“The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors. Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition. Whoever has the ball is more likely to make mistakes. Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake. Whoever has the ball has fear. Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.”
It is no coincidence that Jose Mourinho’s infamous tactical philosophy, as reported by Diego Torres in his biography of the Manchester United manager, is the direct antithesis of Pep Guardiola’s possession-based approach. Ever since Mourinho was overlooked for the Barcelona job in favour of Guardiola in 2008 he has bitterly sought to undermine the club and his great rival - and to create his own legend. Over the next few years at Inter Milan and Real Madrid he built a tactical identity that deliberately and emphatically rejected the Cruyffian schooling he had received during his time as an assistant at Barcelona, marking himself out as Guardiola’s opposite in the hope - or so the theory goes - of undermining the aristocratic smugness of the Barcajax model.
Owen Hargreaves analyses Ederson's game v Napoli 👏
This is why the second great head-to-head between Mourinho and Guardiola is such a fascinating one; at clubs with similar financial resources and competing from within the same city, the 2017/18 Premier League season is the decisive moment in a rivalry supercharged by opposing footballing philosophies. Where Guardiola searches for creativity with idealistic fervour, Mourinho looks to spoil; where Pep muses over the dynamics of fluid total football, Jose continues to suggest he believes “whoever has the ball has fear” – a concept not just alien to his rival but outright offensive.
As we approach the quarter mark of the campaign one theory is clearly winning. Manchester United’s turgid 0-0 draw with Liverpool not only failed to pounce on the hosts’ obvious defensive flaws but has seemingly triggered a loss of momentum, culminating in a damaging 2-1 defeat to Huddersfield Town that leaves them five points behind Guardiola’s Manchester City. What is perhaps most damning of all is that Mourinho’s defence-first mantra was devised as a rejection of Guardiola’s idealistic thinking, and yet given Liverpool’s current vulnerability Mourinho’s typically negative tactics felt like dogmatism over pragmatism, subverting the supposed strengths and weaknesses of the opposing systems in Manchester.
But even more worrying for Mourinho is that both clubs have conceded four league goals so far. Should this trend continue, a central tenet of Mourinho’s philosophy would be seriously undermined. The tedium of his team’s top-six clashes is only overlooked because it brings inarguably important results, but if Guardiola achieves similar solidity then suddenly the Portuguese looks outdated and, frankly, irrelevant. Spurs’ 4-1 win against Liverpool, which focused on deep-lying counter football similar to Mourinho’s United only with greater urgency and creativity, further eroded Jose’s reputation.
City’s defensive record might come as a surprise to onlookers – including Mourinho no doubt – but not to Guardiola himself. “Defensive organisation is the cornerstone of everything else I want to achieve in my football,” he says in Marti Perarnau’s book Pep Confidential. High pressing football and possession dominance is designed to wear down the opponent, pen them into their own half, and isolate any players hoping to counter by quickly swarming them; it is a mantra defined by control of both attack and defence.
We are only two months into the 2017/18 season and so it’s far too early to declare a victor of the great symbolic battle between Mourinho and Guardiola. The latter’s team could suffer from exhaustion as the season progresses or lose their rhythm in a crisis of confidence should results dip, at which point Mourinho’s grinding tactics could see United take the title. But for now, following a disastrous week for Jose and the perfect month for Pep, it is the City manager’s methods that seem most durable - and most relevant in the modern game.