The date was in 2012. The scene was a particularly fine restaurant in New York. One of the men having dinner was part way through a sabbatical, the other contemplating retirement. Sir Alex Ferguson was sounding out a possible successor. Pep Guardiola claimed he did not remember being offered the Manchester United job. Perhaps, he later joked, Ferguson’s Glaswegian accent was too strong for him to understand.
And it would have been intriguing had Guardiola replaced Ferguson at Old Trafford. Perhaps he would have spared United the ignominy of their tumble to seventh place in 2013-14; perhaps the size of the overhaul required would have been illustrated if a managerial great had struggled with what proved such an undistinguished group after Ferguson swapped the touchline for the directors’ box.
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But there is another hypothetical, albeit an improbable one. What if Guardiola tired of life 16 points ahead of United and, instead of potentially clinching the title against them on Saturday, managed them? Which of Jose Mourinho’s players would he want? Because they are ideological opposites, purist and pragmatist, the manager who loves the technical and the coach who likes the physical, and their ideas of what they want in a player are very different.
It may be easiest to start with two Guardiola surely wouldn’t cherish: Two of Mourinho’s favourites. Scott McTominay and Marouane Fellaini may bring the positional discipline the Portuguese values, but their limitations in possession mean they are scarcely typical Guardiola midfielders.
Similarly, some of the United centre-backs scarcely qualify as the footballing defenders the Catalan wants. Chris Smalling’s passing was deemed too poor by Gareth Southgate, so it is scarcely likely to meet with Guardiola’s approval.
Marcos Rojo and Victor Lindelof, too, could fear for their futures, just as Eliaquim Mangala only got a bit-part role at the Etihad Stadium. While the City manager divides his current centre-backs into the passers, John Stones and Aymeric Laporte, and the stoppers, Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi, the latter pair are arguably still better on the ball than any of Mourinho’s current centre-backs, though Eric Bailly’s defensive excellence ought to save him.
But the prioritisation of possession is a constant. It is intrinsic in Guardiola’s ethos. It was highlighted when he gave Claudio Bravo a debut against United last season. The Chilean was a disaster, but his ball-playing successor Ederson has been a revelation. He has an 85.4 percent pass completion rate in the Premier League, David de Gea a 56.7 success rate. It reflects in part United’s more direct style of aiming for a target man but it does prompt the question if Guardiola would cast aside the outstanding shot-stopper in the country because of supposed deficiencies with his feet.
There is also an issue in attack. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has just left United but has past knowledge that, both as a player and a personality, he is not Guardiola’s type. Robert Lewandowski is the only conventional No. 9 to have been an automatic choice under the Catalan. A towering target man like Romelu Lukaku is a quintessential Mourinho player, but hardly a typical Guardiola forward: He does not offer Gabriel Jesus-style high pressing and is not a false nine in the mould of Lionel Messi.
Guardiola, lest it be forgotten, discarded both a target man (Wilfried Bony) and a specialist finisher (Kelechi Iheanacho) at City. Lukaku would not be alone in facing exile. Juan Mata does not offer the game-stretching width and pace Guardiola wants in a winger; the technician could only operate infield.
Guardiola would at least appreciate his ability, just as it is easy to imagine him liking a younger Michael Carrick. Nemanja Matic has at least some of the attributes of a Guardiola defensive midfielder.
As ever, Paul Pogba offers intrigue. He would tower over Guardiola’s archetypal midfielders Xavi and Andres Iniesta. He may be too individualistic to be a perfect fit. Yet the City manager’s 4-3-3 formation would suit the Frenchman, who could operate on the left of a trio.
Guardiola has customised his game for more dynamic midfielders – Arturo Vidal in Germany, Kevin de Bruyne in England – and brought the best form of the Belgian’s career. Before he joined United, Pogba spoke glowingly of Guardiola. In the right environment, he may be less of an enigma.
Meanwhile, there is no doubt he is an admirer of Alexis Sanchez, who he signed for Barcelona and wanted to bring to City and who could offer potency and versatility. Jesus, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling show that Guardiola likes pace, youth and a willingness to learn in his attackers.
That suggests Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard would all make his cut; it is tempting to wonder if he could conjure Sane – and Sterling-style improvement from Martial and Rashford.
It would be interesting, too, what he made of Luke Shaw; more than Mourinho, potentially. But as Samir Nasri and Yaya Toure can testify, anyone deemed overweight does not play. Equally, Shaw has many of the traits of an attacking full-back that Guardiola wants and that he did not initially have at City.
Guardiola may be a perfectionist, but he is also one who can work with some imperfect players who are willing to follow his instructions. He has a gift for reinvention and given the way Fabian Delph’s skills have been deployed effectively for City, then perhaps Ander Herrera, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Daley Blind might have the makings of similarly invaluable squad players.
But it seems safe to say that others of their colleagues would be discarded. Some big names may be among them, and some big fees required to replace them. There would be a clearout and it would cost a lot to Guardiola-ify a Mourinho squad.