A little over a month ago, Manchester United, and José Mourinho, were in disarray. A 3-1 away defeat at West Ham had their season in tatters, coming only four days after an embarrassing league cup exit at Old Trafford to Frank Lampard’s Derby County, and the writing was on the wall for the coaches dismissal. Or so we thought.
Since the defeat in London, Mourinho’s men have played seven games, losing only once, whilst winning four, including the last three in succession. The third of which coming mid-week in Turin, where a valiant performance – albeit aided by Italian wastefulness in front of goal – saw them emerge with a 1-2 win thanks to a late Leonardo Bonucci own goal.
Departing from the London Stadium, the title race seemed a long distance away, but that is what they are potentially faced with if they (somehow) grab all three points when they visit the Etihad this Sunday to play Pep Guardiola’s red-hot Manchester City.
In contrast to their city rivals, the blue side of Manchester has had a relatively faultless season to date. A poor 1-2 loss to Lyon in the Champions League aside, Guardiola’s side remain undefeated, the only blemishes to their 100% league record being a well-earned 1-1 draw on the road against Wolves and a 0-0 stalemate at Anfield, where they should, in truth, have emerged with all three points, and would have were it not for Riyad Mahrez’ missed penalty late on.
City sit on 29 points after 11 games, averaging three goals per game while incredibly conceding only four in total the other end, but the statistics may not tell the whole story.
Mourinho’s chief concern this weekend will be his defence, and rightly so. He clearly does not know his strongest back four, which is a major problem at any level, least of all against this attack.
Sergio Agüero, Bernardo Silva and David Silva have all been in superb form this season, the former becoming only the ninth player in Premier League history to reach the 150 goal mark, and only the third to do it with the same side.
Taking a quick look at any Guardiola team, attackers of this quality are always abundant, be it at Barcelona, Bayern Munich, or this City side that is arguably looking as good as it ever has under the Spaniard, but there is a positive among the despair for Mourinho.
Looking at these same sides, while Messi, Lewandowski and Agüero consistently score goal after goal against the opposition, Guardiola’s defenders always seem incapable of doing what they are supposed to; which is actually defend.
For all of Messi’s brilliance, Gerard Piqué was, and still is, prone to the frequent lapse in concentration, in Germany, Jérôme Boateng is a lot more inconsistent and more of a liability than many would have you believe, and his current choices at City are probably the worst he has had to choose from during his ten years in management.
Vincent Kompany is seemingly forever injured, Nicolás Otamendi is competent but too temperamental, and John Stones and Aymeric Laporte, who Guardiola admires, sum up perfectly his idea of the ideal centre-half; very comfortable on the ball, but also very poor without it.
This, coupled with the fact that Manchester City’s supposed full-backs play more like wingers, means their only cover comes in the form of Brazilian holding midfielder Fernandinho. Something which may benefit the likes of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, who are in-form, down the flanks.
There is every chance Mourinho and his selection of 11 players go out and take a walloping from their city neighbours on Sunday evening, but if he has taught us anything before, it is that he can also go out and tactically out-think his rival from Santpedor, and emerge with all three points.
A loss effectively ends whatever is left of Mourinho’s title aspirations, but an inconceivable win brings them to within six points of the most in-form team in the country, and puts an end to whatever doubts about his ability that remain.