having Sergio Aguero could actually work in City's advantage. After all, only a select handful have an inkling of what Guardiola's preferred formation is going to look like on the field, now that his most potent weapon is out of the game.
On the defensive side, Eric Bailly and Daley Blind have looked unbeatable till now. They have been complemented well by Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw as the wing backs. But City as a team have looked fluid in their first three games of the Premier League. Their transitions from the midfield to their wingers has looked sublime and one can’t help but notice the little intricacies in their football. This isn’t a doing of Guardiola by himself but actually of Roberto Mancini, under who City used one-two touch passes to move forward with the ball. It speaks volumes of the progression of City as a team -- something they aren't given much credit for.
In City's last PL match against West Ham, David Silva was the instigator of most of City's beautiful forward passing. It’s remarkable how important he remains to the hopes of this team and it will be no different in the derby. Now that Aguero is out of the match and Yaya Toure has been given the proverbial boot, it seems that the onus for whatever specks of beauty that splatters across the canvas that is Old Trafford, must come from the little Spanish genius’ foot.
Is the importance of the Manchester Derby diminished though?
After a fifth place finish for United and a fourth place run for City last season, both teams are wounded animals. Their years of domination over the league, has now taken a backseat.The Leicester fairytale and Chelsea's epic title demise were the stories of last season. The El Clasico remains the biggest derby in the world because both Spanish teams compete for trophies on a national and European basis.
This rivalry needs that kind of championship atmosphere and a derby in September simply gives no sense of purpose. But a lopsided result in the favour of either team could end up with one witnessing what would be a battle lost but a war begun.
A huge scoreline could make it yet another rivalry and one can’t help but want for more of Mourinho running across the pitch circa Inter Milan vs Barcelona. In a league bereft of footballing acumen, triviality seems to be the only solace.