A deluxe Burnley: Man Utd won’t ever be a match for Guardiola’s City with Mourinho in charge

This was a derby, yes, but it felt more of the FC Bayern vs 1860 Munchen variety rather than the evenly-contested Copa Libertadores final between Boca Juniors and River Plate.

Manchester United find themselves 12 points behind Manchester City after 12 games following Sunday’s 3-1 defeat. You would be tempted to say that the Premier League title is out of reach, but it would be like saying the Premier League title is out of reach for Bournemouth or Watford – the two teams alongside United who have earned 20 points. Of course the title is out of reach.

But that’s hardly the most pressing issue around Old Trafford right now.

They have watched City zoom by since Pep Guardiola arrived and that reflects badly on the club as a whole, and Jose Mourinho in particular.

Both arrived in the same summer and the contrast is stark.

Not only in terms of achievements, where Pep has won the title and Mourinho hasn’t, but also in how they contest their matches.

Pep had some problems in his first season acclimatising to English football but he never once wavered from his principles.

He surmounted a difficult first transfer campaign and largely did his best with what was available to him. That was a mish-mash of players already on the books and a few brought in of his own accord.

Mourinho had a better window in 2016 when he got four players and declared himself happy with his lot. Of those recruits, Paul Pogba endures in the first team, Eric Bailly appears to be Mourinho’s latest persona non grata while Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are long forgotten.

There may have been a Europa League title and a Carabao Cup at the end of that season but those trophies – for a club like United – should be milestones on the way to bigger and more important titles.

Worryingly, they remain the high point.

Guardiola has had his transfer duds – Claudio Bravo and Nolito stand out from that first summer – but there has always been a style for City recruits to fit.

Pep won’t change and it’s up to the players to show that they are technically and psychologically up for it.

That idea is true too for Mourinho and we are finally beginning to see what the United style will be going forward.

It is not going to be the kind of style to get people on the edge of their seats. It’s going to be resistive and reactive. It’s going to rely on clean sheets and set-pieces. Beyond that there is not much and the limitations of having Mourinho in charge are exposed most starkly when he is up against Pep.

They have had their teams for the same length of time and it’s not like Mourinho is working under major financial constraints. It is fair to compare them. United were the champions when Sir Alex Ferguson left, City were not.

The time since then has seen the football hierarchy upended in Manchester and there is simply no way that it is going to be any kind of contest between them so long as these two managers are in charge.

“I can imagine when it was 2-1 to bring a fresh Fellaini, I think they would be in big, big trouble,” Mourinho said after the game.

He was in effect ruing the fact that he couldn’t replace Marouane Fellaini with Marouane Fellaini.

If any one sentence could sum up United under Mourinho it would be that one.

This is not intended to reflect badly on Fellaini. He was United’s most productive player on Sunday and has excelled for many managers in many systems including Mourinho, Louis van Gaal and Roberto Martinez.

But it’s obvious what Jose likes about the Belgian and it’s not his technical qualities. He likes his size, his awkwardness in the challenge and his aptitude for disruption in the opposition box. He wanted to instigate that chaotic kind of game late on against City but because Fellaini had to start he was robbed of that option.

Fellaini was the first signing of the post-Ferguson era. Many United fans resent his presence in their team and some have even booed him. They don’t like the fact that their team could use a player like Fellaini but here we are.

Mourinho’s preferred solution to his problems is the player many see as emblematic of the rot that has set in at United.

There has been little or no effort on his part to overhaul the playing style in a positive sense. The good performances he has drawn out of Anthony Martial recently are to be commended but it’s not because the Frenchman is excelling in any planned attacking system. He’s striking the ball confidently because he’s scoring goals off the cuff. He’s not been given the platform; he’s built it himself.

City on the other hand attack like an NBA team. One player takes the ball to the edge of the area and probes – left to right and back again – until the time is right to take the most economical shot at the target.

Meanwhile United can’t get their attackers consistently into the game. First and foremost there aren’t enough of them. Martial and Marcus Rashford were their only two nominated forwards in the game against City with the rest of the XI chosen to keep a clean sheet.

Romelu Lukaku won a penalty when he came on but barely featured in the half an hour or so that he played. He touched the ball nine times from minute 57 to minute 93. Alexis Sanchez appeared in minute 72 and completed one pass between then and the end of the game.

That’s not because those two are bad players. It’s because Mourinho has no effective game plan for supplying his forwards. There is nothing beyond keeping it tight and hoping for a free-kick or corner. They are a deluxe Burnley.

Phil Foden came on in minute 92 of 93 and hit seven passes. He had more of the ball in that one minute than Lukaku and Sanchez had in their combined 57.

Maybe the trends will turn back and defence will again be king. But right now the trends are favouring attacking football. That’s how the best teams are playing; asking for plenty of the ball, creating bucket loads of chances and keeping the game, for the most part, as deep as possible in the opposition half.

The very antithesis, in other words, of what Mourinho is doing at United.

Some of his best teams have played like this and succeeded. There was Porto, Chelsea and Inter and, for a time, Real Madrid. Mourinho created a cult of personality and you got the impression that some of his guys would die out there for him.

It was quite often enough to get them over the line and guarantee titles. But that’s all gone now and Mourinho has been surpassed.

Ferguson used to rely on the likes of Rene Meulensteen and Carlos Queiroz to take care of the tactical stuff while he got on with man-management. It was a good blend.

Mourinho, in the absence of Rui Faria, is trying to take care of both things himself. The recent comebacks against Newcastle, Juventus and Bournemouth hinted that there is fight in this United squad but’s it not enough.

A system designed with clean sheets as a priority cannot function if the team keeps falling behind. A defensive team cannot be conceding so many goals. A manager like Mourinho has got to be able to convince people that the best is yet to come. Right now he’s failing.

 

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