Maybe we expected too much. From the very moment Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho were appointed the respective managers of Manchester City and Manchester United, the billing was written. This would be the defining duel, in the same league, in the same city, between the two best managers of their generation. Yet that never really materialised last season.
There were moments, of course, most notably when the two clubs met for the first time at Old Trafford, with both City and United unbeaten up until that point. It was labelled the first title bout of the 2016/17 campaign. So it didn’t really follow the script when the two sides fell apart, allowing Chelsea to stroll to the championship.
If we’re honest, it’s all been a little tame so far. There’s been no eye poking, or even much goading of one another. Guardiola and Mourinho have kept themselves to themselves, guiding their teams through transitional seasons which saw City finish third and United finish sixth. This season, though, might be an altogether different story.
The duel we though would happen last season is shaping up this season. With eight matches played, the two Manchester clubs are tied at the top of the Premier League table with 19 points each. What’s more, the tension that comes with great rivalries is starting to build. Neither side can afford to drop points such is the form of the other.
The first Manchester derby of the season will be played on December 9 in what will surely be a defining moment in the 2017/18 campaign. Between then and now, however, expect the rhetoric between the two sides, and more accurately the two men, to be ramped up. Guardiola and Mourinho are two contracting figures, as both coaches and characters. That will bubble to the surface over the coming weeks and months.
It’s already started. Look at how Guardiola responded to a question from Gary Lineker over the style of the national team, asking the Man City boss whether a direct approach held back England. “I don’t think so,” he replied. “You see for example you see the national team, Dier, Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford, John Stones, Kyle Walker, Henderson, Lallana – these are players who have the quality to play. I see Chelsea, I see Tottenham, they want to play, they like to play, and build up, so when United play long balls, second balls they play to Fellaini and Pogba after they have the quality to play.”
Of course, it’s possible to read too much into the remark, but it was a subtle dig at Mourinho that his rival surely noted. There will be a retaliation of sorts, even if it is a subtle comment in return from the Man Utd boss, but that’s how the stakes are raised. That’s how you eventually end up with an all-consuming rivalry played through the media, as materialised between Guardiola and Mourinho in Spain.
The rising rhetoric can even be traced back to the end of last season, when Mourinho – never one to let a conflict wash over him – pointed out his trophy haul in his first season at United compare to Guardiola’s at City. “In a bad season, in a season where sometimes I felt that my team was the worst team in the world, where I felt I was the worst manager in the world, we win three trophies and go to the Champions League by winning a trophy, not by finishing fourth, third or second,” he said after the Europa League final.
That’s nothing compared to what is coming in Manchester. It’s been slowly building for some time, but the battle is looming. Jose v Pep will define this season and we all need to prepare for it.